Television's taboos tangled in nations' lingering guilt


March 10, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- Among the recent prime-time offerings on German television was American actress Valerie Perrine sprawled nude on a bed, lustily displaying herself for a salivating Dustin Hoffman.

It was a scene from the 1970s film "Lenny," a biography of self-destructive comedian Lenny Bruce, and you didn't need cable to see it.

Meanwhile, playing at the same moment in Germany on U.S. armed forces television was a memorable scene from the Mel Brooks comedy "Blazing Saddles." Dusty cowboys encircled a campfire, gobbling beans. Anyone who has seen the film knows what comes next -- an ear-splitting symphony of flatulence.

Not this time. One cowpoke lifted a leg and sighed. Another burped. A U.S. censor had snipped the rest.

The moment's contrast speaks volumes about the different interpretations of "free expression" on German and American television.

In the United States, despite the almost constant wailing about television's loose morals, the networks are relatively prudish. jTC (Probably not as prudish as the Armed Forces Network, but what can one expect from an outfit that runs public service spots that admonish, "Your fingernails. Wear them in good health?")

In Germany, however, almost anything goes when it comes to sexuality or crude humor on television.

"There is a quite simple reason for this," explains Stephan Russ-Mohl, a professor at the Free University of Berlin who studies U.S.-German differences in mass media. "In your country, there is still a very strong Puritan tradition. Those people who were the most moralistic ones in the Old World went to the New World in the last century."

That's why at almost any newsstand in Germany, or anywhere else in Europe for that matter, you'll usually see at least one magazine cover displaying a bare-breasted woman, while in U.S. convenience stores such covers are hidden.

It's also why the German TV network SAT-1 regularly shows soft- core porn movies, replete with bad acting and flocks of women who disrobe at the first hint of male desire.

For the latest reading on puritanical TV barons in the United States, one needs only to look to last month, when NBC canceled a "Tonight Show" appearance by comedian Martin Lawrence after he got a little fast and loose with sexual humor on an episode of "Saturday Night Live."

German television's hang-ups and taboos aren't as readily apparent, and tend to be tangled up in the nation's lingering guilt and angst over World War II.

Consider the recent controversy over the film "Profession: Neo-Nazi." As the title implies, the movie dramatizes the life of a young man who becomes a neo-Nazi, and the film's clear message is that this lifestyle is neither worthy nor desirable. If filmed in English, there would be virtually no reason not to show it on U.S. television.

Yet, the powers at German television decided that the film was too hot for viewers to handle on their own. It might tend to glorify the neo-Nazi lifestyle for young, impressionable and, ( presumably, fairly stupid viewers, the reasoning went.

So, by the time the VOX network got around to showing the film, whole portions had been cut, and the remaining ones were accompanied by commentary driving home the point that this was bad conduct.

Mr. Russ-Mohl points out that Germany also suddenly gets squeamish about sex whenever it involves the nation's politicians. This goes for the print media as well as television. A top magazine editor lost her job last year over stories implying that Chancellor Helmut Kohl had a mistress, although no one ever disputed the facts of the stories.

This means that you don't see any tabloid TV shows, such as America's "Hard Copy" or "A Current Affair," flashing images of the likes of Gennifer Flowers.

It's hard to see what benefits result from either nation's restrictions.

Despite the relative sexual tameness of the television networks in the United States, the country's rate of reported rapes zooms along at roughly six times the German rate.

Despite Germany's dainty approach to neo-Nazi themes, the country's rate of violent "hate crimes" is about twice that of the United States.

And if one believes a couple of former Arkansas state troopers, freewheeling publicity about the sex lives of politicians has done nothing to dampen Washington libidos.

One can only blush to think what unreported dalliances must be going on in Bonn.

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