Die Prostitution – Film censorship, a tale from 1919 Berlin

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Richard Oswald’s film, Die Prostitution, created a scandal on its release in the spring of 1919. On May 1st Die Prostitution (The Madam) premiered in the Marmorhaus cinema in Berlin. The title of the film attracted the attention of the sittenpolizei ( morals police) who were watching Richard Oswald.   His previous film, Anders als die Andern, about the blackmailing of a homosexual who commits suicide had been an outrage in the eyes of the authorities. Realising the threat by the sittenpolizei to ban Die Prostitution Oswald changed the title of the film to In der Gosse der Großstadt (In the Gutter of the Big City) and under this guise organised its distribution across Berlin albeit in mostly working class areas.
In In der Gosse der Großstadt Anita Berber played the lead rôle of Lona, daughter of a respectable bourgeois family who is enticed into the white slave trade. Reviews of the film were mixed. Kurt Tucholsky, the critic for the Berliner Volkzeitung, decried the label of social-hygiene finding the film utterly immoral. It was, he wrote, ‘prostitution with an aesthetic mask’. He did however, find Anita’s performance praiseworthy. Anita played the rôle of Lona with just the right hint of bourgeois naïvety. It was a subtle performance which highlighted her acting ability as well as Oswald’s skill as a director. The rôle  could, in the hands of a lesser talent, have easily slipped into melodrama.
After the problems with  Anders als die Andern Oswald had taken advice from Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, the ground breaking sex therapist, when making Die Prostitution. However, this proved counterproductive as the authorities’ opinion of Hirschfeld,  was of a doctor of degeneracy. In fact Magnus Hirschfeld was both Jewish and homosexual, both facts which would have damned him in the eyes of the Berlin authorities, although at that time his sexuality was only suspected. Oswald’s use of Hirschfeld as an advisor merely served to further ‘prove’ to the authorities about the sexuality degenerate nature of In der Gosse der Großstadt. The authorities remained adamant and demanded that several key scenes from the film were cut and its title changed, again, to Das Gelbe Haus (The Yellow House). The deletion of the scenes ordered by the authorities removed key elements in the plot and, it could be argued, heightened the sexual nature of the film. It certainly weakened the film and caused confusion in audiences, as did the two name changes. Although most audiences and certainly all the film critics realised the damage done had been the work of the authorities there was nevertheless enough confusion in the butchered plot of Das Gelbe Haus that audience numbers were affected and some cinema managers became reluctant to show the film. In addition, the Prussian Commissioner on vice actively discouraged the distribution and showing of Das Gelbe Haus and by 1921 it had been banned in several towns. As a result of the damage to the plot and the difficulty in finding cinemas willing to screen the film Oswald finally withdrew the film from public distribution.
The disagreements over Das Gelbe Haus were not an isolated case of a single left wing film director versus an overly zealous police authority but were symptomatic of a wider problem between the arts and the post-war codes of morality in 1919 Berlin. The authorities were struggling to cope with the increasing variety of artistic output from film, art, dance and satirical cabarets that tested the Wilhelmian code of morality. The laws on morality remained on the statute books but the authority of the interim government to enforce the laws was shaky.  The new Republic had initially loosened some of the codes around censorship of the arts but that had not been followed by any more legislation and in truth was poorly implemented. In addition most in the vice police and culture ministry remained wedded to the Wilhelmian codes. Within this confusion artists were pushing at the boundaries of morality in all fields and increasingly producing works that shocked and scandalised. The police reacted by arresting artists; the left supported the artists with public demonstrations; the right fulminated about the loss of German morality and the public attended their plays, watched their films and viewed their art. This confusion over the morality codes and their interpretation and implementation within the arts would prove a recurring issue within the lifetime of the Weimar Republic.

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