A forthcoming book presents a strong case that pre–World War II Hollywood was in bed with Nazi Germany, in catering to its censorship demands. The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, uses archival material to show that Hollywood studios agreed not to make films that attacked Nazis or depicted their harsh treatment of Jews.
Afraid of losing the lucrative German market, the studios invited Georg Gyssling, Hitler’s personal consul in Los Angeles, to preview films before their release and suggest changes. “If Gyssling objected to any part of a movie — and he frequently did — the offending scenes were cut,” concludes a review of Urwand’s book in Tablet magazine. “As a result, the Nazis had total veto power over the content of Hollywood movies.”
The German head of MGM actually spoke to German reporters about the “satisfying collaboration on both sides” in Hollywood. Jewish characters virtually disappeared from Hollywood films. Paramount and Fox channeled box-office profits into the production of propaganda newsreels featuring Nazi leaders. Studio mogul Louis B. Mayer was quoted in a legal case on the 1933 anti-Nazi film Mad Dog of Europe, a film that wound up not being produced: “We have terrific income in Germany, and as far as I am concerned, this picture will never be made.”
With ticket sales in Western countries going flat, Hollywood is desperate to place more films on Chinese screens. China is already the second-biggest box office in the world, and it may be the biggest in as few as five years as it opens ten new movie screens a day. Rigid quotas restrict the number of foreign films entering China to only 34 a year, but that’s up from 20 a year ago. Hollywood has big dreams for China.
But those dreams must first deal with the nightmare of Chinese censorship.
The State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) — a group of 40 or so censors appointed by the Communist government — keeps a watchful eye to ensure not only that depictions of sex and violence are curbed but also that films “promote stability,” in the words of Janet Yang, the Chinese-American producer of The Joy Luck Club. Robert Cain, who focuses on Chinese productions for Pacific Bridge Pictures, told Britain’s Daily Telegraph: “Unless there is a flattering image of Chinese people, you are going to run into a challenge from the SARFT. The list of taboos is so long, it is very often too difficult to make anything entertaining.”
Sometimes the “adjustments” made to films are nothing more than business as usual. U.S.-Chinese co-productions don’t count against the foreign-film quota, so it’s no surprise that part of the upcoming Transformers 4 will be shot on location in China, with local actors rounding out the cast. Another co-production, Iron Man 3, flatters the Chinese by showing a protagonist who travels to China in order to see a particular renowned surgeon. But some co-productions are more iffy. The Hollywood Reporter says director Michael Mann’s next effort will feature a joint U.S.-China task force tracking down a deadly hacker in the Balkans. That is a howler given all the headlines on Edward Snowden and how our National Security Agency and Chinese military hackers are at war in cyberspace.
Bizarre and implausible plot lines aren’t the only problem. There is a lot of film censorship; and even more troublesome is the increasing amount of self-censorship by filmmakers who wish to anticipate what the Chinese objections might be.
Under pressure from Chinese censors, the most recent James Bond film, Skyfall, removed references to the sex trade in the Chinese territory of Macau as well as references to the torture of a British agent by Chinese officials. When Men in Black 3 was released in China, censors there had the studio excise scenes in which Will Smith erases memories of bystanders in New York’s Chinatown; authorities apparently feared that filmgoers would see the scenes as a comment on Chinese censorship of the Internet. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End saw half the scenes featuring Chinese pirate captain Sao Feng removed by censors because he was said to “vilify and deface the Chinese.”
But some Hollywood studios don’t even wait for the Chinese censors. Anxious about the Chinese response, the Brad Pitt film World War Z dropped the film’s reference to a worldwide plague of zombies originating in China. Red Dawn was a 1980s cult classic about Soviet troops that invade the U.S. and a group of teens that wage guerilla warfare against them. When MGM remade the film last year, the invaders were Chinese — at least until the film was released. Apparently to appease the Chinese, MGM spent $1 million on digitally erasing all Chinese symbols from military uniforms and vehicles, and replacing them with North Korean ones. Apparently the Pyongyang box office isn’t big enough to worry about offending.
No film is too big to avoid micromanagement. When Titanic 3D was submitted to the Chinese censors, they insisted that a scene in which Kate Winslet appears unclothed show her only from the neck up.
But director James Cameron sounded blasé about the censorship in an interview with the New York Times last year: “As an artist, I’m always against censorship. But censorship’s a reality, even in the U.S. . . . I can’t be judgmental about another culture’s process. I don’t think that’s healthy.”
The slightly taken-aback Times reporter later followed up: “Did you talk to other filmmakers — your peers — about Chinese censorship?
Cameron’s stunning response: “No. I’m not interested in their reality. My reality is that I’ve made two films in the last 15 years that both have been resounding successes here [in China], and this is an important market for me. And so I’m going to do what’s necessary to continue having this be an important market for my films. And I’m going to play by the rules that are internal to this market. Because you have to.” The Hollywood studio executives of the 1930s put it just about as plainly in their dealings with the Nazis, according to Ben Urwand’s book.
The “reality” faced by Chinese artists and filmmakers is dire indeed. Last April, the Chinese filmmaker Feng Xiaogang was honored by the China Film Directors Guild. Normally not one to rock any boats, Feng used his acceptance speech to rail against the “great torment” of censorship in China. He recently had his name removed from the credits of his new film, Mystery, to protest censorship directives placed on it. It’s no surprise that Feng’s attack on censorship was itself censored when it aired on Chinese television.
James Cameron doesn’t think it’s “healthy” for him to judge China’s governmental “process.” What is clear is that China isn’t healthy for artists, journalists, or dissidents. Reporters Without Borders lists China as 173rd in the world in terms of press freedom. Freedom in the World, the annual publication of the human-rights group Freedom House, had this to say about modern China in its 2012 report:
The Communist Party showed no signs of loosening its grip on power in 2011. Despite minor legal improvements regarding the death penalty and urban property confiscation, the government stalled or even reversed previous reforms related to the rule of law, while security forces resorted to extralegal forms of repression. Growing public frustration over corruption and injustice fueled tens of thousands of protests and several large outbursts of online criticism during the year. The party responded by committing more resources to internal security forces and intelligence agencies, engaging in the systematic enforced disappearance of dozens of human rights lawyers and bloggers, and enhancing controls over online social media.
Freedom House gives China a rating of 6.5 on its scale of civil and political liberties, with 1 being the best and 7 the worst. Its reports on Chinese-occupied Tibet are even grimmer. And could even worse abuses be taking place out of view, as was the case in Nazi Germany?
It’s not that Hollywood representatives are blind to the problems with giving in to Chinese censorship. But they show zero moral courage, and future generations may well fault them for it, just as today we are coming to condemn the way Hollywood tiptoed around the Nazi issues in the 1930s.
“The adjustment of some of our films for different world markets is a commercial reality, and we recognize China’s right to determine what content enters their country,” a statement from the Motion Picture Association of America to the Associated Press in April read. “Overall, our members make films for global audiences, and audiences’ tastes and demands evolve, and our members respond to those changes. But we also stand for maximum creative rights for artists.” Just don’t expect Hollywood to do much about it, short of an unlikely U.S.-led consumer boycott.
I worked in Hollywood once upon a time, so I understand the argument that business is business. While believing that the U.S. should press the Chinese regime on human rights. I also support trade with China — trade and cultural exchanges are helpful overall to the Chinese people. But Hollywood should spare us the cant about standing up for creative rights when too many people in Hollywood are focused on bending low to appease Chinese censors who control access to that country’s burgeoning box-office profits.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.