Saturday, March 13, 2010

Conditions in Germany

From London, where he posted three articles, W. Stephen Bush traveled to Berlin, where he was not much impressed with the governmental regulation, censorship or tax situation. He also found the German film producers to be on the whole very provincial. On the other hand, he had high praise for the exhibition, especially the musical practice.
Conditions in Germany

The Horrors of Government Supervision of Picture Theaters Described—American Pictures Favored.

Berlin, May 4, 1913

No just estimate of the conditions in the German film industry is possible without taking into account the attitude of the German government toward the maker and exhibitor of motion pictures. The great amusement trust in Germany is the government. Practically two-thirds of all the theaters, and actually all the theaters in the big cities, are managed by financial agents of the government. Within recent years just about the time motion pictures began to be popular in our own country, there was a sharp advance in theatrical prices. From popular prices, averaging about 60 cents, the scale was raised to an average well exceeding a dollar. A good seat in any of the first-class theaters of Berlin is not to be had to-day for less than two dollars and fifty cents and there are plenty for three dollars and more.

At this moment appeared the motion picture. The thrifty Germans gave it an enthusiastic welcome. The exhibitors were wise enough not to go too far below theatrical prices, but just far enough to become formidable competitors. Prices ranged from 25 cents to one dollar, with a few seats at a dollar and a half. At once a very desirable patronage was transferred from the high-priced theater to the moving picture house. Small theaters started up all over the city, but the government treated them with contempt.

It was not long, however, before one after another of the old legitimate theaters changed from the drama to the moving pictures. Presently new theaters were built rivaling in comfort and luxury the best of the legitimate houses and showing “straight” pictures to crowded houses. Now the government took the alarm. It was estimated that one big theater had taken in over $120,000 in one year. Perhaps the estimate was too high; but, at an rate, it was large enough to excite both the envy and greed of the government. The latter had two ways of coping with the situation—its weapons were censorship and taxation. We need not be any too proud of the position which the showman occupies in the eyes of our own law, but he is a pampered individual indeed when compared with the German showman. The government issues its edict and fixes a rate of taxation strictly to suit itself and with no thought of the probable fate of the exhibitor. I questioned a number of exhibitors and moving picture experts here and they agree that the government takes about twenty per cent. of the gross receipts of the exhibitor. The taxation begins with every ticket which is sold at 10 cents and the ratio increases rapidly as the tickets increase in value. I do not think there are half a dozen moving picture theaters here charging as low as five cents, but many have now gone to 9 cents just to avoid the tax.

Even the tax, however unjust and arbitrary as it seems to be, has failed utterly to hurt the popularity of the pictures. The government therefore used the bludgeon of censorship. The principles and methods of German censorship baffle description. They violate every rule of fair play and ignore the plainest mandates of equity. Prussia is a semi-despotic country; there is supposed to be a representative government, but it never goes any further than the police allow. From infancy the Prussian is taught that the serious business of life is to drill and be drilled. Implicit and unreasoning obedience to whatever the paternal government is pleased to ordain is second nature with the average subject of the Kaiser.

I asked an editor here: “If the police censor the pictures who censors the police?” and he could not understand. The “divine right” business is paying big dividends in Germany.

Censorship is not only severe, but hopelessly stupid. The producer takes his film to a police official who orders a couple of hundred feet cut out. No reasoning is possible. The producer who would contumaciously argue the point with the police official might be arrested and dragged off to jail for insulting a representative of the government. I understand that an appeal is technically possible, but it is attended with so much red tape and so great an expense that the remedy is about as bad as the disease. There is no system in this censorship. The whims and the temperament of an individual decide.

One of the most notorious enemies of the motion picture is a man known as Professor Brunner. He calls the motion picture a “national peril” and arranges public meetings in which the motion picture, the producer and the exhibitor are denounced as public enemies. This is the very man who has been asked by the police to assist in censoring the pictures. He does not want to compromise with the pictures; he wants to destroy them.

To mention just one example of the depths of stupidity of German censorship. The Gaumonts have released a series of “comics” showing the adventures of a little boy. The government censored these pictures and suppressed several of them because “they seemed to encourage rebellion against parental authority.” Pictures showing the most sordid and revolting conditions of the underworld and others chiefly dealing with the seduction of poor working girls by dreadful employers are passed without question.

It is a little short of marvelous that, despite all these handicaps, the picture thrives here better even than England. The chain of first-class moving pictures with large capacity and every possible improvement and convenience is constant food for wonder. The Cines Company and “Al” Woods, the American theatrical manager, own most of these theaters and are making them pay. All this is due to the American-made picture, without which no program is deemed complete. Almost all American manufacturers are represented in Berlin and if comparatively few of their products are advertised in the trade journals the cause must be sought in a well established market which takes care of itself.

American pictures suffer comparatively little from the censor. For the audiences here the screened description of American life, American customs and manners, American men, women and children seem to be specially attractive. While we often discriminate against foreign pictures, the foreigners seem to be prejudiced in favor of our pictures. American comedies are in great demand.

This demand for American pictures has set the German manufacturers thinking. They are looking for the secret of our success. They realize that their product must, in quality and from a moral point of view, seek to approach American standards. Some have hired directors with American experience and others are looking for American directors and willing to pay the price. At present not one of them has a studio of his own. Studios are hired by the day or week and the expense is often shared by a combination of two or three producers. Only one or two of the manufacturers have permanent staffs of actors. As a rule, their product is good in photography; some of their artists are capable, but the differences in taste and the demands of German audiences make very many of the German pictures ineligible for the American market. The German audience revels in detail. A death scene is reckoned a great sentimental luxury, which may be prolonged ad libitum. All “weepy stuff” is relished and must not be cut. Action is not deemed as important as sentiment. The German is cosmopolitan enough to find a source of wonder and delight in the foreign, especially the American picture, but he does like the native product best when it seems “to the manner born.” It must also be remembered that in spite of the effective educational system which prevails in all Germany the people outside of the cities are like most people in Europe—well contented to move in old conventional grooves. They have simple tastes and very little pleases them. They are the very opposite of critical. With these audiences almost any picture will make a hit. This accounts for an awful lot of trashy things, wretched photography and simply impossible in all other respects.

There are two things which are done much better here than on our side. I refer to music and to methods of presentation generally. Berlin has motion picture theaters in the finest parts of the city, which are wonders of artistic architecture and scientific management. When you enter one of these theaters, like Mozart Hall or the Cines Palace or the Kammer Spiele, you feel at once that you are a guest and the object of pleasing attention. The corps of ushers is well distributed and well trained. The visitor gets the idea that he is receiving individual attention. He is guided to a spacious and comfortable chair or a box; he gets a program for 2 cents and the usher either marks his program or tells him what picture is on the screen and how far it has run. If he wishes any kind of refreshment special waiters bring it at once and the price is very reasonable. There is a receptacle for glass or cup convenient to every seat. Your hat and coat are taken care of for a nominal sum. There are no swift or sudden changes from darkness to light or vice versa. The lights come on gradually and go out gradually. No noise from the operator’s booth ever gets to the ears of the audience. All seats are reserved and numbered, the higher the price of admission the further away from the curtain. The attendants are courteous to a fault. The interior of Mozart Hall reminds one of an opera house (not “opr’y house”), in its comfort and luxury.

The crowning achievement of the German theater, how- [900] ever is the music. Orchestras of fifteen and twenty pieces are not uncommon. The musicians are artists led by capable and experienced directors. The slightest detail is looked after. Every important psychological moment in the drama is effectively elaborated by the music and when a climax comes music aids motion in a most acceptable manner. I admired their music for comedies; it always fitted like a glove. No subject puzzles the musical director. I should imagine that music for a subject like the Ohio flood was not easy to select, but the accompaniment in the Cines Palace was strikingly adapted to the scenes on the screen. Awkward pauses are unknown. Nor are the show places the only ones exhibiting this fine regard for musical possibilities. The thing is typical of all moving picture theaters—large and small. Of course, the weekly change of program favors a proper selection and rendition of music, but I found that the music was just as good the first day of the program. I am firmly persuaded that the musical feature of the entertainment goes a long way toward reconciling the public to the big prices.

I cannot say much for the projection, which is on the whole little better than ordinary. All European pictures seem to be printed on poor stock and often reminded me of those terrible non-inflammable films which we saw in the latter part of 1909. Few films I saw were in perfect condition. The only exceptions ere some of the feature films.

The film market in Germany is in a most bewildering condition—confusion worse confounded. Pathe and Gaumont are dealing with exhibitors directly, releases are by no means regular and then there is the exclusive film, generally a feature of three, four and five reels sold on the State rights or world’s rights plan. I was told that “Quo Vadis” was rented at 10,000 marks ($2,500), for two weeks; another sensational film fetched a rental of 17,000 marks (over $4,000), in Leipzig, for a period of one month. There are a number of independent directors who form temporary alliances with distinguished artists of the big legitimate theaters and sell negatives to certain syndicates. This, to, helps to bedevil the market.

The exhibitors are well organized in Berlin and other large cities of the empire, but the national union is not strong and has but little influence. They are, as far as I have been able to observe, an intelligent body of men, with a proper realization of their responsibilities. They are greatly alarmed just now at the threatened action of the government, which in addition to levying an exorbitant tax, intends in October to take up the question of exacting a special yearly license. If this plan is carried out many places will have to close. The government will treat the theaters like we treated the saloons under the old high license system. If no proof of their necessity is forthcoming no license will be issued and of the necessity the government will be the sole judge.

In spite of all present troubles and allowing for further displays of hostility on the part of the government, I predict a great progress in Germany. There are only about 3,000 houses in the empire now, but I would not be surprised to see this number trebled in a year or so. There is no reason why this market cannot yield as fine returns to the American producer as the British market. Nothing more is needed than ordinary American energy and a proper understanding of the conditions.

For the benefit of other American moving picture men who may hereafter be tempted to visit here, I venture to set down a few observations which will, I trust, help them to understand some of the native customs. I must take special notice of the German elevator. In its normal state the German elevator dwells in sacred seclusion. It is strongly and safely locked up and the possession of the key to the elevator is the last and crowning emblem of janitorial dignity. When uncouth foreigners like myself wish to use the elevator—natives refrain from it out of regard for its sacred character—notice is given to the janitor, who in the exercise of a sound discretion may or may not admit the applicant. In any event, the news that the elevator is about to be used travels rapidly through the neighborhood and soon crowds of small boys and girls assemble and witness the unlocking and ascending of the elevator. The elevator ascends with imposing dignity and often attains a speed of a floor a minute. When you get out, the elevator immediately descends and is again locked up. If you fancy that upon topping the bell the elevator will re-ascend and brig you back to the ground floor you have a great lesson to learn. In the first place there is no bell. In the second place the elevator is not to be lightly molested. It has taken you up—please expect no more, walk down. What a sublime example of patience our German friends are setting us here. In the mad rush of elevators “up and down” we often are betrayed into violent comments on the slowness of the elevator service and are prone to speak rudely to the elevator man or the starter. We thus frequently compromise our dignity. Our German cousins would much rather walk down than imperil their philosophical calm.

I would also warn you away from what the Berliners call their circular system of suburban transit. It is fair, but false. Apparently it casts three and a half cents to ride in any direction of a distance of four stations. In the cheaper cars it is only 2 ½ cents. Naturally you feel elated. At this rate you can ride continuously for a year and never touch your savings bank. You ride, say a distance from Grand Street to 14th and blithely walk off, giving the ticket taker your ticket and a look of a hauteur. He sternly orders you to halt and explains that you have gone one station beyond the limit of your ticket. Thinks begin to look black. Passengers gather and view you with ill-concealed suspicion. Nobody has a kind word for you. You really begin to lose sympathy for yourself, when another uniformed railway employe leads you to a ticket office where you have to pay an additional 7 ½ cents. You mentally retract all you ever said about the Interborough and thereafter trust yourself to taxis, which are quite cheap. Marvels of cheapness are the electric stages. For two cents you can ride indefinitely. I agave a conductor three cents, for which I was rewarded with about a dozen rapid military salutes. I then tried him with four cents and he ignored every other passenger on the car for the rest of the journey. No doubt I could have bought the car for a dollar, but the cost of transportation might have killed my profit. The conductor gazed after me with wondering eyes and a last salute. I am only a poor film man, but I am always willing to do my share in sustaining our reputation as a nation of reckless spenders.
Source: W. Stephen Bush, “Conditions in Germany,” Moving Picture World 31 May 1913, 899-900.