Public Controversy and Film Censorship. The Release of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) in Berlin
Manuel Palacio y Ana Mejón (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid)
In our societies, we assume that the dialectic between freedom of expression and censorship must be established taking public polemics and controversies as points of departure. This is not a recent practice, since, for a long time, those groups “presumably affected” by a film have decided to directly intervene in its availability for exhibition. Religious discrepancies, political conflicts and cultural fights for hegemony have characterized the history of cinema. In some cases, these differences have triggered remarkable violence, such as attacks on exhibition venues, spectators or authors. In some unfortunate cases, even murder has occurred, as it happened to Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004.
We are focusing on a famous case: the German Nazis’ efforts to boycott the Berlin opening of the US film All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930. The film is an adaptation of well-known novel by Erich Maria Remarque, and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture a few months later. Today, it is considered one of the masterpieces of the antiwar ‘genre’.
All Quiet on the Western Front entailed a great production effort by Universal Studios, a company founded by Carl Laemmle, a Jewish German immigrant that had arrived in the United States at the end of the 19th century. When the film was made, this production company was not amongst Hollywood’s majors. Nonetheless, it had started an expansion within Germany, the biggest film market in the world after the US.
Several institutions were involved in the international distribution of the film, including the US government. Likewise, the right-wing Weimar Republic government intervened: initially, it allowed its exhibition. Later on, it used diplomacy to forbid the film in many countries, even in faraway territories such as Australia. All Quiet on the Western Front was released in Spain in January 1931, without any remarkable incidents.
From a different viewpoint, the National Socialist German Party (colloquially known as Nazi) had become the second major political force in terms of parliament seats after the September 1930 election. Nevertheless, at this point, the Nazis did not have a stronghold on the German state’s institutions and continued to take over the streets coarsely, as though it were a minority party, championing clashes and daily demonstrations in the different public spaces.
This is a complex issue but one could argue that the Nazis were seeking cultural hegemony through challenges and provocations. Public protests occurred regularly in the different screenings of All Quiet on the Western Front in many German cities. Finally, the Weimar Republic gave in and ended up prohibiting the film. Perhaps, it is not anecdotal that the president of the German censorship board that first endorsed and subsequently prohibited the film was promoted to a higher rank after the Nazis attained power in 1933.
In this video essay, we scrutinize newspaper archives and autobiographical writings of those who attended the film’s Berlin opening in 1930.
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Palacio, Manuel (2018) La censura cinematográfica. Lección inaugural. Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. Disponible en E-Archivo UC3M.
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Simmons, Jerold (1989) “Film and international politics: The banning of All Quiet on the Western Front in Germany and Austria 1930-1931”, The Historian, 52.1, 40-60.
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