Having resided in Cracow in the immediate aftermath of the events depicted in Schindler’s List (I was there during the trial of the sadistic Nazi murderer, Amon Goeth), I was greatly disappointed with Philip Gourevitch’s article, “A Dissent on Schindler’s List” [February]. That a contributing editor of the Forward (God help us!) cannot distinguish between Yiddish and Polish is difficult to believe: Oskar Schindler’s Jewish “investors” speak Polish, not Yiddish. It is equally hard to fathom that a Jewish reviewer writing in a leading Jewish journal is unaware that, upon moving, traditional Jews remove mezuzot from their doorposts when there is reason to believe that the next tenants would not be Jews. That is why, in the film, Cracow Jews leaving for the ghetto “are trying to pry the silver mezuzah from the door,” and not, as Mr. Gourevitch suggests, “because they have been stopped from grabbing [!] other valuables.”
Finally, and most offensively, Mr. Gourevitch writes: “And here are Jews as the SS invade their apartments. Are they consoling their children? No, they are making them eat jewels wadded in balls of bread.”
By the time the Cracow Jews began to be moved to the ghetto by the SS, their surviving children were beyond tears and beyond consolation. They were, in fact, no longer children. As for the diamonds wadded in balls of bread, they offered a slim chance of survival. Indeed, later in the film, Schindler uses these diamonds—perhaps the very same diamonds—to “buy” from a Nazi commander a trainload of Jewish women who would otherwise have been gassed in Auschwitz.
University of Illinois
To the Editor:
When I finished reading Philip Gourevitch’s “dissent” on Schindler’s List, it remained unclear to me what Mr. Gourevitch has against this “mega-production,” as he calls it. He himself concedes that it is the “most affirmative” film ever made about the Holocaust—by which, I take it, he means that Steven Spielberg has made a movie affirming the possibility of humanitarian effort even in a genocidal context and a movie, moreover, that can be shown to popular audiences, and need not be reserved exclusively for aficionados of “art films.”
I found the movie a powerful depiction of its excruciating subject. It amazed me at the time that I was inspired to endure these three painful hours and feel gratitude to Spielberg for the experience. My amazement and gratitude have not diminished.
It was inspiring to be shown how an initially unprincipled opportunist entrepreneur . . . was stirred, perhaps by his innate individualism, to do what he could to undermine the soulless bureaucratic machine which dominated his environment. It was not that Schindler appeared to be an ohev yisrael, a friend of the Jews, but that something in him, something ultimately mysterious but intensely humane, compelled him to discover a solidarity with “his” Jews, the Schindlerjuden.
I lost so many relatives in the Holocaust; maybe that is why I found the film so appealing and, finally, so uplifting. Is it a perfect film? What would a perfect film be about the Holocaust? For me it is enough that it is an extraordinarily—even though painfully—absorbing film which demonstrates the splendor of human sympathies and humanitarian passion.
The film has also left me feeling richer for my Jewishness, more appreciative of what that heritage stood for and stands for in the face of totalitarian evil. Again, a perfect film? What would that be? A moral film? In a profound sense, yes—hence, a film which has a claim to greatness, pace Philip Gourevitch!
[Rabbi] Uri D. Herscher
Executive Vice President
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Los Angeles, California
To the Editor:
It seems to me that there are two serious problems with Philip Gourevitch’s article.
- The movie is not about the Holocaust per se; it is about Oskar Schindler. Perhaps Mr. Gourevitch would have preferred a movie about the Holocaust, a movie that would, indeed must, be infused with the spirit of bottomless evil. Hollywood would not make such a movie and that is perhaps justification for criticism of Hollywood, but not of a movie that never claimed to do what Mr. Gourevitch wishes it had done.
- Mr. Gourevitch complains that we are given no reason why Schindler was a good person in a world of bad people. Let us ignore the overwhelming probability that critics would have seen such an analysis of Schindler’s development and motivation as “facile pop psychology.” There is an even better reason for the film’s avoiding such an analysis: neither the evidence of experiential anecdote nor the attempts of rigorous research to determine how roots of goodness could have survived in the soil of evil have discovered anything at all. About the best anyone has come up with has been a “finding” that the Schindlers “see people who are different from themselves as still being human.” Such a “finding” might be meaningful if identification of this virtue had been made before the Holocaust (so that the behavior of the Schindlers could have been predicted). But this was not the case. “Seeing people who are different from themselves as still being human” gives us no explanation of development and motivation, but merely restates the question: why were the Schindlers capable of “seeing people who are different from themselves as still being human”?
We do not know why the Schindlers were capable of this, and this is why Schindler’s List refused, quite properly, to try to tell us.
New York City
To the Editor:
I was privileged to view Schindler’s List at a preview intended for survivors whose lives had been saved by Oskar Schindler. We were graced by the presence of Mrs. Schindler and honored by the many who were there by the grace of her husband’s action.
Despite being fascinated by the replaying of events, long hidden behind an opaque curtain of pseudo-normalcy, I tried to focus on the faces of my Cracovian brethren and gauge their reaction as they searched for the facsimiles of themselves, played by unfamiliar actors. Occasional shrieks of recognition of places and events, mostly expressed by a deep “Oh my God,” and the sporadic appearance of handkerchiefs to wipe the streaming tears punctuated the viewing and then, a long eerie silence at the end of the film. The picture was over and no one was moving. Stunned, we stared at the credits rolling down the screen. Until someone’s loud exclamation, “incredible,” broke the spell.
No matter what the critics say, no matter what the public’s reactions, for us, the survivors, there is only one response, a response usually reserved for another survivor when he concludes giving public testimony. That is appreciatively and warmly to embrace Steven Spielberg in the silent act of bonding. . . .
West Hempstead, New York
To the Editor:
Philip Gourevitch has a big advantage over me: he has read Thomas Keneally’s novel, on which the Spielberg movie is based, as well as the reviews of the film, and made a general study of it, which I have not.
My (dubious) advantage over Mr. Gourevitch is that I myself am a Holocaust survivor and a five-year inhabitant of the Lodz ghetto.
In my opinion, although Mr. Gourevitch makes some valid points (Oskar Schindler, for example, should have been depicted more accurately), his critique is mostly nitpicking, written by a brainy technician with little heart or feeling.
The movie is a great historical contribution. It vividly depicts one aspect of Jewish life in Poland under the Nazis, the horrible terror. Perhaps the other aspects—the enormous, dehumanizing hunger and the unimaginably cruel, bone-chilling cold—did not apply as much to Schindler’s chosen group, but they certainly did apply to the general ghetto population. It would have been of great value had Spielberg shown at least a few of the emaciated faces, like death masks. Still, he deserves the gratitude of the whole civilized world. He certainly has mine.
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
For years, like many other Holocaust survivors, I have been writing and lecturing thousands of high-school and college students on the Holocaust and drawing on its lessons to point out the evil of racism and prejudice—to the detriment of my vocal chords and emotional life. In recognition of my efforts, the New York State Regents have honored me with the prestigious Louis E. Yavner Award.
Now Steven Spielberg has achieved what we, the survivors, have always wanted. By his use of a mass medium to unprecedented effect, millions of uninformed viewers whom we could have never reached will, hopefully, learn about the most horrible crime in history.
But here comes Philip Gourevitch and takes up four pages of COMMENTARY to nitpick and find some faults in Spielberg’s universally praised film. Mr. Gourevitch begins by suggesting that warning labels of “nudity,” “violence,” or the “titillating euphemism” of “adult situations” be applied to the movie because of its scenes of naked Jews being herded to their deaths in gas chambers. By now Mr. Gourevitch must have learned that stripping the victims of their clothes and hair was part of the Nazi attempt to dehumanize them. Had Spielberg shown them fully dressed in those instances, Mr. Gourevitch would probably have accused him of inaccuracies.
Likewise, Mr. Gourevitch’s report that Spielberg’s team sought 800 people who looked “‘stereotypically Semitic,’ . . . with thick lips, big noses, dark curly hair” for casting in the film, ends with the unfounded assertion that “Spielberg’s Jewish caricatures . . . seem lifted . . . from the pages of Der Stuermer.” Had Spielberg enlisted a crowd of typical blond and blue-eyed Cracow residents, Mr. Gourevitch would have complained of miscasting the Schindlerjuden.
The reviewer speculates at length about Oskar Schindler’s motives, the “unfathomable mystery” of his decency, and is irked that “Spielberg offers no clues” and no “coherent motive” to explain why Schindler acted as he did to save his Jews, unlike in the Keneally book, where Schindler is depicted as “motivated by disgust, which is to say a sense of common humanity.”
Of course, in a film without a narrator, the viewer does not have to be told—the hero’s feelings are evident from the actor’s facial expressions and behavior. But Mr. Gourevitch was so busy counting the pistol shots (“By my count, Jewish heads explode in Schindler’s List at an average rate of one every twelve minutes”) that he did not see the inner emotions shown by Liam Neeson (Schindler) when he witnessed the liquidation of the ghetto and the brutality of the SS. And it was when Schindler realized that the Nazis had changed from ghettoizing Jews and using them as laborers to a policy of extermination that he became passionately involved in saving Jewish lives.
Mr. Gourevitch somehow gets lost in his own confusion: first he states that “From start to finish, . . . Spielberg’s Schindler is simply another Nazi who regards the killing of Jewish slaves as a senseless business practice” (emphasis added). But a few paragraphs later, he contradicts himself by saying, “Schindler’s passion for saving Jews and for sabotaging efforts to exterminate them completely outweighs his passion for money.” Elsewhere, he reminds us that Schindler “used all his considerable financial and human resources to save from extermination the more than 1,100 Jews he employed as slave laborers. . . . By the war’s end, he is close to bankrupt.”
Actually, Schindler did not employ his Jews as slave laborers, although by the prevailing rules their wages had to be paid to the SS. But the Schindlerjuden were well-treated, well-fed, and protected. No wonder that many Jews vied for jobs at his factory.
On the positive side, we hear that Schindler’s List is enjoying great success in Germany, where a new generation of Germans will be exposed to vivid images of the Holocaust. In this connection, I wonder if the film’s title has been kept; if so, German viewers will read it as “Schindler’s Cunning” (a translation of the German word list), a fairly appropriate description of Schindler’s actions, both as a profiteering industrialist and as a rescuer of Jews from the hell of Auschwitz. . . .
Holocaust Resource Center and Archives
Queensborough Community College-CUNY
Bayside, New York
To the Editor:
Although in general I respect Philip Gourevitch’s assessment of Schindler’s List, I would have preferred that he had not made such a . . . prejudicial reference to Jews looking as if they had been “lifted from the pages of Der Stuermer”— especially since, in at least one instance (the scene involving the mezuzah), Mr. Gourevitch plainly misinterprets a depiction of evident religious devotion as one of pecuniary greed. . . .
Seth A. Halpern
Scarsdale, New York
To the Editor:
. . . Before I went to see Schindler’s List, I was skeptical and acutely worried that the film’s predominantly Christian audience would be viewing a gratuitous Hollywood version of the Holocaust, showing some good Nazis and some evil Jews—all, hunted and hunter alike, depicted as universal victims. I was also painfully aware that among those who watched it with me, too few would ever read Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 or watch Marcel Ophuls’s documentary film, The Sorrow and the Pity. But what I saw was a masterful and accurate movie which avoids cliches. The Jews in the film are not a “cowering mob or . . . a shrieking, scampering mob,” as Philip Gourevitch describes them. They are defenseless, terrified, and wretched. Nor is the Jewish investor in the car with Schindler “scrunched, simian-looking, grunting in Yiddish,” as Mr. Gourevitch maintains. He is, rather, an elderly, pathetic man who is asked to give money to a Nazi (Schindler) and who knows he has no choice. . . .
What is truly enraging is Mr. Gourevitch’s contention that the Jews in the movie look like cartoons from Der Stuermer, and his assertion that because of their “thick lips, big noses, dark curly hair and even darker eyes . . . [they] hardly need yellow stars to be identified.” The movie shows Jews—ugly, plain, beautiful. That is how we look. Go to Crown Heights, the jewelry district in New York City, concerts, theaters, and markets. That is what we look like. Add period clothes and that is how we looked. Would Mr. Gourevitch have preferred glamor?
The movie is not perfect, nor can it legitimately be called a “document,” but the film and Steven Spielberg deserve more credit than they get in Mr. Gourevitch’s niggardly and insulting review.
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . Philip Gourevitch’s chief objection to Schindler’s List is that Steven Spielberg “introduc[es] the suggestion of moral ambiguity into the Holocaust.” This derives, it seems, from the “enigmatic” character of Schindler’s decency in the film, as compared with the Keneally book: the fact that he is never shown to renounce his Nazism.
I am mystified that anyone could view this film and not see in the progression of Schindler’s actions a renunciation, if not repudiation, of Nazism. The film reports historical events: Oskar Schindler was a Nazi-party member who, despite his corrupt origins, took great personal risks to save over a thousand lives. Where is the moral ambiguity in this portrayal?
In his eagerness to find fault, Mr. Gourevitch raises several other points that do not withstand scrutiny.
As evidence that “Schindler is simply another Nazi who regards the killing of Jewish slaves as a senseless business practice,” he cites Schindler’s protest to the SS that he expects compensation when a worker is shot. It is hard to see what other reaction was possible in that context, even if Schindler were genuinely pained at the senseless killing and wanted to prevent its recurrence (“You know, killing Jews is not ethical” surely would not have sufficed). . . .
Mr. Gourevitch (along with some other reviewers) objects that few Jews are “individuated from the mob of victims.” This, of course, was Spielberg’s intent. This film is not about the plight of a person or a family. It is about the Shoah, an event whose enormity is not grasped by most Americans, a project which came all too close to “succeeding” precisely because the Nazis stripped the Jews of their individual identities as humans. If this point alone is understood by its viewers, Schindler’s List will have accomplished something.
Lawrence, New York
To the Editor:
In rereading Philip Gourevitch’s article, I was struck by a certain cattiness that seems to infuse his remarks, as if it were somehow obscene that Steven Spielberg should be so universally lauded for this movie. For some people, I suppose, there is a certain “enshrinement” of the Holocaust so that it can never be adequately portrayed by people who did not experience it first-hand.
Mr. Gourevitch stretches hard to make his points, most of which appear to me to be rather picayune. . . . As far as Jewish jewels are concerned, Mr. Gourevitch either does not know or conveniently ignores the age-old custom, dating back to medieval persecution, when Jews fleeing to other lands sewed diamonds and other jewels into their robes. It was their only means of future economic survival. In the Cracow ghetto there was not always time for this delicate arrangement, so having children swallow jewels was a normal, albeit frantic, variation.
Mr. Gourevitch misses the entire point of Spielberg’s presentation. Most people tend to think of the Holocaust in terms of the murder of six million. But looking beneath this stupefying tragedy, one is forced to contemplate the real horror of the Nazi era: the wretched philosophy of National Socialism which dehumanized Jews—which viewed them as a subhuman species that had infected the world too long. It was this warped and horrifying doctrine that Hitler appropriated as justification for the SS and their willing cohorts in the East to exterminate Jews as one would spray mosquitoes or step on roaches, while all but a few of their countrymen watched passively or secretly applauded. Hence Spielberg accurately depicts Amon Goeth picking off Jewish prisoners from his balcony with no more compunction than if he were shooting an odd sparrow. . . .
This dehumanizing aspect of the Holocaust, I feel, is what Steven Spielberg, more than anyone else up to this point, has succeeded in showing. It was precisely why he chose to eschew developing individual characters. The impact would have been lessened, and he wanted it squarely in our faces for two-and-a-half hours—and, it is hoped, for all time and for all future generations.
Palm Harbor, Florida
To the Editor:
Philip Gourevitch’s petulance is so pervasive that it blinds him to certain realities and concepts, concerning which he should know better. A few examples . . .: Mr. Gourevitch scoffs at the randomness of Steven Spielberg’s “exploding heads,” occurring by his calculation “once every twelve minutes.” But randomness amid the organized horror is precisely the point being made. . . . If Spielberg cuts to scenes of Nazis dallying with Aryan women, he is simply demonstrating the juxtaposition of hell and hedonism; so near each other geographically, yet so removed. . . .
Mr. Gourevitch is very unhappy with the Jewish businessman who exclaims, “money is still money,” at the time Schindler is seeking investors for his factory. But during this period, when the “Final Solution” was not yet apparent, Jews, though desperate and terrified, strove for normalcy in their lives. While unfortunately not pictured either in the book or the movie, the range of Jewish cultural, religious, educational, health-related, and philanthropic activities was enormous. As Emmanuel Ringelblum documents in his Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, wealthy Jews contributed astounding sums of money for the relief of fellow Jews. The ghettos spawned an extensive responsa literature as observant Jews, trying to cling to some semblance of life as they understood it, sought halakhic answers to unprecedented situations. That a businessman was thinking about money at that time is comprehensible and realistic.
Straying from criticism of the film, Mr. Gourevitch feels obliged to bash some of the more laudatory reviews, and Spielberg himself. Why is Mr. Gourevitch so upset that Spielberg seems to have rediscovered his Jewish identity? In interviews in which the issue surfaces, Spielberg comes across as remarkably sincere. If, as Mr. Gourevitch claims, Spielberg equated himself with an actual Holocaust survivor, that is unfortunate; but if in exhorting his cast he stated, “We are not making a film, we are making a document,” that is unexceptionable. The film is not a documentary witness, but it can nonetheless become an important secondary document.
Surprisingly, Mr. Gourevitch totally ignores one area in which the film is deficient, particularly as the subject was covered in the book. . . . Keneally describes a number of instances of sabotage by Cracow’s Jewish youths who dressed as SS officers and bombed restaurants and railroad stations. This was an important omission from the movie, as it would have taken a little edge off the portrait of unremitting Jewish helplessness, and yet Mr. Gourevitch, concerned about the Jews being seen as a “silent, cowering mob,” leaves it unremarked. . . .
I believe that in making Schindler’s List Spielberg had two goals—one fairly circumscribed, and the other more global. He set out to make the best film he could, not of the Einsatzgruppen, or the Warsaw-ghetto uprising, or the Kovno ghetto, but of the Oskar Schindler story. He knew that if he succeeded, his audiences would become more receptive to learning about the other horrors, tragedies, and terrors of the Holocaust, including the civilization that was destroyed virtually overnight. I think Spielberg has succeeded brilliantly.
Mr. Gourevitch is amused that President Clinton has “implored” the American public to see the film. The President was right on target.
New York City
To the Editor:
That Philip Gourevitch is made uncomfortable by the nearly universal praise that has thus far greeted Schindler’s List is not surprising; for too many critics, nothing succeeds like failure, and nothing fails like success. Films like Schindler’s List raise the ante to such heights that poor Steven Spielberg never had a chance. For where snatching the moral high ground is concerned, the artist simply cannot win, and critics like Mr. Gourevitch always do. Indeed, Spielberg and others—be they filmmakers or fictionists—are admonished to keep their distance from material that “artistic representation” should not—yes, cannot—touch. Unfortunately, such arguments end by advocating silence, and I have yet to find the measuring rod that can distinguish between the “silence” that allowed the Holocaust itself to happen and the presumably richer, better silence that stands before the Unspeakable in respectful awe. Given the choice, I will take Schindler’s List every time—even with the warts Mr. Gourevitch rightly points out.
To the Editor:
Philip Gourevitch’s article is a real trip. Perhaps it is best understood if read while stoned; otherwise, one’s heart might break to see an object of art so callously treated. . . .
The comedian Jackie Mason has told us that Jewish audiences were embarrassed because in his act he appeared “too Jewish.” One gets the impression that Mr. Gourevitch was similarly embarrassed by the film. He asks why Steven Spielberg had to hire such Semitic-looking actors to play Jews. Perhaps French peasant villagers would have been more appropriate. . . .
In the movie, Schindler witnesses the destruction of the Cracow ghetto. For Mr. Gourevitch, Schindler’s emotional reaction to this episode is caused only by regret that he will lose his source of cheap labor. But many people see the destruction of the ghetto as a turning point for Schindler; his humanity will no longer permit him to condone the behavior of his nation toward the Jews. He becomes a light in the darkness. How could Mr. Gourevitch have missed this?. . . .
In Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg has told the story of the Holocaust in a way that has not been matched. . . . It is not clear whether Mr. Gourevitch understands the magnitude of the Holocaust, but we hope his dissent will not diminish the magnificence of the film.
James B. Heft
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . If you believe there is at least a possibility that people may do good, even when it requires them to rise above themselves, you will not need to have explained to you why Schindler saved the Schindlerjuden. In the movie, Steven Spielberg does not, as Mr. Gourevitch claims, advance the “false and foolish notion that goodness is incomprehensible.” He assumes that it is comprehensible, on sight.
It is the barbarity of the Nazi Amon Goeth that comes closer than Oskar Schindler’s decency to being an “unfathomable mystery.” . . . Yet, unhappy as we must be that it is so, Goeth’s evil can be fathomed. How hard do we believe it would be, here and now, to find people who, given Goeth’s absolute power, would be as absolutely corrupted? Who would, specifically, as freely blow out the brains of Jews—or of homosexuals, blacks; whomever they despised? . . .
Of Schindler’s acts in “constantly enlarging the roster of his Jewish employees, often taking in people who seem less than able-bodied laborers,” Mr. Gourevitch says, “we never know why.” We do know; these acts speak for themselves. Despite the Nazi-party button in Schindler’s lapel, we have seen him show no sign of enthusiasm for Nazism. On the contrary, in the opening nightclub scene we have watched him happily hoodwink real Nazis. . . . His party button stands for expediency, not for conviction. It would be harder, more tortuous, more lacking in probable cause to think of a bad motive for Schindler’s acts than to accept as genuine the good motive which comes naturally to mind. And, after all, we take the movie as a whole. At the end, our good estimate stands confirmed. . . .
Mr. Gourevitch tells us of a casting call last year in Cracow, where Spielberg’s team sought stereotypically Semitic-looking people and says that “he certainly found them.” . . . What’s wrong with that? . . . Watching the movie’s Jews, I thought, over and over, they are real; I recognize them. . . .
It did not occur to me that a character pried the silver mezuzah from the door only because he was “stopped from grabbing other valuables.” He took it because of what it was, not what is was made of. Moreover, the glimpses of Jewish homes, from which we see the occupants being ejected, tell us more about the culture of these Jews than Mr. Gourevitch concedes. . . .
“Perhaps the strangest thing about Spielberg’s Jews is their accents,” Mr. Gourevitch says, and adds, “This may have been a deliberate directorial decision. . . .” So far, so good. But the accents do not make the “‘inhuman’ Jews sound as alien as possible.” They make them sound like the East European Jews we ourselves have known. The movie uses a mix of devices to give the speech of the characters “them” and “us” tags; “them” being the SS and their concentration-camp guards; “us” being Schindler and the Jews. . . .
No single film can tell all about the Shoah; this one could not tell more of Oskar Schindler’s life than the years it covered. What it tells, it tells in truth—not including a study of Nazi psychology (except for brief insights into Goeth). I learned from Mr. Gourevitch that “Spielberg has said that he deliberately eschewed interpretation in favor of reporting.” Just so.
Janis de Vries
Belle Mead, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Philip Gourevitch’s article is an outstanding example of an army of verbiage wandering over four pages in vain search of a thesis. Having decided not to like the movie, Mr. Gourevitch assigns himself the unhappy task of figuring out why and telling us. The points he makes are more or less trivial, but his biggest problem is that he misses the forest for the trees. The priority in this day and age is to show young people—and olderthan-young people who do not know—basically “what happened.” Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, Claude Lanzmann’s documentary film, Shoah, and others along the same line are, of course, outstanding statements, but box-office busts. Short of Spielberg’s Schindler, we are left with the Holocaust as a made-for-TV movie. That would surely make Oskar Schindler “roll over in his Jerusalem grave.”
New York Institute of Technology
Old Westbury, New York
To the Editor:
Philip Gourevitch’s dissent on Schindler’s List seems right on target in some respects, e.g., Spielberg’s “Jewish caricatures,” but way off the mark in others, most notably his criticism of Spielberg for not suggesting a motive for Schindler’s heroism.
Schindler was honored for his actions, not for his motives. . . . Mr. Gourevitch says that Spielberg’s unfathomable Schindler suggests moral ambiguity in right action. Not so; the action was unambiguously right; the person doing the action, however, was, like all of us I presume, a complex and complicated human being. . . .
To the Editor:
. . . To tell of the Holocaust in words, or in movies, or in any other form of communication is to demean the eternal message of the Shoah, and that should not be. But to let it fall from worldly memory would be the greater evil. Whatever the shortcomings of his film, Steven Spielberg has contributed as brilliantly as any man could to causing that which should be remembered to be remembered.
To the Editor:
Philip Gourevitch helped me personally dispel a sense of unease I felt upon viewing the movie. Mr. Gourevitch points to Thomas Keneally’s book on Schindler which clearly shows a man disgusted with Nazi atrocities and determined to oppose “the system” by both saving Jews and manufacturing defective munitions. But the movie version diminishes Schindler’s transformation into an anti-Nazi resister while fabricating an out-of-character ending showing a pitiful man calling himself a Nazi and criminal while moaning that he could have done more. But, as Mr. Gourevitch explains, this never happened. . . .
The moral awakening Schindler experienced is something millions of people are in need of today. The movie can serve to stimulate thinking, but it will take much to divert many viewers worldwide from a sense that the movie represents adventure and entertainment on a serious subject.
Robert J. Bonsignore
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
Philip Gourevitch’s superbly written and irrefutably argued “A Dissent on Schindler’s List” has my complete assent. I would, however, like to mention two other features of the film which increased my irritation when I saw it.
- The schmaltzy music, which was as necessary as adding salt to a schmaltz herring.
- The inclusion of a scene showing Schindler (Liam Neeson) copulating in bed with one of his courtesans. The depiction of the sexual struggle—accompanied by the usual grunts—has become a mandatory staple of Hollywood films, including this one. . . .
These two features, along with the points raised by Mr. Gourevitch, reinforce the conclusion that Steven Spielberg has Hollywoodized the Holocaust—the most tragic event in history.
To the Editor:
. . . On reading Philip Gourevitch’s article, I thought he was probably being too hard on the film. Later, after seeing it, I thought he was not hard enough. Steven Spielberg . . . has not escaped the animated cartoon style of all his previous work. All the characters are cardboard people, simplistically drawn, representing minuscule . . . aspects of true human character. Schindler’s List is unmoving and uninvolving, only helping us to distance ourselves from confrontation with the evil that is inherent in fallen man. . . .
Ellis H. Potter
Basel Christian Fellowship
Philip Gourevitch writes:
I stand corrected by Maurice Friedberg’s identification of the language spoken by Oskar Schindler’s Jewish “investor” as Polish and not Yiddish. Otherwise, however, I hold to my criticisms of Steven Spielberg’s version of Schindler’s List, and of the mindlessly inflated adulation with which the movie has generally been received.
Mr. Friedberg is one of several writers offended by my pointing to the obsession of Spielberg’s Jews with money and valuables. Of course I realize that “traditional Jews remove mezuzot from their doorposts when there is reason to believe that the next tenants would not be Jews.” If this is what Spielberg sought to represent, however, no one unfamiliar with the practice, or who does not know what a mezuzah is, would comprehend it—a serious defect in a movie whose partisans claim that it can serve as a definitive account of the destruction of European Jewry for a previously ignorant mass audience.
My purpose in describing the scene in which a Jew, being chased from his apartment by Nazis, tries to grab various valuable objects and only manages to get hold of his mezuzah was to convey what the movie looks like to a spectator with no prior knowledge of the world it purports to “document.” Jewish behavior, I wrote, is viewed in Spielberg’s movie entirely from the perspective of the German persecutors, and Jews are given virtually no voice to explain their perspective or their experience.
Several correspondents object to my comparison of the film’s Jewish extras to Der Stuermer cartoons, suggesting that I must be ashamed of how “we” look. My objection, however, was not to Jewish looks, which I go for, but to the film’s ham-fisted approach to those looks as the fieldmarks of an unsavory otherness. Indeed, the scene I referred to—in which Jewish black marketeers desecrate a Cracow cathedral with their dealings (a scene I could not find in Thomas Keneally’s “nonfiction novel” which was Spielberg’s source for the movie)—is simply a glossy Hollywood remake of any number of blood-libel cartoons. Whatever purpose Spielberg hoped this scene might serve, it certainly does not make Jews appear to movie audiences as “we” appear to “ourselves.”
This was also my complaint about the scene in which Jewish children are made to eat jewels wadded in balls of bread. Obviously it is a normal, and prudent, provision to take precious goods when being herded from one’s home, but I found it regrettable that Spielberg chose not to show expressions of the familial and spiritual community which often helped Jews to endure their ordeal as much as their salvaged diamonds. Mr. Friedberg maintains that Cracow’s Jewish children were “beyond tears and consolation . . . were, in fact, no longer children.” But of course they were children, and as countless testimonies of child-survivors make clear, the fact that they were robbed of the traditional shelters of childhood only made them more desperate for the affection and consolations that all children need.
Rabbi Uri D. Herscher stands out among my correspondents for being uncertain about what I had against Schindler’s List, and why I spoke of it as “the most affirmative film ever made about the Shoah.” What I meant, and what I said, is that in the movie’s depiction of the Nazi war against the Jews, the audience is largely protected from any intimate knowledge of the people who died.
But at this point I can hear the protest that, as Steven Goldberg puts it, Schindler’s List “ is not about the Holocaust per se; it is about Schindler.” Well, I refer Mr. Goldberg to Alfred Lipson and Jonathan Balsam. Schindler’s List, Mr. Lipson writes, will allow “millions of uninformed viewers” to “learn about the most horrible crime in history.” And Mr. Balsam asserts that “the film is not about the plight of a person or a. family. It is about the Shoah. . . .”
This confusion is inherent in Spielberg’s choice of material. Claude Lanzmann, the director of the nine-hour documentary, Shoah, and a self-described admirer of Spielberg, has written that as soon as he heard of the making of Schindler’s List, he said to himself:
Spielberg is going to find himself confronted with a dilemma: he cannot recount the story of Schindler without also telling what the Holocaust was; and how can he tell what the Holocaust was in recounting the story of a German who saved 1,100 Jews, since the overwhelming majority of Jews were not saved? . . . No, it did not happen like that for everyone. At Treblinka, or at Auschwitz, the question of salvation was not posed this way at all.
Schindler’s List can be expected to stand for some time as the primary transmission belt of Holocaust “history” in the world. While the tears of Mr. Lipson’s uninformed viewers and of survivors like Norbert Friedman and William Shattan may bring catharsis, they cannot wash away the fact that as a representation of the Holocaust, Spielberg’s movie, with its happy ending, is what Lanzmann calls “inverted history” and “kitschy melodrama.”
By invoking Lanzmann’s name, I realize I may be exposing myself to more charges of “art-house” elitism of the kind that abounds in these letters. William Shattan calls me “a brainy technician with little heart or feeling”; Ruth King calls me “niggardly”; Sam Tischler calls my remarks catty and “picayune”; Allen Bodner decries my “petulance”; Sanford Pinsker accuses me, against all evidence, of “advocating silence”; and James Heft and Ruth Weinshall advise readers to smoke dope before confronting my callous treatment of Spielberg’s “object of art.”
These populist put-downs smack of a bogus and distinctly condescending middlebrowism. Taken together, they seem to argue that Schindler’s List is above criticism because it brings an indisputably good message to the great unwashed. The writers of these letters, of course, do not count themselves among the unaware or the unwashed; not one of them claims to have been ignorant of the Holocaust before seeing the movie, or to have entered the theater without knowing in advance with whom he would identify; and none claims to have learned anything from Schindler’s List. Mr. Pinsker even says I am right to point out the film’s “warts,” but avers that its disfigured version of the Holocaust is nevertheless good enough for the masses.
The double standard that grants a sacred status to representations of the Holocaust, and to the emotions they stir up, reflects the dangerous trend I described in my article: confusing art with event and commemoration with experience. To judge by the heat of these letters, one might think I had been disputing the facts of the Holocaust itself rather than the manner in which Steven Spielberg chose to dramatize some of them in a Hollywood movie. It is incomprehensible to me that so many intelligent people, who do not, I suspect, like being talked down to, should jump on me as a snooty carper for attempting to view this movie soberly and seriously.
Some critics of Schindler’s List, Lanzmann among them, argue that it is impossible to represent the Holocaust in a dramatic film, or in any kind of fiction. I do not agree. Superb novels have been written about those years, about the process of extermination and also about resistance and survival: André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, Jiri Weil’s Life With a Star, Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When?, to name a few. On film, the great artistic representations have been documentaries: Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity and Hotel Terminus, and Lanzmann’s Shoah. Feature films that have treated the period most succesfully, like Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants, have wisely avoided the challenge of representing the Nazi killing machine in full force. But if the history of the Holocaust is still not universally known, the problem will not be solved by Hollywood.
Schindler was a remarkable man, and it is essential that the exceptional acts of resistance and defiance during the Holocaust by both Jews and Gentiles be told in any full accounting. But when the wish for heroes is allowed to adulterate history, the consequences are always perverse. A telling side-effect of Spielberg’s movie is that several former Nazi functionaries who have faced trials for war crimes—among them Jack Reimer of Lake Carmel, New York, and Paul Touvier in France—have developed what Jeffrey Goldberg of the Forward has called a “Schindler defense.”
Touvier, who served in a militia loyal to the Gestapo, sought acquittal for the murder of seven Jews on the grounds of extenuating circumstances: he had to kill the seven, he said at his recent trial (at which he was finally convicted), in order to save 93 others. Reimer, whose war record includes participation in at least one mass execution, told Goldberg: “Look at this Schindler. Here was a man who was a Nazi, who was in the Nazi party, and he saved the Jews. Now look at me. I wasn’t even a member of the Nazi party. I was not a Nazi. So why won’t they believe me when I say I did nothing?”
Such are the tinsel-town hopes that have been stirred by Schindler’s List. Ben Kingsley, who plays a Jew in the film, has said that Oscars are not enough for Steven Spielberg, he should get the Nobel Peace Prize. This asinine fantasy goes hand in hand with the remark of Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of the Walt Disney film studios, who recently told the Spielberg-crazed New Yorker magazine, “I don’t want to burden the movie too much, but I think it will bring peace on earth, good will to men.”
Meanwhile, back on planet earth, Steven Spielberg hefted his Academy Awards’ Oscar, giving thanks to his family and all the little people who made his happy moment possible—you know, “the six million who can’t be watching this among the two billion that are watching this telecast tonight.” To the many people who left Schindler’s List feeling “affirmed,” I can only say that although I experienced no such catharsis at the movie, Spielberg’s words made me want to weep.