The Paris Cinema Project

On July 15, 1949, the Parisian newspaper L’Aurore announced the news quietly enough, with a small advertisement, that William Wellman’s anti-Russian Cold War melodrama, Le Rideau de fer (Iron Curtain [1948]), would be opening at the chic Avenue cinema on the rue du Colisée in the fashionable eighth arrondissement. The far more significant premiere, or at least it seemed at the time, was the new documentary Leclerc, about the Free French general Philippe Leclerc who had died just eighteen months before. Newspapers that day ran stories about the crowd at the 2500-seat Rex cinema in the second arrondissement lining up to see the film, among them Charles DeGaulle. They also covered the ceremony inaugurating the newly-named avenue Leclerc in the fourteenth arrondissement, the old avenue d’Orléans, a street honoring the Bourbon monarchy now doing the same for a hero of the Liberation.

The advertisement for Le Rideau de fer in L’Aurore, June 15, 1949

By the next day, things had changed. The communist newspaper L’Humanité called Le Rideau de fer an “anti-Soviet provocation,” and alerted readers that this “despicable film was released yesterday” by 20th Century Fox, with the full approval of the former American Secretary of War James Forrestal. L’Humanité added that Forrestal had recently committed suicide after having been placed in a psychiatric hospital, his apparent madness one of the reasons for his enthusiastic support of Wellman’s film.  The newspaper said that Rideau de fer had already caused protests in Canada, Belgium, and Italy, and then L’Humanité assumed that Parisians, as well, would refuse to tolerate this “outrage to the heroes of Stalingrad.”

The audience that first night interrupted the screening twice, and one man was arrested. L’Humanité celebrated these brave spectators, while L’Aurore and other, more conservative papers, assumed that the demonstrators were working on orders of the French Communist Party, and assured readers that many in the audience had applauded the film.

L’Humanité, from June 16, 1949, calls the film “an anti-soviet provocation,” and reports on the spectators who protested the screening

L’Humanité pressed the issue for the next few weeks, reporting on new demonstrations at the Avenue cinema, “despite the presence of a large police force…equipped with helmets and gas masks.” But other newspapers also kept the story going. There was L’Aurore, of course, and also Ce Soir, which headlined on June 26th that “Police Brutalize Spectators Who Protest Against Le Rideau de fer,” and detailed the anti-communist agents who rushed into the crowd, “truncheons raised, especially attacking women.” In the name of public safety, Ce Soir concluded, “Isn’t it time, instead of bludgeoning the population, to stop showing this infamous film?”

Most of the writers, critics, and intellectuals weighing in on the topic felt the same way. In fact, this put all of them in the unusual position of supporting film censorship rather than arguing against it, which was more typically their approach. During the late-1940s and early-1950s, the bureaucracy of French film censorship was extraordinarily complex, but for most of that period a commission de contrôle worked within the Ministry of the Interior, passing judgments on movies as well as radio programming, and in the case of foreign films like Le Rideau de fer, issuing visas allowing for exhibition or withholding them, and thereby preventing them from entering the country.

Perhaps more than anyone else, the great French film critic and historian Georges Sadoul wrote about the case of Le Rideau de fer, in Les Lettres Françaises, a daily newspaper of arts, culture, and politics. He called the film a “provocation to war,” and claimed that the commission de contrôle had, in fact, initially refused to grant a visa precisely because of that. But then, after pressure from the United States, the commission changed its mind, because American politicians believed that anti-Soviet, pro-war propaganda constituted “the first duty of Marshallized countries,” that is, those countries, like France, benefitting from President Truman’s Marshall plan and thus subject to strongarm tactics from Washington, DC.

When Sadoul saw the movie, the “well-to-do audience there applauded,” and he wrote that he recognized in that crowd the same people who applauded Hitler on his “triumphant entry into Vienna.” Perhaps somewhat humorlessly, Sadoul compared Le Rideau de fer to a recent reissue of Ernst Lubitsch’s great comedy Ninotchka (1939), both of them “elements of a systematic war campaign, which a vigorous struggle must destroy.”

The practices of French film censorship continued to create controversy. On June 30th, two weeks into the showing of Le Rideau de fer at the Avenue, L’Humanité alleged that the commission de contrôle, once it had cleared the film under “exceptional authorization,” had originally only allowed thirty screenings. The newspaper continued that the showings had well exceeded that number, and would soon approach one hundred, as the Avenue played the film five times a day. I have found no similar instance in Paris of screenings being so highly regulated; it’s possible the commission did so with certain controversial films, or as part of the arrangement made with the State Department in the US, which would have brokered the Rideau de fer deal that Sadoul mentioned. Nevertheless, it would not be extraordinary during this period for the commission to make rulings about films that it would then not enforce, or, at least, for the press to assail the commission for these apparent inconsistencies.

Le Rideau de fer kept showing, and critics kept complaining about it. L’Humanité brought up the thirty-screening limit once again on July 6th and referred to the film as particularly insulting because France was, at the time, engaged in trade talks with the Soviet Union. In fact, L’Humanité asserted that the spectators who continued to protest against the film “showed more concern for the national interest than our current leaders,” who allowed the screenings to continue despite the film’s “gross insults against an ally of France.”

The poster for William Wellman’s Le Rideau de fer

Then, suddenly, just a few days later, the film’s run at the Avenue ended, and while the decision to withdraw the film was based on a legal technicality, exceeding the thirty-screening limit had nothing to do with it. Instead, as Ce Soir reported, Wellman and the others responsible for the music used in Le Rideau de fer “had plundered the works of various Soviet composers, without asking their permission.” As a result, the company Le Chant du Monde, “the exclusive publisher in France for the works of [the Russian composer] Sergei Prokofiev, had lodged a complaint” and obtained a favorable court decision based on a law on the books since 1793, “authorizing the seizure of works published without the agreement of their authors.”

Of course, when we think of Prokofiev and film music now, we remember the composer’s score for Eisentein’s 1938 historical epic Alexander Nevsky. In the case of Le Rideau de fer, though, his music accompanied a crude, anti-Soviet propaganda piece. Rather than helping to celebrate Russian history, as was the case with Nevsky, in this instance Prokofiev’s music accomplished what Sadoul and other critics and protesters could not; it made French officials take this depiction of contemporary Russia completely off the screen.   

Yet another William Wellman film, this one a western starring Gregory Peck and Anne Baxter, La Ville Abandonnée (Yellow Sky [1948]) replaced Le Rideau de fer at the Avenue cinema. As far as I can tell, at least from the available materials, Le Rideau de fer never returned to Paris, or anywhere else in France, throughout the 1950s, at a time when Hollywood films would typically come and go every few years. This may have been because of a decision by the commission de contrôle, or because the Prokofiev dispute had never been resolved, or for some other reason entirely. The issues raised by Le Rideau de fer, however, remained a significant aspect of French film culture.

Georges Sadoul’s report on this “provocation to war,” in Les Lettres françaises, June 23, 1949

Just a few months later, in fact, in February 1950, Sadoul wrote about censorship and the Soviet Union once again in Les Lettres Françaises, this time because the commission de contrôle had seen fit to ban Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s latest film, Mitchourine (1949). This biopic about a Ukrainian agronomist seemed innocuous enough in terms of its subject matter; the commission apparently refused to grant it an exhibition visa simply because it was a Russian film. Sadoul reproduced a letter from some of the leading filmmakers and film critics in France—including himself, Jean Dellanoy, Jean Cocteau, and many others—assailing this assault on “the liberty of expression” and “the liberty of the spectator,” to say nothing of the insult to Dovzhenko, a great filmmaker.

In May, Yves Hugonnet in Combat reported that the commission had seen fit to ban another film from the USSR, not just Mitchourine but also the war drama Rencontre sur l’Elbe (1949), about Soviet espionage. Hugonnet added that he knew of no similar American film that had been denied an exhibition visa, a clear reference to Le Rideau de fer. Thus Wellman’s film remained a sort of reference point in arguments for and against censorship during the period, provoking the French left in particular in debates about the motives of the commission de contrôle, the relationships between popular culture and geopolitics, and the rights and responsibilities of viewers and exhibitors.