- cultural politics
- state censorship
- film censorship
- propaganda films
- amateur films
- learn about the main spaces of cinema in the period of state socialism
- review the context of cinema in that period with special attention paid to their own countries
- understand the complex mechanism of censorship and self-censorship
- understand the complicated interactions between trying to conform and being in opposition
- understand the forms and effects of film propaganda
- be open to artistic approaches to films
- be able to perform a complex analysis of the relationship between filmmakers and the authorities
- be able to appreciate the autonomy of art
- be able to appreciate the forms of opposition to the constraints of the party
- be able to find different kinds of information related to cinema, particularly ones related to their own countries
- be able to recognize the elements of propaganda in the films
- develop artistic sense through watching films and sketches
The lesson can help improve the following skills: critical skills, deepening knowledge, basic knowledge on the mechanism of film censorship during socialism, and the reasons behind the prohibitions.
by Barbara Hegedüs
The nature of censorship
After WW2, censorship became an essential tool for maintaining the totalitarian regimes that had come to power in Central and Eastern Europe. Its aim was to limit and filter information available to the public In each of the countries in the Eastern block, the mechanism operated in a similar way: there was a board under the direct control of the communist party which implemented the functions of censorship, although the term “censorship” itself was not useda. The actual practice and the extent of censorship varied over time and from country to country, and although it may have temporarily softened or intensified depending on the political changes, its nature and objectives remained consistent.
Although all fields of art suffered under censoship under Communism, it was especially true of the film industry. Film factories were nationalized and the filmmakers were controlled by the cultural policy of the state. In most countries, open violent repression was not commonplace, but numerous critical or oppositional intellectuals and artists were isolated and stigmatized as traitors. Artists learned how to obscure their messages in order to avoid censorship – criticism towards the system is not showndirectly in their films, but rather implicitly. Many times these films presented historical events which hinted at parallels with the present – the censors found these more difficult to object to, but attentive viewers were able to understand the references. Thus these films could cautiously criticize the regime through a coded language. Miklós Jancsó’s film, The Round-Up (Szegénylegények) from 1965 takes place after the Hungarian revolution and war of independence in 1848-49, but it presents the manipulative nature of a dictatorship.Through motifs of interrogations, intimidation and denunciation, the allusions towards the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the establishment of the Kádár era are rather obvious – . Both the era of Alexander Bach in in the Habsburg Empire, after 1849 and the establishment of the Kádár era after 1956 were so-called “soft dictatorships,” applying sophisticated and revenge-driven power techniques, and both were upheld primarily by the military and the informer system.
These Eastern European films received prominent prizes a number of times at international festivals. Andrzej Wajda’s film, the Man of Iron (Czlowiek z zelaza, 1981), was awarded the Golden Palm in Cannes, and tells of the birth of the Solidarity Movement.The 1961 Mother Joan of the Angels (Matka Joanna od aniolow) by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, won the Jury Prize in Cannes for an exorcism story set in the middle ages. Ferenc Kósa received a prize for best director at Cannes for Ten Thousand Days (Tízezer nap), a film which follows the fate of two men, a Hungarian village and its peasantry, over a period of thirty years. Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) from 1967 tells a grotesque story of the forgotten men working at a train station during WW2.
Roman Polanski’s Knife in The Water (Nóz w wodzie) from 1962 was nominated for an Oscar – an upsetting thriller which takes place on a sailing boat, completely isolated from the world, and featuring only three characters. . Miloš Forman was nominated for an Oscar in 1968 for The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko): the film tells the story of a provincial firemen’s ball that turns into a tragicomical collapse. István Szabó had been nominated several times for this prize, which he eventually won with Mephisto in 1981. The film discusses the relationship between the artist and the authorities in 1930s’ Germany.
Oppositional activities and criticism, however, had their boundaries. The authorities did not tolerate any questioning of the legitimacy of socialism, and even depicting the crimes of Stalinism was not possible for a long time. It was not advisable to criticize the Soviet Union, to praise the revolutions or to condemn the interventions. The socialist censorship was often merciless towards portrayals of eroticism, the so-called “deviations” from the norms, or what was believed by officials to be deviation – such as LGBT.
Film censorship was stricter in the Soviet Union, Romania and Bulgaria than in Hungary and Yugoslavia, and artists in the former countries experienced much harsher restrictions. In Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, artists had more freedom, although this was periodically tightened, particularly due to the extraordinary political events – the Prague spring, or the Polish ’68.
The Soviet Union
Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924) regarded film as the most important art form (meaning – most effective for propaganda purposes) of Socialism. Authoritarian control of films in the Soviet Union remained strict untill the end of 1980s. The films could use language in a way that was priorly (or subsequently) approved by censorship, or the filmmakers themselves accustomed to the expectations of censorship. Breaking taboos had serious consequences andt could involve exile or detention.
One of the greatest Soviet film directors, Sergei Eisenstein, himself a committed believer of communism, was forced a number of times to exercise self-criticism in public. Andrei Tarkovsky was also subjected to severe restrictions. His scripts were constantly rejected in the 60s and 70s, while the shootings themselves were often disturbed and his films were harshly criticized. Tarkovsky eventually emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1984.
Mihail Kalik, filmmaker of the Soviet new wave who had been sent to the Gulag, had a short erotic episode in his film Man Follows The Sun (Chelovek idet za solntsem 1961), which had been disapproved by Khrushchev, the first leader of the party and the Soviet Union. Consequently, besides banning this film, the next two films of the director were also withdrawn from the public.
„Soviet” amateur films had more freedom compared to films produced within the official framework, and could afford greater deviations from the prescribed requirements and ideology. One of its most notable representatives was the Lithuanian rock singer and film-maker Arturas Barysas-Baras (1954-2005). Barysas-Baras dressed and behaved extravagantly, but nevertheless managed to avoid confrontations with the regime because he was severely short-sighted, and moreover, his father was an employee of the Lithuanian Prime Minister’s Office. In 1979, his film Jos Meilé (Her Love) suffered serious censorship issues which led to his exclusion from participation at festivals, and his film being banned for one year.
Vidmantas Gaigalas, the president of the Association of Lithuanian Amateur Filmmakers mentions another filmmaker, Norvaišas, who presented the vytis, the Lithuanian coat of arms (banned by the Soviet regime) in his film. This counted as a serious violation of taboos and was followed by severe sanctions.
In Yugoslavia there was no censorship law, although the matter was present in several complex ways instead. Self-censorship was common – filmmakers respected the principles of censorship when producing films, however, authorities did not completely refrain from open retaliations.
The political satire of Branko Marjanovic’s Ciguli Miguli from 1952 criticized the nature of Soviet-type bureaucracy and was therefore banned for 25 years. One of the founders of the Yugoslav black wave, Dusan Makavejev’s film, W.R.: Misterije Organizma (W.R.: Mysteries of The Organism) from 1971, was banned for 15 years due to an ironic portrayal of the rigidity of the communist regime. The Plasticni Isus (Plastic Jesus, 1971) by Serbian director Lazar Stojanović is the other most well-known film of the black wave. According to the censors, with this film the director had violated not only political and sexual taboos and offended the Yugoslav leader Tito, but had also provoked the entire socialist system. Not only was Plastic Jesus banned, but as an example Stojanović was brought into court and sentenced to three years in prison.
Serbian director Zelimir Zilnik was also a member of the Yugoslav black wave. In 1969 he won the Golden Bear prize in Berlin for his film Rani radovi (Early works, 1969), which portrayed the consequences of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the early ‘70s he fled to West Germany to escape censorship, and only returned to Yugoslavia at the end of the decade.
Bulgarian cinematography primarily remained within the frames defined by the Soviet established patterns, while after the Hungarian revolution of 1956, repression increased in the cultural sphere. Binka Dimitrova Zhelyazkova, the first Bulgarian female director, can be regarded as a controversial figure – she was known to be a devoted communist and received several official prizes, despite her films reflecting on corruption and violations of power, and on the contradictions between the communist idea and the socialist state. Her first film, Life Flows Quietly by…/Partisans from 1957 (Zhivotut si teche ticho), which she produced together with her husband, Hristo Ganev was banned – it was forbidden to write or even talk about it. One of the reasons for its banning was that it portrayed communists as fallible people of flesh and blood, not as colourless heroes. Their next joint film, A byahme mladi (We Were Young, 1961), also spoke of communism in critical tones, but since it received prominent international prizes it was also awarded in Bulgaria. However, the party leadership rejected her subsequent film projects one after another. The Tied Up Balloon (Privarzaniyat balon) from 1967 was banned after its premiere, and Zhelyazkova was forbidden to make films for five years. A documentary on the director was made in 2002 entitled Binka: To tell a Story About Silence (Бинка. Да разкажеш приказка за мълчанието).
Even though the East German constitution, accepted in 1949 and extended in 1968, in principle provided freedom of opinion and freedom of press, a restrictive formula (the rights can only be exercised if they are harmonized with the constitution) enabled the party to prohibit films that had been disapproved by the party, referring to public taste or national security. Kurt Maetzig, who had also produced propaganda films, is the director of The Rabbit Is Me (Das Kaninchen bin ich, 1965). The story of a young man who had been condemned for provocation against the state, was placed in a box together with eleven other films and classified as harmful, based on the decision of the XI. congress of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.
The Trace of Stones (Spur der Steine, 1966) by Frank Beyer could only be seen for three days after the premiere and was blacklisted soon afterwards. The same fate was awarded to Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry (Denk bloß nicht, ich heule, 1965) by Frank Vogel, because the portrayal of critically thinking young people as oppressed within the East German school system was denounced by the authorities.
Czechoslovakia also dreamt of a “socialism with a human face,” and similarly to Hungary, aspired to produce an attractive selection of award-winning films for an international audience, until the Soviet occupation of 1968 ended this golden era. Drahomira Vihanova’s film, A Wasted Sunday (Zabitá nedele) was not distributed and was not even allowed to be shown abroad, while, Slovakian film director Elo Havetta became addicted to alcohol and drugs and committed suicide after two of his films were banned. Evald Schorm, Ivan Passer and Jan Nemec were prohibited from directing, while Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti, 1969) by Jiří Menzel and The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko, 1968) by Milos Forman, who later emigrated to the US, were put back into the box. Menzel’s film was awarded the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival 21 years later, in 1990.
Czechoslovakian amateur films, similarly to the Yugoslav ones, were much more daring and provocative compared to the official cinema. Rudolf Mihle worked as a well-known amateur director who primarily produced documentaries and newsreels. Although he was not put on the black list of filmmakers, several of his films were blocked by the censors – Without Name (1964), a Mini-History 1918–1968 (1968) and the First Hours of Occupation (1968) were added the list of banned films.
In Poland the film factories were not nationalized and the filmmakers often looked for institutional support themselves so that they could shoot their films. In the second half of the 1960s, after a few liberal years open to experiments, the situation became tense. In 1968 political conflicts within the party had increased: open anti-semitism became part of the official program of the party, and there were diverse ideas about the possibilities of film-making. The purges did not avoid the world of cinema, either. Several directors were blacklisted or were forced to give public self-criticism to avoid being labeled as traitors of the nation. Authorities restructured the film journals, universities and studios, and replaced the old cadres with reliable ones. The banning of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Hands up! (Rece do góry) from 1967 was a sinister sign. Skolimowski’s work, together with the director himself who was condemned as undesirable because of his portrayal of the Stalin era of the past, was expelled from the country. Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza, 1981) was banned in all socialist countries, even though it had won the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
After the 1956 revolution, György Aczél became a key figure in the consolidation as the head of Hungarian cultural policy almost by himself until the early 1980s. His trial directive of “prohibition, tolerance, support” defined the categorization of artists from the 1960s onwards. There had been several critical films that he had tolerated and allowed to be nominated in international festivals, but he also banned several films. At the same time, as an initiative of young directors, the Balázs Béla Stúdió (BBS) was established in 1961 and was a place where film school graduates could produce films without being obliged to present them. This precautious step ensured a great freedom for the filmmakers, who had to hand over their films to the censors only after they had been completed, and the studio offered work to non-official directors, too.
Sándor Sára’s The Upthrown Stone (Feldobott kő, 1968) takes place in the 1950s. It was banned immediately, most of all because of its blunt representation of the situation of Roma people and their treatment in Hungary. At the same time, the short film Gypsies (Cigányok, 1962) was prohibited at first, but later received the green light after it had received an award at the 1968 Oberhausen festival.
The Agitators (Agitátorok, 1969) by Dezső Magyar, also produced at the Béla Balázs Studio, was condemned to a similar fate as a piece presenting the revolutionary practice due to being a piece representing revolutionary practices in the lights of the psychology of terror.
Péter Bacsó’s Witness (A tanú 1969), with its satirical presentation of the Rákosi era, spent ten years in a box and could be projected publicly for the first time in 1979, at the Közgáz Club of the University of Economics, although it was shown three times in an overcrowded auditorium.
There is hardly any record on Romanian socialist films, which had not been affected by international impacts and internal innovations. Strict censorship did not tolerate any criticism, even in allagoric forms, and quickly nipped it in the bud. Consequently, the more valuable films were relegated to archival status for as long as decades. Lucian Pintilie’s Reconstituirea (Reconstruction, 1968) stands as a rare exception, as it explicitly depicted the brutality of the regime , without compromises, and was thus blacklisted immediately after it was finished.
From the 1980s onward however, state censorship gradually began to lose significance, and was eventually eliminated after 1990 with the dissolution of the state socialist parties.
The exercises below which are related to the text above can further extend and deepen knowledge on critical and banned films within the frames of homework, as individual research.
Tasks in the Registry
1. Find further films and directors in the COURAGE Registry who, in their films or in television, discussed topics that were “unpleasant” for the regime (Hungarian examples: Pál Schiffer, Tamás Almási, Péter Bokor, Gábor Hanák)!
2. Collect as much information as you can in the COURAGE Registry on the film Plastic Jesus and its creators. Prepare a presentation on it!
3. Check out the Béla Balázs Studio (BBS)! Find a link between Sándor Sára and the other BBS directors in the Registry! If you have the chance, check out the BBS research archive! Get informed on the BBS materials and prepare a report on them!
4. True or false? Check the Registry! If the information is false, write the the correct answer!
– Sociologist Istvány Kemény was studying the situation of the Roma in Hungary, and after he explained in a presentation that there are social groups living in poverty, his academic work was completely undermined.
– Gábor Bódy used a special technique, the so-called “light cut”, in his diploma work the American Torso (Amerikai anzix, 1976), in order to make it look archaic.
– Polish photographer Tytus Filipowicz persuaded Jack Nicholson to wear the badge of the Polish Solidarity Movement at the 1981 Cannes Festival.
-Among others, Ukrainian journalist Viacheslav Chornovil spoke out against the arrests in 1965, and chose the projection of Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors as a venue of his protest.
– Duro Smicberger was head of the committee for control and approval of public screening in the Estonian Socialist Republic.
5. Find István Jávor’s work pictures of the film Cséplő Gyuri in the Registry! Place the pictures in any order you like and create a story from the sequence of the pictures!
– Prepare a presentation about the cinematographic impacts and styles of filmmaking that influenced Hungarian and Czechoslovakian cinema in the the 1960s!
– Compare the following film sections! What is the tone of their criticism, what elements do they emphasize? (e.g. The Witness, Black Peter, Lucky Daniel, Loves of a Blonde)
– Watch the following film sections! How is youth depicted?
(e.g. Time Stands Still, Black Peter, Lucky Daniel, Loves of a Blonde, Ashes and Diamonds)
List of references:
Aczél, György 1917-1991, Hungary, politician of culture.
Arturas Barysas-Baras 1954-2005, Lithuania, filmmaker, rock singer.
Bacsó, Péter 1928-2009, Hungary, film director.
Beyer, Frank, 1932-2006, Germany, film director.
Forman, Miloš 1932-, Czechia, film director.
Ganev, Hristo Kostadinov, 1924-, Bulgaria, writer.
Havetta, Elo 1938-1975, Slovakia, film director.
Gaigalas, Vidmantas 1957-, Lithuania, Head of the Lithuanian Amateur Filmmakers’ Association.
Jancsó, Miklós 1921-2014, Hungary, film director.
Kalik, Mihail 1927-2017, Russia, film director.
Kawalerovicz, Jerzy 1922-2007, Poland, film director.
Khrushchev, Sergeevich Nikita, 1894-1971, Russia, politician.
Kósa, Ferenc 1937-, Hungary, film director.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich 1870-1924, Russia, politician, revolutionary.
Magyar, Dezső 1938-, Russia, film director.
Maetzik, Kurt, Germany, 1911-2012, film director.
Makavejev, Dušan 1932-, Serbia, film director.
Menzel, Jiří 1938-, Czechia, film director.
Mihle, Rudolf 1937-2008, Czechia, film director.
Nemec, Jan 1936-2016, Czechia, film director.
Passer, Ivan 1933-, Czechia, film director
Pintilie, Lucian 1933-, Romania, film director.
Polanski, Roman, 1933-, Poland, film director.
Sára, Sándor 1933-, Hungary, film director.
Schorm, Evald 1931-1988, Czechia, film director
Skolimowski, Jerzy 1938-, Poland, film director.
Stojanović, Lazar 1944-2017, Serbia, film director.
Szabó, István, 1938-, Hungary, film director.
Tito, Josip Broz 1892-1980, Yugoslavia, political leader.
Vihanová, Drahomíra 1930-2017, Czechia, film director.
Vogel, Frank, 1929-1999, Germany, film director.
Wajda, Andrzej 1926-2016, Poland, film director.
Zhelyakova, Binka Dimitrova 1923-2011, Bulgaria, film director.