In the end, the bystander is a black box

Aspects of film censorship in history and the present

Movies have always been censored – whether in advance by artists and producers or after the fact by institutions. But even curators and viewers censor films. A two-day colloquium at the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Berlin explored the many facets of film censorship, with artists, censors and scholars presenting their views on the subject.

The history of film censorship, like that of all media censorship, is a parallel history of the genre. It shows which social discourses have been conducted about the medium at all times; indeed, it forms a veritable mirror of taboo and moral history. What is banned says a lot about the values of a time – and the fact that it is no longer banned at some point is an index of moral and moral-historical change.

Female slaves – black boxes

Legendary are films of the Weimar Republic that were dedicated to the subject of the "female slave" and thus ultimately addressed nothing other than trafficking in women and prostitution. Film scholar Ursula von Keitz from Bonn has studied several of these films – or what is left of them: Because there were an immense number of films on the subject, the subject was not considered particularly archivable and therefore the films in question (like most films in film history anyway) are considered lost, it is difficult to do research on them. The fact that the films were cut by the Filmprufstelle before they were shown at the time is a real stroke of luck for film historians, because these excerpts are still accessible in the archives on reels. Sifting through them and assigning them to individual films with the help of the censorship cards was von Keitz’s achievement.

Ursula von Keitz. Images: Stefan Holtgen

And this is precisely the first positive aspect of film censorship – it archives. "Whoever censors films… Whoever releases films," said FSK director Christiane von Wahlert later at the conference, with an unambiguous and unequivocal slip of the tongue, "also has a collecting instinct."And this collecting instinct certainly benefited Ursula von Keitz’s work. It quickly became clear that the film excerpts shown contained problematic material from the perspective of the time: scenes from brothels, half-blind women, sexual permissiveness and explicitness – all a thorn in the side of the film censors, who with their work also intervened in the early debate of the cinema reform movement: it was clear to their protagonists that the then still young medium of film exerted a fatal influence on its viewers.

Women and teenagers in particular were affected by this and were corrupted. A 16-year-old girl who went to one of the films in question – accompanied by a man, moreover – and enjoyed herself in the semi-darkness of the movie theater in such a way, von Keitz quotes a contemporary advocate of censorship, was useless as a moral woman for the future. Such effect-theoretical considerations have persisted to this day – in a weakened form. Nevertheless, as von Keitz emphasizes at the end, they remain scientifically unproven and the viewer, fortunately, remains a "black box.

Different countries, but by no means different customs

The filmmaker and historian MartI Rom reported from a somewhat later time and another place: Spain during the Franco era. Here, due to the rigid censorship, a real subculture of filmmakers and viewers had formed. Using the regular distribution channels, films that had never passed through the censors were sent across the country in secret deals with cinema operators. "The censoring authorities never reckoned with the imagination of the artists," Rom said, and therefore had never caught on to the goings-on. Numerous film histories have shown that under such repressive measures a very unique form of film, its language and its content develops. Inspired in particular by the French cinema of the Nouvelle Vague, which was often represented in Spain only in the form of the smuggled-in texts of Godard, Truffaut and others, a Spanish cinema of its own developed.

MartI Rome

In Spain in the second half of the 20th century, the discrepancy between what was (not) allowed to be shown and what was happening grew wider and wider. century. Thus everyone could admire tourist women in bikinis on the beach of the Costa del Sol, while at the same time they remained taboo on celluloid. Viewers who wanted to "escape" Spanish films, which lagged behind other cinematic nations in terms of film aesthetics, fled to cinemas in neighboring countries, especially to French border towns. There soon developed a culture around the cinema tourists from Spain. The censorship of films by censors and the cinema culture close to the border can be seen as other unintended, positive consequences of the censorship of films in Spain. But does this speak for the film censorship?

Ban the film child witches!

A contemporary example of film censorship was presented by filmmaker and curator Dorothee Wenner, who has expertise in Nollywood. Nigeria’s film industry is one of the world’s roughest. After India and the USA (some treasures even place Nigeria in between), most films are produced there – but almost without exception for the domestic market. One reason for this is that the films hardly meet international standards: they are mostly shot on video and distributed on VCD and do not contain any sex scenes, which, as Wenner quotes a director from there, makes them internationally uninteresting. On the other hand, Nollywood’s subjects revolve around country-specific themes. Wenner gave examples of how everyday life in Nigeria often becomes the sole subject of these films – and how similar real-life models and media images are in Nigerian cinema.

This similarity, however, also leads to a fatal "reverse conclusion", because apparently themes can be launched there in fictional feature films, which are then "found again" by the viewers outside the cinema. Wenner used the example of the witch theme in movies, which is mainly launched by fundamental Christian movements, to show what forms this can take: after the release of such movies, real hunts have taken place for children – mostly AIDS orphans and "maladjusted" (i.e., rebellious) children and adolescents – to which thousands have already fallen victim. In one film, it is explained that eating hard-boiled eggs or inciting unchristian behavior will turn a child into a witch. Such children can be found quickly outside of the cinema.

The Nigerian film censors, to whom every film must be submitted before publication, are powerless against the cinema churches with their numerous and financially strong representatives and have to watch how such horror films become the template for series of murders. Is censorship, at least until enlightenment-humanist programs have taken hold in Nigeria, not absolutely necessary for the protection of children? – was the conclusion of the lecture.

Seeing is not a crime

A censorship completely in the sense of the "concerned ones" takes place also in Australia. There, film archivists have the problem of being confronted with tabooed rituals of the Aborigines recorded on film. Among them are films that show things that can only be seen by men, or only by women, or only by the oldest members of the tribe. Paolo Cherchi Usai, director of the Hagfilm Foundation in Amsterdam, asks how and by whom such films, some of which are up to a hundred years old, should be restored and archived.

Paolo Cherchi Usai

"The Holle of the Archive" was the subject of his talk, in which he addressed numerous such problem traps. Film archivists have the task to collect – and not to filter or even evaluate what is collected. To illustrate the problem of this order in its entirety, Usai cited a decision by US courts: so-called crush videos, which show humans torturing animals to death, are – once in circulation – part of the film historical heritage. Beyond the moral question arises a legal one: can the possession or even the viewing of such films be punishable, merely because they document a criminal act?? The U.S. courts have ruled, "It’s terrible that such films exist, but watching them can’t be the same as producing them. "Seeing is not a crime."

Who does film censorship protect in enlightened societies??

It was foreseeable that after Usai’s lecture this problem was instantly extended in the discussion to the currently hotly debated child pornography. Here Usai called for a differentiated position: Even watching such films should not be a crime – contrary to current German jurisprudence – just because what is depicted in them is one. A distinction must be made between the film as an aesthetic artifact and its character as an economic product.

The real problem is that there are such films and that there is a market for them and that due to the demand more and more such films are produced. According to Usai, however, this was only indirectly related to their reception. The question for the archive: If such films are in the discourse – should they also be archived?? The question is by no means trivial if one looks at other cultures or historical epochs and their handling of outlawed artifacts, some of which we know today only because they have been archived despite all the taboo violations.

Roland Seim, a censorship researcher from Munster, has shown how changeable moral views on such taboo objects are (lecture video). He attempted to present the history of German film censorship both historically and systematically, and to give an overview of the censoring institutions that are effective today.

Roland Seim

These are quite diverse and range from the total-banning courts (which can seize and confiscate films on the basis of criminal or personal rights violations – see below on the topic of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre") to the Federal Agency for Media Dangerous to Young People (BpjM) in Bad Godesberg, which – this is unique in the world! – The government agency in Yemen maintains a list of indexed media content, which is subject to more difficult distribution conditions, up to and including the Voluntary Self-Regulation of the Film Industry (FSK), which only ies age ratings but still faces accusations of being a censorship body. Using examples from the history of horror films and a comparison of unabridged and abridged film excerpts, Seim illustrated the work of the German censorship authorities, which is often tantamount to the desecration of art.

The danger of danger

The FSK, according to its managing director Christiane von Wahlert, only wants to protect minors from becoming victims of harmful media influences. The fact that the program providers themselves cut their films to a Mab, which results in a lower youth rating, is just as little the responsibility of the semi-governmental institution as the fact that such programs then also did not have to be labeled as short.

Unfortunately, there are not enough resources available to make the ratings fully transparent – for example, on the FSK’s website. After all, the FSK has been working since 1949 and has made thousands of decisions since then. There is plenty of work for future censorship researchers, as a recent publication on the subject impressively demonstrates. (I used the case of The Last Horror Movie at an FSK conference in 2006 to show how problematic and contradictory the work of the FSK committees sometimes is.)

Now, in principle, there is nothing to be said against the protection of minors – and it also relies on hypotheses of media effects that are unclear in principle – if it is ensured that adults have free access to the media content. This is not the case, however, as Seim has pointed out and Christiane von Wahlert has also confirmed: According to the provisions on the protection of minors in the media, the FSK now also has the option of denying a film clearance altogether – in other words, also denying the applicant the "no youth rating" seal for adult films. This means that adults are not allowed to see these films – mind you, they are fictional feature films and not in any way incriminated portrayals, as Usai had previously discussed! Such films must then be cut so that adults can see them. Nevertheless: The FSK is de jure not a censorship authority.

The saga in the belly …

The head of the film label Turbine Medien GmbH, Christian Bartsch, who appeared at the conference together with his specialist lawyer, gave an extremely impressive account of the current censorship practice. Both were concerned with a rather old, but nevertheless very current censorship case: at the beginning of the 1980s, the horror film "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," which had already been made in 1974, was confiscated and confiscated by the Munich Regional Court for glorifying violence. Since then, the film, which violates the penal code section 131b, can no longer be seen in Germany – but in catches shortened by all depictions of violence, which for a splatter film is the same as the recording of a soccer game with cut out goal kicks – as Roland Seim previously pointed out.

Christian Bartsch

Now, strictly speaking, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is not a splatter film at all, as Bartsch impressively demonstrated in the juxtaposition with the "permitted" remake of the 2003 film: there is even only one sequence in which one sees the titular chain saga injuring a human body: When the serial killer, in pursuit of the final girls stumbles, falls and accidentally hits himself in the leg (which then turns out to be so un-dangerous that he can continue his pursuit).

All other "depictions of violence" take place exclusively in the mind of the viewer – and in the creatively written decision text of the LG judge. The prosecutors, FSK and BpjM see it the same way today and would therefore like to re-release the film – but the legal bureaucracy does not allow for this and so the Blu-ray disc of the film, which "Turbine Medien" so far only distributes in Austria, cannot – and probably never will – be released in Germany.

A censorious bon mot: Bartsch feared at the beginning of the work on the re-release, the film could get a "from 16" when resubmitted to the FSK, which then probably again let potential buyers ame a shortened catch. Thus, however, it remains forbidden and coveted – because one effect of film bans is the enormous increase in value that they experience because they are, so to speak, "official horror films" (Bartsch).

… the sickle on the neck …

The fact that cinematic depiction of violence does have a cultural and aesthetic meaning was demonstrated by the Siegen film scholar Marcus Stiglegger (lecture video), who presented his theory of the "dark sovereign" on the basis of an excerpt from the film "Hostel 2" – namely on the basis of a sequence for which the film was briefly confiscated in this country as "glorification of violence": A woman hanging upside down is murdered by a woman lying below her with a sickle, but so slowly that the one above gradually bleeds out, while the one below her can take a blood shower. A murder that is based on the legend of the "Blood Countess" Erzsebet Bathory, who is said to have bathed in virgin’s blood to preserve her youth.

In the end, the spectator is a black box

Marcus Stiglegger

Stiglegger made it clear that the viewer’s simultaneous being both repulsed and attracted by such sequences makes possible a fundamental moral self-arance that the modern subject can experience through media content. Films that go by the pejorative "torture porn" simultaneously reflect contemporary historical realities (such as the "snuff" discourse) and present new images of the body, in which the dissolution of the subject’s boundaries is visualized in the "openness" of the body.

Any censorship of such images is therefore blind to cultural discourse. However, such censorship is by no means practiced only by institutions. Particularly in the case of strong aesthetic transgressions and taboo violations, it is sometimes the viewers themselves who censor. Usai reported about a priest who jumped up from his cinema seat during obscene film scenes and "intercepted" the light beam from the projector with the help of his body.

… and the scissors in the head

Other sources report cinema blockades by eminent viewers who did not want to see Ingrid Thulin masturbate on the screen in Ingmar Bergman’s "The Silence" and extended their wishes to other viewers. Such censorship, according to Usai, is tolerable because it does not change the medium and its content itself and is later eliminated: "The Silence" is now shown unabridged on DVD "from 16 years".

The scandal at that time confirms Stiglegger’s thesis of a (then) newly visible corporeality, so to speak as a "model" of the sexual liberation movement, which was perceived as pushing the boundaries. And who knows how future generations will evaluate the contents and media dispositives of our present, with which we – or rather our censorship authorities – have so much trouble??

The fact that film censorship, as mentioned at the beginning, is in a constant dialogue with aesthetics, which can usually only be recognized and reconstructed in historical retrospect – this was reported by the film artist Birgit Hein, who co-founded Xscreen in Koln in the late 1960s. A group of film artists, who wanted to make art-house cinema, sometimes in bizarre places (such as the construction site of the Neumarkt subway station in Koln), but were constantly prevented by the police and angry burghers. like MatI Rome, German artists managed to stay one step ahead of their censors and illegally publish/show works that are now unanimously considered film art.

Porn Internet

At the end of the conference, Berlin-based porn film producer Jurgen Bruning, who also curates the Berlin Porn Film Festival, spoke of his difficulties in organizing his film distribution in view of the extremely different legal regulations internationally. The fact that in Switzerland, for example, many things are allowed – except the showing of fondling bodily secretions – makes the distribution of films with urine themes difficult, precisely because – here Bruning referred to Linda William’s "excess" theory (you can read her essay online at montage av) – porn films are films about the fondling of fluids. However, the fact that this ban only applies to urine and not, for example, sperm or female ejaculate, makes the matter completely tricky and requires producers to make clear statements.

Today, a postmodernist-quoting film artist faces completely different problems on the Internet: Lawyer Till Kreutzer described the impossibility of obtaining legal certainty today with regard to personal and exploitation rights, unless one has filmed every frame of one’s film oneself (and produced every sound oneself …). Amateur film production is actually prevented from the outset by such rights – a pre-censorship out of fear of expensive rights suits.

Only those who have the capital to afford lawyers in addition to production costs can still feel safe. Kreutzer will expand on his topic again in September at a continuation of the event. This would also be desirable for the other aspects of censorship mentioned, since the diversity and ambiguity of the phenomenon of "censorship" could at best be touched on during the two days of the conference.