Pre-Code: Hollywood before the censors

In the brief window between the announcement of the Hays Code censorship guidelines in 1930 and the creation of a body with sufficient resources to implement them in 1934, Hollywood studios were able to portray America with a realism previously unseen in its history. Below, Mike Mashon explores the history of demands for a system of moral oversight and shows how conservatives lobbied to enforce it; then James Bell examines the new-found freedoms filmmakers enjoyed in their depiction of taboo subjects from adultery and poverty to crime.

30 April 2014

By Mike Mashon, James Bell

Barbara Stanwyck (left) as Lilly Powers in Baby Face (1933)
Sight and Sound
I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land… Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.Catholic Legion of Decency pledge

From the very beginnings of American cinema, the agents of moral uplift have regarded the medium with watchful wariness, alert to any indication that movies are, as they suspect, a pathway to cultural decay. In turn, leaders of the film industry have engaged in a continual strategy of self-regulation, fearful that grassroots community agitation would eventually find its way into legislative policy with disastrous effects on the moviemaking business. So it was with the creation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) in 1922, the Hays Code in 1930, and the establishment of the Motion Picture Association of America ratings system in 1968, but never did it have such a profound impact on Hollywood as with the formation of the Production Code Administration (PCA) in 1934.

The phrase ‘pre-Code’ is bandied about so much in writing about film censorship that one would be forgiven for thinking it’s a genre term. Historically, it refers to a specific period between the announcement of the Hays Code and the formation of the PCA to actually enforce it. Culturally, the interregnum represented a fertile few years in which the studios tested the outer limits of propriety with movies of increasing frankness and fearlessness.

This feature is from our May 2014 issue.

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Many histories of Hollywood say that movies provided an escape for Great Depression audiences looking to forget their troubles, but many of the films of the pre-Code era challenge that notion. Through the period, the studios portrayed America with a realism previously unseen in its history. Warner Bros, with its stories “torn from today’s headlines”, was the most prominent practitioner, but even the more patrician MGM – with “more stars than there are in heaven” – was not averse to allowing the grim reality of daily life from seeping into the dream factory. Still, pre-Code cinema was perhaps a little too grim for some, for these films prompted a climactic battle over censorship, a conflict born in real-life scandal a dozen years earlier.

A Free Soul (1931)

As 1922 dawned, the public image of the movie industry was taking a beating. The previous September, beloved comedian ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was implicated in the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe in a San Francisco hotel during a party that was portrayed as a wild bacchanalia of sin and vice. Similar stories of drug- and alcohol-fuelled orgies filled the scandal rags. In February, director William Desmond Taylor would be murdered in his Los Angeles apartment, a case that remains unsolved to this day. The movies themselves were reaching a narrative maturity, delving into subject matter that was adult in nature, worldly in outlook, and at times just plain racy (see, for example, any Cecil B. DeMille film starring Gloria Swanson).

Now, there is nothing that will focus the mind of industry barons like the threat of government oversight, and the studio chieftains of 1922 were no different. It didn’t take long for the threat of Congressional investigation to reach the business offices in New York and the production lots in Los Angeles, so in an effort to prove how serious they were about cleaning up their own act, the film moguls co-opted an unimpeachable symbol of moral rectitude – a deacon in the Presbyterian church, former chair of the Republican party, campaign manager for Warren G. Harding’s 1920 presidential campaign, and now postmaster general of the United States, Will Hays.

William Hays (centre)

Hays was installed as head of the newly created MPPDA, and given the job of turning down the regulatory heat. This wasn’t easy. Many states had their own censorship boards and standards varied wildly; what might pass muster in one state would be forbidden in another.

To his credit, Hays managed to keep the bluenoses at bay for pretty much the whole of the 1920s. Working with the studios, clergy and various other reformer organisations, by decade’s end he was ready to introduce the Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures, a set of guidelines that became known formally as the Motion Picture Production Code, popularly as the Hays Code, and colloquially as the ‘Don’ts and be carefuls’. ‘Don’ts’ included such topics as profanity, sex hygiene, homosexuality, miscegenation and “ridicule of the clergy”, while the much longer list of ‘Be carefuls’ included showing sympathy for criminals, arson, surgical operations and “excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a heavy”.

So, between the Code and state censorship boards, one might expect that films produced after 1930 would be exemplars of wholesomeness and purity. In practice, the men who enforced the Code on behalf of the MPPDA (Jason Joy and James Wingate) were wholly ineffectual, primarily due to the very small staffs they were allotted to keep up with the work of reviewing scripts, treatments and finished films while battling studios that weren’t especially thrilled by the bottleneck caused by the whole operation. The combination of bureaucratic sclerosis and the economic, political and cultural crisis brought about by the Great Depression ushered in a vibrant era of filmmaking and the introduction of many stars whose personas would forever be rooted in their pre-Code films.

No Hollywood studio captured the prevailing zeitgeist with the verve and flair of Warner Bros. Indeed, the way we tend to carry on about the studio’s social consciousness films – gangster films Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931), chain-gang and jailhouse pictures I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), social problem movies Heroes for Sale (1933) and Wild Boys of the Road (1933), and on and on – you’d think the studio made nothing but hard-hitting contemporary dramas. Let’s not forget, however, that Depression-era Warners was also home to Joe E. Brown comedies, George Arliss biopics and Kay Francis melodramas, and the films for which we remember and celebrate the studio are in fact a distinct minority of their overall output – it would be wrong to label every film made between 1930 and 1934 as ‘pre-Code’.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

Still, those gritty dramas were important to the studio, linger in the collective imagination, and tend to be the subject of retrospectives. The list of films released by Warner Bros in 1933 that premiered at the Strand Theater in New York City and the Hollywood Theater in Los Angeles – the studio’s biggest cinemas with almost identical seating capacities of 2,800 – is instructive. While there is the occasional outlier such as Mary Stevens, M.D. with Kay Francis, the list is dominated by fare such as 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, Wild Boys of the Road, The Mayor of Hell starring James Cagney, The World Changes with Paul Muni, and the studio’s brilliant trio of Depression-saturated musicals: Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street and Footlight Parade.

The question remains: why? Why did Warners come to emphasise these sorts of films? There are plainly economic reasons: contemporary films didn’t require elaborate costumes or set designs. There was also a feedback loop at work: audiences responded to particular films or publicity pitches and the studio answered with more of them. In the Warner Bros universe, audiences were presented with a picture of the world they knew (or at least thought they knew because they recognised things like modern cities, dress and moral codes), and in general the response was uniformly positive. The cycle began again.

Further, Warners was the Hollywood studio most supportive of the New Deal, that conglomeration of progressive economic programmes devoted to “relief, recovery, and reform” instituted in March 1933 by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration in response to the Great Depression. Some of this is attributable to the liberal political leanings of the brothers Warner – highly unusual for the owners of the means of production – but despite the socialistic trappings critics of Roosevelt’s policies liked to attach to them, the Warner Bros version of the New Deal celebrated individual initiative even more than national unity and cooperative effort. Taxi! (1932) and Employees’ Entrance (1932), for example, may be biting critiques of big business, but they could never be mistaken for a call to revolution; ultimately, they are every bit as pro-American as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).

Taxi (1932)

Employees’ Entrance stars Warren William, an actor who perfectly captured the era’s cynical spirit by frequently portraying a debonair, amoral tyrant with a flair for commerce. But unlike Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, William Powell and Carole Lombard, actors whose indelible screen personas were also established in the pre-Code era, William’s career went into a steep decline after 1934.

Blonde Crazy (1931)

A similar fate befell Ruth Chatterton (star of 1933’s Female, in which she plays the distaff version of a William tycoon) and, to a lesser extent, Miriam Hopkins (Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, The Story of Temple Drake). Warner Bros never managed to find the right post-Code vehicles for William and Chatterton, while Hopkins’s career was derailed as much by her difficult off-screen personality as by the roles she took.

By the time Design for Living was released in December 1933, the Hays Code was being openly flouted and some were beginning to wonder if it was worth the paper it was written on. They despaired at the illicit behaviour being glamorised on screen and railed against an industry that by their lights engaged in perversion for profit. Several grassroots organisations were founded to pressure the film industry, but none as powerful and influential as the Catholic Legion of Decency.

Founded by Cincinnati Archbishop John McNicholas earlier in 1933, the Legion was devoted to purifying cinema, asking its members to take a pledge promising to renounce all but the most virtuous of films, and even issuing its own ABC ratings system, with C (for ‘condemned’) reserved for the worst offenders. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what the Legion thought of a sin-fest such as Baby Face (1933; pictured at top), a film that helped prompt what can only be described as a Legion of Decency mania towards the end of 1933 and the beginning of 1934. New chapters sprung up across the country. The archbishop of Los Angeles – ground zero of all the tawdriness – lent his powerful voice. So many Protestants joined that the organisation’s name was soon changed to the National Legion of Decency.

And the MPPDA got the message too. In mid-1934, a Catholic layman, Joseph Breen, was named head of the PCA and unlike his predecessors, he meant business. The Code was enforced, this time with an iron hand. Every film made by an MPPDA member was required to have a certificate of approval before release. As was also true with the Hays Code, studios were required to submit scripts to the PCA for review, but unlike before, the PCA wasn’t shy about forcing the studios to make changes.

So, in this sense, when we use the phrase ‘pre-Code’ as shorthand for films released in the early 1930s that feature content of a suggestive or provocative nature, we really mean ‘pre-enforcement of the Hays Code’. The Code lasted well into the 1950s, when it finally collapsed under the weight of a postwar culture characterised by paranoia and world weariness.

— Mike Mashon

1. The gangster

“Criminals should not be made heroes… The flaunting of weapons by gangsters will not be allowed…”

Forget sex, horror or portrayals of unruly mobs of the unemployed, it was the gangster film that provoked the greatest moral panic in Depression and Prohibition-era America. Though it wasn’t the first American gangster feature, Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar was the first of the sound era, and had an incendiary impact, paving the way for William Wellman’s The Public Enemy later the same year, Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932) and numerous other imitators – by one reckoning, more than 75 gangster films would go on to be made before the Code was enforced in 1934. With Al Capone and John Dillinger barely off the front pages, Edward G. Robinson’s tightly wound, gun-totin’ mobster on the rise Rico Bandello exemplified the torn-from-the-headlines approach of Prohibition-era Warner Bros productions, and has cast his shadow on every onscreen anti-hero gangster since.

Scarface (1932)

2. Horror

“Scenes of excessive brutality and gruesomeness must be cut to an absolute minimum…”

The pre-Code era saw the first great flowering of the American horror film, which fed off the social turmoil and psychological traumas of the age – from mobs brandishing flaming torches in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) at Universal, to the Freudian psychologising and sexual perversity of Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) at Paramount. A taste for gruesomeness and cruelty courses through the veins of horror pictures in those years, whether in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Doctor X (1932), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934) or, with its opening scene so startlingly grisly that it still appals today, A. Edward Sutherland’s Paramount production Murders in the Zoo (1933), in which Lionel Atwill plays a gleefully sadistic zoo owner who sees off competitors for wife Kathleen Burke’s attentions by using his animals in ever more dastardly ways.

Burke is also in Erle C. Kenton’s nightmarish Island of Lost Souls (1932), adapted from H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau, which tramples unbridled through a string of taboos and, like King Kong (1933), evoked the documentary expeditionary films that were so popular in the period, and which brought back footage from exotic locations in faraway corners of the world.

3. Politics

“The use of the flag shall be consistently respectful…”

With President Hoover seemingly powerless to arrest the ravages of the Depression, one response was what Walter Lippmann termed a “hankering for supermen” – a desire for an authoritarian leader to take charge. As Thomas Doherty notes in his book Pre-Code Hollywood, such impulses worked their way into the so-called ‘dictator craze’ of pre-Code cinema. The tendency is apparent in such films as Skyscraper Souls (1932) and Employees’ Entrance, in which the now almost forgotten ‘King of the pre-Code’ Warren William plays autocratic and downright immoral company bosses.

But the most fascinating example must be Gregory La Cava’s one-of-a-kind Gabriel over the White House (1933), in which Walter Huston plays an ineffectual president ill-equipped to deal with Depression-era America – until, that is, he survives a car crash and is visited by the angel Gabriel. When he awakes he is possessed of a messianic zeal and behaves like a populist dictator, a turn of events evidently endorsed by La Cava’s film, which implicitly criticises President Hoover and America’s political system.

An irreverance for the political establishment bursts through such comedies as the Marx brothers’ wisecracking Duck Soup (1933) and Wheeler and Woolsey’s anarchic Diplomaniacs (1933), while the disillusionment with Hoover’s administration even seeped in to such animations as Dave Fleischer’s Betty Boop for President (1932), in which Betty throws her garter into the political ring, standing against ‘Mr. Nobody’ on a programme of “boop-oop-e-doop and chocolate ice cream”.

Duck Soup (1933)

4. The convict

“The courts of the land should not be presented as unjust…”

Though they typically involved men and women who are incarcerated unjustly, as Thomas Doherty has noted, pre-Code films set in the prisons, or ‘big houses’, of the north tended to depict them as places of solidarity amid the uncertainties of the Great Depression. MGM’s The Big House (1930) ushered in a prison-film cycle that included Michael Curtiz’s gritty 20,000 Years in Sing Sing for Warner Bros, in which Spencer Tracy plays hard-as-nails con Tommy Connors, whose spirit survives a 90-day stretch in solitary, but who faces a tougher test when a fair-minded warden lets him out on day release to visit his injured girlfriend Bette Davis.

The cycle extended into juvenile prison tales such as The Mayor of Hell with James Cagney, and women-in-prison titles such as Ladies They Talk About (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck, and Paid (1930) starring Joan Crawford. Many of these latter types of films offered other opportunities to test the Code, with, for instance, unclothed shower scenes or unmistakably lesbian inmates or guards (in contravention of the Code’s insistence that so-called ‘impure love’ be kept off screens).

The most searing exposés of the prison system were reserved for the chain-gang pictures, which drew on sensational newspaper reports of brutality in the prison system of the rural Deep South. Warner Bros’ I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), starring Paul Muni, was the most powerful and popular of the films, but the often shockingly raw RKO production Hell’s Highway (1932) beat it to the punch. In it, tough con Richard Dix leads the fight against sadistic guards who brutalise their prisoners with chains, whips and the dreaded sweatboxes.

5. Forgotten men

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) film poster

Belying the received wisdom that the movies of the period offered mere escapism, the bitter realities of the Great Depression scarred many pre-Code films like angry sores, frightening the nation’s moral guardians with scenes of bitter, dispossessed men. Warner Bros became the studio most associated with such gritty social commentaries, with titles such as William Wellman’s very tough road movie Wild Boys of the Road, which follows the country’s unemployed youth as they crossed the country in search of work. Almost neo-realist in its vivid, street-level portrait of a failing America, the film tested the Code in its angry cynicism at the inability of the government and its apparently corrupt institutions to deal with the unprecedented crisis.

As well as its effects on youth, the ravages of the Depression were particularly cruel to the country’s Great War veterans, the “forgotten men” of the plaintive song in Gold Diggers of 1933. Their plight is taken up by Wellman’s Heroes for Sale, in which Richard Barthelmess plays a veteran who is systematically kicked down by an uncaring system. Bleak and uncompromising, with scenes of bread lines, violent mobs, unsympathetic judges and exploitative bankers – not to mention communist agitators – this is Depression-era America in the raw, the varnish stripped off.

6. Prostitution and fallen women

“Brothels and houses of ill-fame are not proper locations for drama. They suggest to the average person at once sex sin, or they excite an unwholesome and morbid curiosity in the minds of youth…”

Stories concerning prostitution and ‘fallen women’ were a mainstay of the pre-Code period. They tend to split between unapologetic, comic tales of gold-diggers, and dramas that can still seem startlingly frank in their exploration of the seedier side of American life.

Many asked the question, as America awoke from the Roaring Twenties to face the sobering dawn of the early 1930s, of what would happen to the party girls now that the party was over? Virtue (1932), a brisk, tough drama, with a young Carole Lombard cast as a former prostitute trying to escape her past by marrying a tough-talking New York cabbie, offers one take on the theme, as in a different way does The Story of Temple Drake (1933), one of the most daring and sordid of all the pre-Code dramas. Miriam Hopkins is superb as Temple Drake, a Southern belle with a wild, masochistic streak who is raped by a backwoods bootlegger and pushed into prostitution.

Lurid even by pre-Code standards, William Wellman’s atmospheric proto-noir Safe in Hell (1931) is another exploration of the theme. It follows Gilda Karlson, a New Orleans ‘escort’ who hides out in a fleabag hotel on a Caribbean island after believing she has killed the man who forced her into prostitution, and has to constantly fend off the attentions of the lecherous reprobates who are also lying low in her hideout.

Even when prostitution isn’t obviously suggested, the pursuit of other vices could bring women characters low. Among the rawest of all the pre-Code pictures, Mervyn LeRoy’s Three on a Match (1932), about the varying fortunes of three women (Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell and Bette Davis), crams a roll-call of forbidden themes into little more than an hour: infidelity, alcoholism, child abuse, gangsterism, undressing, drug use… The magnificent Dvorak steals the show as the lawyer’s tragic wife who sinks into a life of vice and crime.

Virtue (1932)

7. Bad girls

“Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing…”

Alongside the fallen women pictures were the so-called ‘bad girl’ films, in which women unashamedly profit from exploiting their sexuality, from the trio of dancers in Gold Diggers of 1933 to Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman in George Cukor’s Girls About Town (1931). Mae West stands apart for the sheer bravado and confidence of her ribald wit in the likes of I’m No Angel (1933), and the real epitome of the bad girl was Jean Harlow, the reigning sex symbol of the early 1930s and one of the defining faces of the pre-Code era, in pictures such as Platinum Blonde (1931) for Columbia, and Red Dust (1932) and Red-Headed Woman (1932) for MGM.

In the scandalous latter film Harlow plays the funny, volatile Lil ‘Red’ Andrews, an unapologetic gold-digger who knows that sex pays and that men like Chester Morris are buying. With a terrific script by Anita Loos, the film would test the boundaries with scenes of semi-nudity, adultery and violence.

Perhaps the most outrageous pre-Code of them all, Baby Face, was made over at Warner Bros, largely in response to Red-Headed Woman’s provocations. Stanwyck is in peerless form as Lily, who escapes a squalid upbringing and an abusive father and moves to New York determined to use what she’s got to get what she wants, sleeping her way to the very top of a major bank. It was so troubling to the censors that it was cut by five minutes even before the Code was enforced; the full-length pre-release version was only rediscovered by Mike Mashon in the Library of Congress archives in 2005.

Red Dust (1932)

8. Musicals

“Dancing costumes cut to permit indecent actions or movements are wrong… Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passion are forbidden…”

Along with Footlight Parade and 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 is the ultimate early-1930s musical, which never lets us forget that behind the razzamatazz genius of Busby Berkeley’s spectacular productions, the daring of its revealing costumes, the suggestive wit of its dialogue and the great charm of its stars, lay the realities of the Great Depression. The pre-Code buttons are all pressed with glee, as its trio of wisecracking showgirl ‘gold-diggers’, played by Blondell, Aline MacMahon and Ruby Keeler, use all of their wiles to enjoy the good life. The songs are unforgettable and in themselves test the Code’s resolve, whether in the hilariously naughty ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ or the sobering and powerful ‘Remember my Forgotten Man’.

9. Adultery and the sanctity of marriage

“Adultery as a subject should be avoided… It is never a fit subject for comedy. Thru comedy of this sort, ridicule is thrown on the essential relationships of home and family and marriage, and illicit relationships are made to seem permissible, and either delightful or daring.”

In The Divorcée (1930), Norma Shearer gives an Oscar-winning performance as a young society woman whose response to the discovery of her husband Chester Morris’s infidelity is to have an affair of her own, which prompts him to declare that while his own “doesn’t mean a thing”, her infidelity “isn’t the same”. Throughout the pre-Code era we find films that confront that sexual double standard, such as Illicit (1931), in which Barbara Stanwyck declares that all of her friends are either unhappily married or unhappily divorced, leading her to the conclusion that “marriage is disastrous to love”.

More often than not though, the theme came through in comedies. One such is William Dieterle’s delightfully amoral Jewel Robbery (1932), in which Kay Francis plays a Viennese woman who has married a dull man for his money – not that it stops her taking lovers on the side. When one of her many shopping trips to a jeweller’s is rudely interrupted by William Powell’s impeccably urbane jewel thief, it’s love at first sight…

But it was Ernst Lubitsch who was the unquestioned master of the sex farce, whether in racy musicals starring Maurice Chevalier, such as The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and One Hour with You (1932), or his version of Design for Living (1933), Noel Coward’s play about, in his words, “three people who love each other very much”. Ben Hecht’s pre-Code screenplay replaced almost all of Coward’s dialogue with his own gloriously risqué wit, and here we find the Lubitsch touch at its naughtiest, with Gary Cooper and Fredric March entering into a “gentleman’s agreement” with Miriam Hopkins that there will be “no sex” in their relationship with her. “But,” she soon reminds them, “I am no gentleman!”

Then there is what for many is Lubitsch’s most perfect film, Trouble in Paradise (1932) – the tale of courting crooks Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall and their plot to relieve heiress Kay Francis of her riches. Samson Raphaelson’s dialogue crackles with pre-Code wit and subversion, as when Kay Francis muses that “marriage is a beautiful mistake made by two people”.

Design for Living (1933)

10. Corrupt business

Where in the 1920s the businessman seemed to represent all that was great about the American way, in the early 1930s his flaunted wealth seemed more grotesque than grand, and that new view was expressed in many pre-Code pictures which paint big business as corrupt. Warren William was particularly effective when playing unscrupulous businessmen in his headline roles in The Match King (1932) and Skyscraper Souls (1932).

But it’s Employees’ Entrance that is his defining performance. He’s deliciously wicked as the tyrannical boss of a New York department store who abuses his position to corrupt the ladies in his employ, whether it’s good-time gal Alice White (“Oh, it’s you. I didn’t know you with all your clothes on”), or a young and innocent Loretta Young.

The part finds a female equivalent in Ruth Chatterton’s character in Michael Curtiz’s Female. Like William, Chatterton’s star waned after the Code was enforced, but she’s a riot in Female, playing the president of an automobile company who is as decisive in the bedroom as she is in the boardroom.

In Roy Del Ruth’s rough and ready and very fast Taxi! (1932), James Cagney plays an independent cabbie with a hair-trigger temper who’s caught in a turf war with a bullying, larger rival company run in mob-like fashion. Through an ad hoc drivers’ union, he hooks up with Sue (Loretta Young), whose cabbie father was killed by the same rivals. Like many pre-Codes, Taxi! is fascinating for the way it captures the diverse accents, languages and ethnicities of US cities in a way that later films lost, with Cagney himself speaking Yiddish in an early scene.

— James Bell

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