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.”
Thank God nothing like that oily surrender of artistic freedom could happen in Hollywood today. Or is it happening today, if we look at show-business relations with the authoritarian regime in China? After all, China is a “terrific” market for Hollywood executives that has them kowtowing to Chinese censors and even jumping into self-censorship to curry favor with them.
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.”