Hanja Dämon, independent scholar
24 September 2021
This blog post engages with one of the biggest material obstacles in restarting film production in the British Zone of occupied Germany (one of four zones established following the Allied victory) after the Second World War: the shortage of film raw stock. It was essential for newsreels, for making copies of feature films to be exhibited in German cinemas, as well as for making new documentaries and feature films. Indeed, films were supposed to assist in steering the Germans away from National Socialist ideology, and to teach them about the outside world from which they had been supposedly cut off during twelve years of dictatorship. In this vein, the British feared that without raw stock ‘the whole scheme of re-education will be in danger of collapse’, and looked for ways to secure the provision of this sought-after material for non-fiction and feature films alike.[i] Yet this task was not always easy, as archival sources from the UK National Archives in Kew Gardens reveal. They testify to the fact that insufficient raw stock provision significantly impacted on German film production after 1945.
National Socialism’s defeat in May 1945 and Germany’s division into US-American, British, French and Soviet zones of occupation had initially brought German film production to a standstill, only to be re-established according to the respective agendas of the respective occupation authorities. In the western zones the main goals of the occupiers included denazification, democratisation and decentralisation of the German film industry, which should not be concentrated in one place (to lessen the chances of state interference). In the Soviet Zone one central studio (DEFA) was established. Although no new German films were produced for more than a year, re-establishing the film industry was considered essential across all zones for economic and psychological reasons. The Allied powers aspired to give the German filmmakers the tools of self-expression for the purpose of democratisation, although during the first years of occupation Allied supervision and control would seek to ensure that the resulting films would not propagate fascism and militaristic values.
One major obstacle in re-starting film production in the western zones was the shortage of film raw stock, at least in the Western zones. In August 1945, Major General Bishop from the British Information Control Section informed the international press, that ‘as soon as raw-stock supplies make it possible, Germans will be granted permission to produce their own films’, thereby indicating that the lack of raw stock played a role in delaying the reconstruction of the industry in the British Zone.[ii] A year later the Public Relations/Information Services Control (PR/ISC) Division explained as to why up to this point only two production companies had been licensed in the British Zone: the available amount of raw stock was ‘insufficient to allow for further commitments’ regarding the founding of additional production units.[iii] Also in the US Zone, the raw stock shortage was described as ‘one of the main problems’ in reconstructing the German film industry.[iv]
No raw stock producing factory existed in the Western zones of Germany, which is why it had to be imported from the Soviet Zone or from other countries. As the relationship between the British and their Soviet Allies became more strained, a member of the British occupation authorities, G.W.E.J. Erskine, began to harbour doubts in September 1946 that one could continue relying on the Soviets for raw stock provisions, for ‘the Russian character and international trends make this a source on which undue reliance should not be placed.’[v] He warned that ‘the dependence of the British Zone for its main supplies of rawstock from the Soviet Zone is capable of producing a sudden crisis at any moment if for any reason supplies were cut off’.[vi] And indeed, deliveries from the Soviet Zone were not always consistent with initial arrangements and in 1947 even stalled for months.[vii] Michael Balfour of the British Information Services Control Branch wrote on the 12th of May 1947 that he was ‘getting a bit alarmed over the raw stock position’ and, while his concern also included the dubbing of films into German, ‘German production is beginning to need rawstock acutely and there is none left.[viii] The shortage of raw stock was therefore certainly a contributing factor in why the German film industry took longer to re-emerge in the Western zones of occupation compared to the Soviet Zone.
Owing to better infrastructure and more decisive actions on the parts of the Soviets in getting the film industry restarted more swiftly, the Soviet-licensed film Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Amongst Us, D: Wolfgang Staudte) was the first German new film to premiere in post-war Germany in October 1946. It was, however, closely followed by the British-licensed film Sag die Wahrheit (Tell the Truth, D: Helmut Weiss) in December 1946, filmed in the Tempelhof studios in the US sector of Berlin. Sag die Wahrheit recycled the script of a film that had been in production at UFA-Studios during the war, which had remained unfinished. It was an escapist comedy that made no allusions to the post-war present, which made this film an unusual offering compared to all other British-licensed films of the early post-war period that were generally set in the present or the recent past. The British had the power to select which projects could be realised via licensing only those they found suitable, and usually rejected film scripts that were regarded as merely “escapist”. Yet this criteria was apparently not as relevant at the time when Sag die Wahrheit was allowed to go into production.
The raw stock shortage might, in fact, have played a direct role in the British decision to license Sag die Wahrheit. The material was not only needed for making new German films, but also for making copies of old films, and in autumn 1946, a memo expressed the desire to have a new German film made. It stated that it would be ‘sad if we had to use raw stock to make fresh copies of old films because we have not enough films to circulate’.[ix] Hence, to finally have a new German film available, the British might have allowed Sag die Wahrheit (D: Helmut Weiss, 1946) to become the very first film to be made in their zone, as this project promised a quick production. After this first film, the British tended to license films that at least attempted to deal with contemporary issues, and begun to pre-censor film scripts with this criteria in mind.
The British based their argument for the necessity of pre-censoring of German film scripts directly on the lack of raw stock: pre-censorship was thought ‘essential in view of the extreme shortage of rawstock not only in Germany but all over the world and is to avoid wastage of stock on film production, which, when finished, would have to be rejected on political grounds’.[x] In July 1948, a series of articles in the Hamburger Freie Presse started to ask what kind of films were considered politically desirable by the British authorities. Were films required to spread optimistic messages in the British Zone, as one author of these articles assumed? The Film Section reiterated that pre-censorship was necessary in light of the limited availability of raw stock, furthermore claiming it was too precious to allow the making of ‘pure entertainment films’, confirming thereby that instead of escapism the British privileged films with a message suited to post-war circumstances.[xi] One proposal that was indeed rejected by the British Film Section because it was regarded as nothing more than ‘quite a nice story’ was German director Wolfgang Liebeneiner’s plan to make a film about a young and poor aspiring dancer, entitled Tanz in die Welt (Dance into the World).[xii] Apparently different standards were applied to subsequent film projects than to the first film made in the British Zone, Sag die Wahrheit.
Raw stock was also needed for export copies of new post-war German films, in order to be able to send prints to potential buyers abroad. Once the first films had been made, considerations to export them meant that even more raw stock would be needed in addition to existing requirements. The British film adviser and documentary filmmaker Arthur Elton deemed it necessary to import additional raw stock for this purpose. Elton highlights in a memorandum how short supply of raw stock might hinder the export chances of new German films.[xiii] The material constraints, then, were posing significant obstacles to get the German film industry up and running again.
Lastly, the lack of raw stock also determined what British films were shown in the British Zone. The British producer J. Arthur Rank at first provided raw stock free of charge that was used for dubbing British films into German, but in 1946 he signalled unwillingness to continue this arrangement. It was at this point that the idea arose to allow Rank to set up a distribution organisation in Germany, in order to secure the import of raw stock.[xiv] An initial plan of the Finance Division to make British distribution companies pay a ‘good-will’ fee to the German state when operating in Germany – money intended for the use of re-building the German film industry – was abandoned to accommodate Rank and to guarantee his future cooperation.[xv] Unlike Rank, other British companies did not have the means to distribute their films in post-war Germany because they were financially unable to provide the raw stock for copies of their films, which was a prerequisite for showing them in Germany.[xvi]
The link between material issues – such as the lack of raw stock – and post-war German film production is a topic where the archives can reveal more than was previously known about the German film industry’s re-establishment in the British Zone. I researched the holdings in the UK National Archives to learn more about material obstacles such as the raw stock shortage as well as to explore how the British supervised and controlled German filmmaking in the immediate post-war years. I also consulted personal documents of German filmmakers located in German archives that reveal more details about film production in the British Zone after 1945. My forthcoming book that will be published with Peter Lang will present my findings on British film policy in occupied Germany in more detail.
[i] FO 943/549 Film, 1945-1948.
[ii] FO 371/46702 Control of Propaganda in Germany. Code 18. File 3. “British control policy for Newspapers, books, radio and entertainments. Transmits copy of statement made in Berlin by Major General Bishop to the international press on August 10th”.
[iii] FO 1056/86 PR/ISC Meetings and Reports. “Minutes of the Seventh Meeting held in Berlin”, 1 Aug 1946.
[iv] Military Government of Germany. U.S. Zone. Information Control. Bi-Monthly Review 24 (1 Jul 1947-30 Jun 1947).
[v] FO 1056/39. G.W.E.J. Erskine to the Office of the Deputy Military Governor, C.C.G (British Element), 6 Sep 1946.
[vi] FO 1006/216. G.W.E.J. Erskine, “Films in the British Zone of Germany”, 6 Sep 1946.
[vii] FO 1056/74. Public Relations/Information Services Control Group, “Minutes of the Thirtieth Meeting held in Berlin”, 3 July 1947.
[viii] FO 946/69. Michael Balfour to R.S. Crawford, Foreign Office (German Section), 12 May 1947.
[ix] FO 1056/86. Public Relations/Information Services Control Group. “Minutes of the Thirteenth Meeting held in Berlin”, 24th October 1946. See “Appendix A” of document.
[x] FO 1056/114: Draft of “Film Policy Directive”, to be approved by Chief, ISD, 14th May 1948.
[xi] [‘für den reinen Unterhaltungsfilm zu schade’.] ‘Und was sagt die Film-Section?’, Hamburger Freie Presse, 10 Aug 1948.
[xii] Adk: Liebeneiner 93. Handwritten note on exposé for Tanz in die Welt.
[xiii] FO 946/8. Arthur Elton, “Memorandum on Export of German Films”, 19 Nov 1947.
[xiv] FO 943/162 Film Production in the British Zone of Germany 1946.
[xv] FO 1056/39 Films: Policy and General. Chief of PR/ISC Group to Headquarters, C.C.G. (British Element) Distribution of British Film in Germany, 26 Jun 1947.
[xvi] Gabriele Clemens, Britische Kulturpolitik, p. 167.
Hanja Dämon has studied History at the University of Vienna and then obtained her PhD at King’s College London. Her thesis project on the German film industry after 1945 was sponsored for three years by the European Research Council (ECR)-funded project “Beyond Enemy Lines: Literature and Film in the British and American Zones of Occupied Germany, 1945-1949”. Dämon’s monograph on British film policies in post-war Germany will be upcoming with Peter Lang.
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