While UNTERNEHMEN MICHAEL (1938) was released after Japanese censorship had butchered it, another Karl Ritter’s film, URLAUB AUF EHRENWORT (1938) was banned in its entirety. According to Akira Iwasaki, the official reason given was that film depicted the officer’s insubordination to the orders. However, by the time its ban was announced, this film had already been screened to directors, producers, writers and critics in film industries, and some magazines published their reviews and discussions on their pages even. These insiders praised URLAUB AUF EHRENWORT unanimously, some calling it a masterpiece. Around the same time, Marlene Dietrich’s DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939) was being shown in theaters. Many critics despised DESTRY, calling it an empty-headed, escapist, silly entertainment. Superficially, the contrast seems obvious: Hollywood films (the potential enemy state) were deemed as ‘degenerate’ entertainment, while the Germans (our ally) provided ‘high art’ firmly deeply rooted in centuries of their culture. However, there seems to be more than that.
“… one of the weakness of war films, I think, is that it is hard to recreate the grittiness of the real war on film, and it tends to become a shallow depiction of a child play. However, I was impressed that URLAUB AUF EHRENWORT is, with great skills, saved from these pitfalls of war films.” Kazuho Tokuda(1)
Set in the World War I, the film is about the troops being transferred from the Eastern Front to the notorious Western Front in the vital year of 1918. Their train arrived at the Berlin station and the order was to wait for 6 hours to catch another train leaving westward through Brandenburg Station. Many of its soldiers were the Berliners and begged their young Lieutenant Prätorius to grant them furlough. Though the Lieutenant was given a strict orders not to, he allowed his six men 6-hour leave. The film follows these men in Berlin – the war-fatigued Metropolis filled with poverty, resentment, decadence, Communists and deserters – to show us kaleidoscope of lives under the modern war.
To put it simply, URLAUB AUF EHRENWORT is a better film than UNTERNEHMEN MICHAEL. It focuses on ordinary people whom I could relate to in one way or another. In some spots, I even found the film almost naturalistic, pleasantly beautiful. One of such scenes is the story of Private Hartmann and his wife, Anna. Wearing an over-sized uniform, she was shown driving a tram struggling with traffic. Private Hartmann surprised her from behind, and it was so sudden that he had to take over the handle to maneuver while she recovered from the shock. Within these few shots, we know how deeply they are bonded together, though the war has torn them apart. The film is full of these nuanced episodes, without resorting to preaching German morality. If there weren’t any Communist bashing in later scenes, I would have never believed this film was directed by the same man as UNTERNEHMEN MICHAEL or STUKAS.
Many Japanese reviewers and industry insiders, including directors and producers, saw this film uncut, and published favorable reviews before it was banned by the government. Reading their reviews, it seems they feared, either instinctively or impirically, or both, the film would pose problems for the censors. They knew the reactionary cultural elites would madly denounce the film, in which the soldiers behave like humans. Many reviewers couldn’t help but try to defend the film. For example, I noticed very peculiar uses of certain ‘phrases’ by some of them, containing the vocabulary of ultra-nationalistic lingo. They were definitely devised as double entendre, in order to pass the censors (of course, all the magazines were also under the scrutiny of government censorship), while they were meant as sarcastic denunciation of the regime. Here, I produce the excerpts from the review by Kazuo Watanabe:
“If we, Japanese People, were to become un-nationalistic, or anti-social after watching the uncut version of URLAUB AUF EHRENWORT, the masterpiece of our great ally, then it would be the Shame of the Nation and deplorable beyond imagination. If there were ‘Shameful’ people of such nature among us, then we need to prepare for the worst. In such events, it would be appropriate (for our government) to ban all the foreign cultural imports (including German and Italian), and to allow only purely domestic culture along the line of the national policy. Then, the government should issue the statement, decisively but in simple words, that this is not because the foreign culture (including German and Italian) is bad influence, but our People are dyspeptic prone to diarrhea and should be treated with potato porridge for the time being.“Kazuo Watanabe (2)
I chose to spell ‘Shame of the Nation’ in capital letters to emphasize the phrase’s poisonous effect on people in this era. Used in public to humiliate someone by ultra-nationalists, it was an epithet to ostracize the person against the backdrop of the Imperial authority. Watanabe used this very phrase to point out the fundamental paradox of censorship – if we are people of the great nation, superior to the other races, why do we need to be afraid of bad influences? In the last sentence, Watanabe, being the authority of Francois Rabelais, was on the verge of blaspheming into scatological onslaught.
Considering that the very same month saw the release of DESTRY RIDES AGAIN in theaters across Japan, the censors did think this German film would be too hard on people’s stomach: they must have thought the Japanese people should be given an empty-headed entertainment, even if it starred our allies’ traitor, to be diverted from anything that provoke a mental process called ‘thinking’.
It is more revealing that a few month after this, Japanese government banned everything (including movies) from the Allies (meaning foreign countries except Germany and Italy). They ‘unified’ the entertainment industry to produce anything under strict control of the government. They did announce such a move in decisive but arcane language, saying that Japanese people need to be prepared for the total war. In another words, they thought they need to guide Japanese people to ‘the ultimate mission’, – since people were so inferior that they could not choose what was good for them.
(2) “‘Chikai No Kyuka’ wo mite”, Kazuo Watanabe, ibid.