When Arab censors, upset because Egyptian star Omar Sharif kissed Jewish star Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, effectively banned the film back in 1968, Streisand’s only weapon was a pointed joke. ”You think Cairo is upset?” she said at the time. ”You should have seen the letter I got from my aunt Rose.” But Streisand didn’t have the force of seven Academy Awards, an internationally important subject, or Steven Spielberg behind her. As Schindler’s List has opened overseas, it has been greeted primarily with rapture. And where it hasn’t, Hollywood clout is helping to rewrite foreign policy.
In Malaysia, which is 60 percent Muslim, the state censorship board initially banned Schindler’s List, saying it ”incites sympathy for one race,” and demanded 25 cuts in scenes with sex or violence. After that decision made headlines, Malay deputy prime minister Seri Anwar Ibrahim requested a second look at the film’s antigenocide message, and the ban was overturned, with a stipulation for seven cuts. But United International Pictures (UIP), the film’s distributor, has stated that no cuts will be made in the story of Oskar Schindler. An about-face occurred in the Philippines, where President Fidel V. Ramos overruled the censorship board, which had drawn irate newspaper editorials by asking for cuts in the film’s sex scenes. When UIP released the uncensored film in Manila, it played to overflow crowds. (There are no signs, however, that the Schindler’s ban will be overturned in Jordan, where Information Minister Jawad Al Anani explained that ”this is not an opportune time” to show a film sympathetic to Jews.)
The real surprise to Universal, which didn’t expect blockbuster business for its $23 million black-and-white drama, is the film’s success everywhere else, from English-speaking countries like England and Australia, to Brazil and Italy.
UIP now predicts that the film’s worldwide gross could total between $225 million and $250 million, more than half of which will come from abroad, not bad ”for a movie whose commercial expectations did not drive the decision to make it,” admits Universal chairman Tom Pollock.
In Germany, Schindler’s has surpassed its success in the U.S. (where it has reached fourth place) to become No. 1 at the box office. ”People realize this is a major film about a major issue,” says Georg Alexander, a film executive for ZDF-TV in Germany. ”Some are curious, others feel a need to go see it.” Audiences in Japan, where it hit No. 1, are moved as well. ”Asians like sentimental tearjerkers,” explains Hong Kong producer Terence Chang (Hard Target). ”(Schindler’s List) is a very touching story. And Spielberg is a big name, especially after Jurassic Park. In Japan, everybody thinks he is God.”