The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How China followed Nazi Germany’s Hollywood playbook

Painted portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and late communist leader Mao Zedong at a market in Beijing on Sept. 19, 2017. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP Contributor/AFP via Getty Images)
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In his new book about the evolving relationship between the American film industry and the Chinese Communist Party, “Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy,” Erich Schwartzel takes a brief detour to remind us of another authoritarian regime that hoped to bring Hollywood to heel via economic power.

Prior to World War II, Germany was one of the biggest markets for U.S. films. Universal execs were sure they had a hit on their hands in both American and German markets with their adaptation of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Erich Maria Remarque’s classic antiwar novel. But the nascent Nazis, not yet fully in power in 1930, had other plans.

“Brownshirts in the audience yelled as the film appeared on-screen,” Schwartzel writes of opening night. “Joseph Goebbels, a failed novelist a few years away from becoming the most famous propagandist of the twentieth century, addressed the crowd. Hollywood had come to Germany to sully its reputation, Goebbels told the faithful.”

Universal scrubbed the film of anything that might offend Nazi sensibilities; after the studio resubmitted it, German authorities demanded the film be shown in the censored form around the world. And then they applied that ideal to all films: “In 1932 the German government, riding a wave of nationalist sentiment, introduced Article 15, a provision that gave Germany the right to cancel distribution agreements with any studio that produced a film it found offensive.”

While Schwartzel is understandably cautious about comparing the CCP to Nazism — though China’s ethnic cleansing of the Uyghurs and repression of Tibet should obviate some of that caution — the parallels between Chinese and German censorship efforts are obvious to anyone who has followed Hollywood’s travails in China.

As it is now with China, Hollywood was famously wary in its onscreen treatment of Nazis. As Chris Yogerst noted in his book “Hollywood Hates Hitler!,” part of that hesitance had to do with isolationist sentiment on the home front. Studio heads, many of them Jewish, feared that showing German aggression against Jews would incur the wrath of politicians and voters who hoped to keep the United States out of another war.

There were business reasons to avoid antagonizing Hitler, too. “Paramount claimed, ‘It is only logical for us to do business wherever profitable as an obligation to our shareholders,’ ” Schwartzel recounts. MGM made similar excuses. Money made it difficult to take a stand, as Thomas Doherty recounts in his history of the period, “Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939.”

And Goebbels understood the power of film. “We are convinced that the film is one of the most modern and far-reaching means for influencing the masses,” Doherty quotes Goebbels as saying. “A government can therefore not possibly leave the film world to itself.”

Mao Zedong agreed: “There is, in fact, no such thing as art for art’s sake,” Mao said. It’s why he banned Hollywood products during the Cultural Revolution and brought the Chinese film industry under state control. And it’s why, when Hollywood products began trickling back into the country during the 1990s, the Chinese used their burgeoning commercial muscle aggressively.

Martin Scorsese’s 1997 film, “Kundun,” based on the life of the Dalai Lama, was of particular concern to Chinese officials. When filming began, Chinese bureaucrats told Disney executives to kill the movie, lest they find themselves blackballed from China and lose out on the dreams of opening a theme park for the billion-plus who lived there. Chief Executive Michael Eisner strangled the film in the crib.

“They would release the movie, but as quietly as possible,” Schwartzel writes. “They would spend as little money as possible to market the film in a limited release. Once the dearth of marketing led to lousy returns in its opening weeks, Disney would have justification to tell Scorsese that it wasn’t worth expanding to theaters nationwide.”

Disney still found itself in hot water for years afterward. In a moral atrocity the likes of which are rarely seen even in Hollywood, Eisner begged forgiveness and bragged that few people had seen the film.

Over the next quarter-century that playbook would spread to every studio. Some self-censored, as when MGM realized it could not release the remake of “Red Dawn” until it had changed the Chinese villains to North Koreans. More frequently, China would simply be dropped as a potential villain. And occasionally, Chinese forces would be portrayed as heroic defenders, as in “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”

Fear of losing hundreds of millions in Chinese box office dollars would keep the studios in line. But given Beijing’s reluctance in recent years to allow American studios access to Chinese audiences, one has to wonder how much longer that fear will maintain its potency. War ultimately ended Germany’s pressure campaign; China might simply overplay its hand.