Censorship as a Creative Force: Screentalk

Last night I attended the keenly-awaited Censorship as a Creative Force Screentalk discussion at London’s Barbican Arts Centre, in which Jiří Menzel, István Szabó and Agnieszka Holland (an eleventh-hour replacement for Andrzej Wajda) discussed their experience of censorship under the various totalitarian régimes under which they had to spend much of their creative careers.

It was a fascinating evening that covered a lot of ground, and it was a particularly inspired idea to open with a screening of Wojciech Marczewski’s undeservedly obscure 1990 feature Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema (Ucieczka z kina ‘Wolność’), as this riff on Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo in the context of late-1980s Polish communist censorship was very funny, very pertinent, and much appreciated by the audience.

Then the critic Peter Hames took the stage to introduce his distinguished guests - including Andrzej Wajda. Although not physically present, Wajda had sent a ten-minute video address that made a perfect scene-setter, not least when technical problems at the start caused half the image to be obscured by a thick black bar (an irony noted by many, including Holland).

Wajda opened with the point that Communist countries were notorious for their toilet paper shortages, but claimed that this was actually a by-product of their governments deliberately restricting the production of paper of any kind. In other words, they didn’t censor specific words so much as the medium on which they were printed.

The same principle applied to film stock, which was strictly rationed and recorded - which caused difficulties for Wajda’s former protégé Roman Polański when he made his short film Mammals (Ssaki, 1963). Like most resourceful and cash-strapped young filmmakers, he made it with short ends - offcuts of film saved from other productions - but problems arose when he wanted to submit it to a film festival. Film Polski required him to produce receipts for the film stock - and because he couldn’t, the film didn’t officially exist.

Wajda then described the typical censorship process, which involved several stages. First of all, the film’s subject had to be approved, and then the script once it was written. In some countries, a so-called ‘editor’ would be present on the set making sure that what was shot matched what was written, which led to an anecdote about a debate in Moscow as to whether shooting scripts counted as works of literature - if they did, they couldn’t be altered by the director. However, this didn’t happen in Poland, to Wajda’s relief.

The finished film was then examined by officials in a closed screening known as a ‘Kolaudacja’, and if there were problems the Head of the Cinematography Committee would request changes. They also decided what kind of distribution the film should get: general or specialised, international or domestic, and in some cases whether to put them forward for major awards such as Oscars. Clearly, this ostensibly routine decision could also be used to punish filmmakers who were perceived to have overstepped the mark.

Surprisingly, Wajda only once had direct dealings with a censor (he recalled the man had a number, not a name) - after the ‘kolaudacja’ screening of Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół i diament, 1958) he was ordered to remove the final scene in which Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) meets his death on a rubbish tip. Wajda persuaded him that the scene meant that “whoever raises his hand against People’s Poland ends up on the rubbish heap of history”, and the scene stayed - and audiences interpreted it the way Wajda originally intended.

This led to Wajda’s fundamental point: that because censors were more comfortable with words, this meant that filmmakers relied heavily on images, and the more ambiguous the better. The same was true of Kanal (1957) - everyone watching the film at the time knew that the Soviet Army was on the opposite bank of the Vistula, so merely showing the river was sufficient: the censors couldn’t cut it.

Agnieszka Holland then talked about the experience of working on Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1976), which finally went into production some 13-14 years after the script was written - she was initially asked to read it because she was one of the youngest people in Wajda’s film unit (Zespół Filmowy X), and the minister of culture was worried that it might have dated. Ministers of culture generally got replaced every nine months or so, which was handy as filmmakers could always invoke their predecessor’s approval of their project if necessary.

István Szabó recalled an incident at Cannes in which he replied “yes” to a journalist’s question regarding whether there was censorship in Hungary. A Hungarian friend said that he must have lost his mind - and, sure enough, two weeks later he was ordered to attend the film office. The official had French newspapers on his desk, signalling the subject in advance, but instead of giving Szabó a carpeting, he congratulated him and said that Hungarian filmmakers should be outspoken, so that foreigners will know that they come from a liberal country. This, needless to say, was also part of the censorship process.

Jiří Menzel said that the system in Czechoslovakia was similar to that in Poland and Hungary: no censorship office as such, but people knew what was or wasn’t possible. It was a sequence of tightening-up and loosening of restrictions, seen at its most extreme form in 1968, when censorship was abolished, only to be reinstated with a vengeance after the Soviet tanks invaded that August. His 1969 film Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti) illustrated this process: Bohumil Hrabal couldn’t publish in the 1950s, but was more acceptable in the 1960s, when he wrote stories satirising the stupidity of the Stalinist regime. In 1968, Menzel felt he could get away with adapting them into a film, which was completed before the new Czech government could crack down on it - but in the event they shelved it for twenty years.

In response to a question about whether censorship was necessary for creativity, Agnieszka Holland said that it was a complicated issue. Fundamentally, there is no place where censorship doesn’t exist, though in the West it’s economic rather than political. But she made the point that audiences in the Eastern bloc were generally more sophisticated, because they had to be, and barely-watchable third-generation VHSes of films like Wajda’s Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza, 1981) were scrutinised as though they were holy writ. Now, films are available in perfect copies, but they’re moronic romantic comedies - so censorship is still operating. István Szabó discussed the evolution of Miklós Jancsó’s highly stylised film language as a means of getting round the censors, and thinks that this is a point in favour of censorship, in that it encourages artists to be more creative.

This led to the most contentious issue of the evening, when Szabó reminisced about meeting a Cuban doctor-turned-film distributor, who had just seen a Hungarian film that he adored (Szabó didn’t identify it, but his description of the atmosphere of decadence and the lovingly-shot treatment of food suggests it may well have been Zoltán Huszárik’s Szindbad, 1971). However, he thought it was quite unsuitable for screening to Cubans, because there was too much indulgence - not least in the fact that the lead character often left food uneaten. Szabó sympathised with this, but Holland strongly disagreed, sayng that Cubans were hungry because of the regime, not the film, and they should be grown-up enough to be allowed to confront the truth, however brutal. Her audiences are her partners, not her children. (This led to a somewhat heated exchange about the differences - if any - between Nazism and Communism).

After a question about John Osborne’s surprise credit on Colonel Redl (in a nutshell, the rights to A Patriot For Me were cleared after Szabó realised that his script bore a passing resemblance, but Osborne was never directly involved - incidentally, copyright issues can also result in the censorship of films, though this wasn’t spelled out), the discussion turned to whether humour could be a subversive weapon. Szabó expressed his admiration for Menzel’s films, and Menzel said that everything serious must have a trace of humour, but a good comedy should be about serious things (something recognised by Shakespeare and Chaplin). However, if you talk about serious things too seriously, unintentional humour is often the result. Szabó said that a key difference between Hungarians and Czech is that the former take themselves more seriously (Holland claimed that Poles are in between).

Finally, in response to a question about whether censorship would always be an issue. Holland felt that as long as religion and similar ideologies existed, censorship would prevail. The Middle Ages were less bothered about it, because they didn’t know they were being lied to. In Communist Poland, they did, and resented it, so the tension was enormous. But after 1989 Holland understood that humanity couldn’t handle freedom either - they needed the illusion of some kind of order. And for that reason, censorship of some kind will always continue.

And on this rather pessimistic (albeit justified) note, that was that. My congratulations to the Barbican, the Czech Centre, the Hungarian Cultural Centre and the Polish Cultural Institute for pulling it all together (not least in seamlessly resolving the last-minute changes) - and Peter Hames and Menzel’s interpreter did their jobs to near-invisible perfection. It was well worth the trip.

4 Responses to “Censorship as a Creative Force: Screentalk”

  1. Pacze Moj Says:

    So many interesting ideas! Thanks for taking the time to write this up. Wajda’s toilet paper comment is heading straight into an essay I’m writing. Hope you don’t mind being cited.


    This led to a somewhat heated exchange about the differences - if any - between Nazism and Communism.

    Wish I was the fly…

    Do you know if the discussion will be available somewhere online, in audio or as a transcript?

  2. Pacze Moj Says:

    One more random thought, about TP:

    Is film really such a dirty medium? Wajda makes the comparison to film stock, and Ozu once (or maybe more times) made the comment that widescreen is “nothing but toilet paper”!

  3. Michael Brooke Says:

    Do you know if the discussion will be available somewhere online, in audio or as a transcript?

    Apparently yes, as a podcast via the Barbican website. No sign of it yet, but here’s the relevant page: I assume it’ll appear there in due course.

  4. Pacze Moj Says:


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