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Cinema and Scandal

UZH historian Martin Bürgin researches films that caused an uproar – and he is bringing them back to the big screen in a special film series.
Adrian Ritter
“The stronger the polarization and emotionalization of the debate in society, the greater the chance that a film will cause a scandal,” explains UZH historian Martin Bürgin.


The title sounded quite harmless: Il Portiere di Notte, the Night Porter. The innocuous title, however, belied the shocking content of the 1974 Italian release: It is about a sadomasochistic love affair between a concentration camp guard and a prisoner. The film was banned by the Italian authorities – but astonishingly the reason given was just a relatively inoffensive sex scene. The film-makers successfully appealed the decision in court, and when the film finally appeared in cinemas across Western Europe, the box office figures were high. But the critical voices were also many – mainstream film critics bemoaned the sadomasochism, concentration camp survivors protested that it trivialized the holocaust, and left-wingers used the film to denounce the burying of the Nazi past by their parents’ generation. The film didn’t get banned in any other countries, but the uproar it caused was considerable.

Ingredients for a scandal

Since cinema’s beginnings in the 1890s, there have always been films causing scandals. Directors have made films that shock the public, or the authorities – or both. The authorities’ answer was to censor films, while the public wrote letters, organized demonstrations, or even set cinemas on fire. UZH historian and religious studies scholar Martin Bürgin examines cinema scandals in his research. He is mainly interested in the process of scandalization and the reception of the films: Which world views came into conflict? How did the scandal develop? How was the film received later?

First banned, then allowed, and criticized from all sides: The film Il Portiere di Notte (The Night Porter) caused a furor in 1974. (Picture: Screenshot)

The films are mostly about politics, religion, violence, or sexuality. “It was usually some combination of these themes that caused a scandal,” says Bürgin. In particular in the 1960s and 1970s, film-makers often set out to shock. “On the one hand there were many taboos in society and on the other hand there were plenty of film-makers who were willing to break these taboos and question the accepted norms,” says Bürgin. Films nowadays are less likely to cause a scandal, in part because many taboos have already been broken. At the same time, Bürgin notes an increasing commercialization of film-making, which has contrasting effects – fear of financial punishment at the box office leads to self-censorship and more blockbuster-type movies, however, a scandal can also be used as a marketing tool.

In these times of rolling online news and the global Twitterati, movies can quickly cause uproar. “The stronger the polarization and emotionalization of the debate in society, the greater the chance that a film will cause a scandal,” explains Bürgin. There are certain subjects that still cause scandals today, such as gender roles or (as ever) religion.

Six-year film series

Martin Bürgin doesn’t just research scandalous films, he shows them – between 2015 and 2021, the film series royalSCANDALcinema at the Kulturzentrum Royal in Baden is screening 55 films selected by Bürgin. The series has a wide scope: It includes films made as early as 1905 and up to 2009, and which caused scandals in Switzerland, Africa, or Asia. Each film is preceded by an introductory talk (many of which are given by UZH academics and colleagues of Martin Bürgin) and after the film there is always the opportunity for a lively discussion.