Commentary Magazine

A Dissent on “Schindler's List&rdquo

Moviegoers are by now accustomed to the brief warnings attached to ratings in newspaper reviews: “nudity,” “violence,” “language,” or that titillating euphemism, “adult situations.” Each of these tags might fairly be applied to Steven Spielberg’s latest mega-production, Schindler’s List, which is based on a true story of one Nazi’s humanitarian response to the annihilation of Polish Jewry during World War II.

Now-familiar images—naked Jews being herded to their deaths by cursing SS men, heaps of corpses, mass graves—are punctuated by shots of summary, often arbitrary, executions of individual Jews at close range by pistol fire. By my count, Jewish heads explode in Schindler’s List at an average rate of one every twelve minutes. Moments after the first of these nightmare images, and at intervals following other particularly ghastly episodes, Spielberg supplies emotional relief and contrast by cutting to shots of bare-breasted Aryan women dallying with their Nazi paramours. To contain the whole spectacle in a handy family advisory, USA Today coined a new phrase to follow the movie’s R rating: “Holocaust horrors.”

The shorthand is repellently apt—and yet Schindler’s List also happens to be the most affirmative movie ever made about the Shoah. Newspaper advertisements, which depict the massive hand of a bare-armed man reaching down to clasp the small hand of a child, leave no doubt that the film is meant to deliver an uplifting message.

That the hand of salvation belongs to a member of the Nazi party and the hand of the child belongs to a Jew condemned to death is precisely the sort of contrary-to-expectations drama with which Hollywood loves to reward its audiences. And Oskar Schindler—a Sudeten German entrepreneur in Nazi-occupied Cracow who used all his considerable financial and human resources to save from extermination the more than 1,100 Jews he employed as slave laborers—is the perfect matinee hero: he is an inscrutable individualist outlaw; he outfoxes the Nazis at their own game; he ensures that all the Jews whom the audience gets to know survive; and he challenges our received notions of history by showing that even during the Holocaust some of the bad guys were actually good guys.

It is not surprising, then, that Schindler’s List has been almost universally acclaimed by critics in the mainstream press. The collected reviews represent a kind of cultural grade inflation. “Rising brilliantly to the challenge of the material and displaying an electrifying creative intelligence, Mr. Spielberg has made sure that neither he nor the Holocaust will ever be thought of in the same way again,” crowed Janet Maslin in the New York Times. The New Yorker‘s Terrence Rafferty launched his ecstatic write-up by proclaiming that Schindler’s List is “a great movie, and, like all great works, it feels both impossible and inevitable.” The cover of Newsweek crowned it “movie of the year,” as did the New York Film Critics’ Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Association. David Denby, in New York magazine, reached, Spielberg-like, for the extraterrestrial: “It’s as if [Spielberg] understood for the first time why God gave him such extraordinary skills.” To top all this off, President Clinton “implored” the American public to see it.

Schindler’s List is certainly an impressive cinematic achievement, confirming—in case anyone doubted it—Spielberg’s technical mastery of his medium. Except for a few regrettable minutes of color footage at the beginning and the end, the movie’s three-plus hours are filmed in exquisite black and white. The lush inky pallet serves the director’s desired newsreel/ documentary look perfectly, making the historical material appear more familiar by coloring it according to its period. The film’s tone might best be described as one of intimate distance, staying very close to the action but never claiming to know more than meets the eye.

That said, however, Spielberg’s supremacy as a visual stylist is deeply undercut by his conventionality as a storyteller. Although Oskar Schindler’s career was nothing if not extraordinary, Spielberg’s direction serves it up in broad, safe strokes, by turns simplifying or exaggerating each scene to give it the maximum emotional wallop. He is a master of tightly choreographed scenes of mass chaos, but his affection for action-driven visual narration and relatively spare dialogue comes at the expense of compelling characterization; whenever people do talk for long, their speeches tend to be generic and melodramatic.

As a result, from a cast of thousands, few characters emerge with any individuality. Even the principals are ultimately little more than ciphers, collections of attributes unilluminated from within. Spielberg has said that he deliberately eschewed interpretation in favor of reporting, but in the case of Schindler, whose point of view governs the film, the director’s refusal to provide even a suggestion of a coherent motive for bucking the Nazi tide is particularly egregious.

Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) is introduced to us in a Gatsbyesque sequence at a smoky, boozy nightclub in Cracow, where he is already winning over the local Nazi brass. In short order we recognize that Schindler, who has come to town with a big enamel swastika bullseye pinned to his lapel, is the ultimate German good-ol’-boy, a smooth-talking, smooth-dressing, high-living ladies’ man with a limitless capacity for alcohol and an idée fixe: to become fabulously rich on the spoils of war, by any means possible.

Soon Schindler meets Itzhak Stern (Ben Kinglsey), holed up in a back office at the Nazi-appointed local Jewish council, and proposes that Stern help him find investors to acquire a metalwork factory that has been confiscated from its Jewish owners. Stern agrees, a deal is struck, and the factory is gotten ready to crank out pots and pans for the German army. Schindler decides to hire Jews as his employees, for the simple reason that they cost less than Poles. For their part, even though their wages go directly to the SS and they never see a penny for their labor, Stern and the others quickly recognize that their status as workers “essential to the war effort” may help to protect them.

Everybody has a price in Schindler’s netherworld, and he is careful to ensure his enterprise by regularly dispensing handsome bribes and gifts to all the appropriate Nazi officials. When his workers are commandeered to shovel snow, and one of them is shot, Schindler protests to the SS that he is losing production time, and, besides, he expects to be compensated for the loss of “his” worker.

From start to finish, in other words, Spielberg’s Schindler is simply another Nazi who regards the killing of Jewish slaves as a senseless business practice. Although he is seen to be constantly enlarging the roster of his Jewish employees, often taking in people who seem less than able-bodied laborers, we never know why. When anyone thanks him for providing a haven, or calls him “good,” he dismisses the acknowledgment in apparent anger. He could be bluffing, aware that once his cover is blown it can never be reestablished, but Spielberg offers no clues.

In due course, the Cracow ghetto is liquidated. Schindler, apparently upset, watches from a ridge above the action, but when the hellish quarter-hour scene is over, we see him standing alone in his office, staring down at the deserted factory floor; the impression is that, for him, the unbearable brutality he has just witnessed amounts simply to a reversal of his financial fortunes. Of course, he bounces back. Following the Jews out to the newly opened Plaszow concentration camp, he plies the hyper-sadistic commandant, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), with liquor and bribes, winning permission to rent “his” Jews back and continue factory production.



As the Jews’ predicament steadily worsens, Schindler’s acts of protection increase, and self-interest becomes an increasingly inadequate explanation of his motive. But the movie suggests no alternative. Schindler’s decency is presented as a kind of enigmatic equivalent of Goeth’s barbarity. The one protects Jews, the other likes to start his day by sniping at them from the porch of his villa. Both forms of behavior are unfathomable mysteries.

Finally, when Plaszow is about to be liquidated and the Jews sent to Auschwitz, Schindler composes his famous list, arranging to purchase “his” Jews from Goeth with suitcases of money, and to have them transported to a new factory-camp in his hometown of Brinnlitz, Czechoslovakia. By now, though, it is obvious that Schindler’s passion for saving Jews and for sabotaging efforts to exterminate them completely outweighs his passion for money. When a train of women bound from Plaszow to Brinnlitz is accidentally rerouted to Auschwitz, he rushes to the death camp and hands out diamonds until all of them are returned. At Brinnlitz, he operates a munitions factory for nearly a year, and sees to it personally that everything he produces is defective, that not a single shell he manufactures can be used. By the war’s end, he is close to bankrupt.

On V.E. day, Schindler convenes all the Schindlerjuden, as they have come to be known, and delivers a speech, refusing any thanks and declaring: “I’m a member of the Nazi party. I’m a munitions manufacturer. I’m a profiteer of slave labor. I’m a criminal. After midnight I’ll be hunted.” Later, fleeing the Brinnlitz camp, he breaks down in a maudlin speech, lamenting that he did not do more to save Jews. But to the last frame, we are denied any indication of why Schindler acted as he did.



After seeing the movie of Schindler’s List, I read the clunky but compelling novel by Thomas Keneally on which it is based. There, unlike in Spielberg’s version, the transformation of Schindler from a gung-ho Nazi war profiteer to a rescuer is presented with subtle complexity. True, Keneally does not claim to understand his hero, but he does offer convincing evidence that although Schindler wore his Nazi-party membership on his lapel to the bitter end, the liquidation of the Cracow ghetto turned him into a convinced anti-Nazi. For Keneally’s Schindler, who is presumably the real Schindler, the Aktion in the ghetto triggers a premonition that the Nazi objective is not just the enslavement of Jewry, but the annihilation of the entire people. “Beyond this day,” Keneally quotes Schindler as saying, “no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system.”

Unlike in the movie, Keneally’s Schindler does not hide his intentions from his Jewish associates, and he even welcomes contacts with underground couriers from Jewish relief organizations, traveling secretly to Budapest to brief Zionist agents on the escalation of the war against the Jews. When he hears the news of an attempt on Hitler’s life, he sits drinking with a Jewish employee: “‘If it was true,’ said Oskar, ‘then Germans, ordinary Germans like himself, could begin to redeem themselves. Purely because someone close to Hitler had had the guts to remove him from the earth.’”

Keneally’s Schindler is motivated by disgust, which is to say a sense of common humanity. He comes to identify himself with the Jews he saves, not exactly as a fellow victim of the Nazis but as a fellow prisoner of an abominable system. He is hardly a man of “virtue” (as Keneally calls him), but he has become unambiguously righteous. When he leaves Brinnlitz he gives a speech, but in it he says nothing about being a Nazi, a slave-labor profiteer, or a criminal, nor does he break down in self-pity over having failed to do more.

Unlike Spielberg, finally, Keneally follows Schindler after the war. His career is marked by alcoholism and bankruptcy, as he lives in unhappy profligacy off the generosity of those he saved. When he is honored by Yad Vashem in the 1960’s, reports of his wartime activities appear in German newspapers and he is cursed and attacked by Germans on the streets near his Frankfurt home. Punching out a man who calls him a “Jew-kisser,” he is hauled into court and forced to pay a fine. “‘I would kill myself,’” he writes to one of the surviving Schindlerjuden, “‘if it wouldn’t give them so much satisfaction.’”

This, in sum, is a very different Oskar Schindler from the tough, silent anti-superhero Steven Spielberg has served up. Spielberg’s elisions strip Schindler of his human complexity and replace it with—nothing. By robbing us of Schindler’s renunciation of Nazism, even in private, Spielberg gives us a simply enigmatic creation, the good Nazi. See, the director seems to be saying, heroism is ambiguous, goodness is ambiguous, right action, decency, fellow feeling—all ambiguous. And for this, for introducing the suggestion of moral ambiguity into the Holocaust, the very heart of the absolute, he has won the ecstatic plaudits of the critics.



But there is also something else at work in the critical excitement that has greeted Schindler’s List. The celebration, which has had the air of a belated coming-of-age party, seems motivated at times less by what the movie says than by the fact that Steven Spielberg made it. The forty-six-year-old wizard has proved that he can move beyond Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, E.T., etc. to grapple at last with—well, yes—“adult situations.” The New Republic‘s Stanley Kauffmann sums up the mood: “This film is a welcome astonishment from a director who has given us much boyish esprit, much ingenuity, but little seriousness. . . . This may be the start of a new period of Spielberg’s career—Part Two: The Man.”

Spielberg himself has been pleased to join in the general happiness—and to add still another note to it. In numerous interviews pegged to the opening of Schindler’s List, he has not only contemplated his newly-discovered gravity with childlike amazement but has tied it to the discovery of his own Jewishness. Thus, confiding to Newsweek that during the making of the movie he was “frightened every day,” the director quickly added:

I sound pretentious, like some kind of European artist or something. Because I’ve not had personal experiences in the making of my films. . . . Now I go to Poland and I get hit in the face with my personal life. My upbringing. My Jewishness. The stories my grandparents told me about the Shoah. And Jewish life came pouring back into my heart. I cried all the time.

Spielberg also confided to Newsweek, “I wanted to tell people who had told me to be ashamed of my Jewishness that I was so proud to be a Jew.”

Reports of Spielberg’s Jewish awakening have led to the notion that Schindler’s List is somehow a “Jewish movie.” It is not. Although it takes as its epigraph the (slightly mangled) words from the Talmud, “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire,” Schindler’s List depicts the Nazi slaughter of Polish Jewry almost entirely through German eyes. Except for Itzhak Stern, played by Ben Kingsley (of Gandhi fame) in his trademark performance of phenomenally vain modesty, few Jewish figures are individuated from the mob of victims. When Jews are seen on their own, the camera eyes them with the detachment of a National Geographic ethnographic documentary.

Last year, the English-language Warsaw Voice described a casting call in Cracow, where most of the film was shot: Spielberg’s team sought “about 800 people, especially families, who look stereo-typically Semitic.” He certainly found them; with their thick lips, big noses, dark curly hair and even darker eyes, those cast as Jews in this film hardly need yellow stars to be identified. And as for their behavior, J. Hoberman (whose negative review of Schindler’s List in the Village Voice registered a rare dissent) captured it well: “Relegated to supporting parts in their own cataclysm, they hang around the Cracow ghetto . . . making Jewish jokes.”

Some of Spielberg’s Jewish caricatures, indeed, seem lifted less from the self-mockery of Catskill tummlers than from the pages of Der Stuermer. Straying once again from Keneally’s book, the director makes a Catholic church the base-camp of Cracow’s Jewish black marketeers; crouched over folded hands, they conduct business while Mass is being recited in Latin. When Stern brings a Jewish investor to meet with Schindler in his car, we see the money man as Schindler would see him, scrunched, simian-looking, grunting in Yiddish with a colleague and protesting, “Money’s still money.” 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. Are they praying? No, they are trying to pry the silver mezuzah from the door because they have been stopped from grabbing other valuables.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Spielberg’s Jews is their accents. Everyone in the film sounds foreign—few members of the cast are native English-speakers, and none of the leading actors is American—but while the Aryans’ accents are light, elegant, unidentifiable, the Jews sound fresh off the boat. This may have been a deliberate directorial decision, underscoring the film’s German point of view by making the “inhuman” Jews sound as alien as possible. But whatever the reason, the effect is that these Cracow Jews seem more like foreigners—in their own hometown—than the invader from Vienna, Amon Goeth.

All this might not be so bad if Jews in the movie were at least allowed to say something perceptive about their plight. For the most part, however, they are viewed either as a silent, cowering mob or as a shrieking, scampering mob. Of course, during the Holocaust Jews were sometimes reduced to such extremes; but hardly all, and never always.



In the final moments of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, Angels in America, a man suffering from AIDS watches an angel come crashing through the ceiling of his apartment, and gasps in campy esctasy: “How Steven Spielberg!” Now Steven Spielberg has made a movie about the Nazi war against the Jews, and the world gasps, “How Holocaust.”

But is it? This film, writes Janet Maslin, “begins with the sight of Jewish prayer candles burning down to leave only wisps of smoke, and there can be no purer evocation of the Holocaust than that.” Of Spielberg’s depiction of the liquidation of the Cracow ghetto, Terrence Rafferty writes: “In this turbulent and almost unbearably vivid fifteen-minute sequence the Holocaust, 50 years removed from our contemporary consciousness, suddenly becomes overwhelming immediate, undeniable.”

Such absurdities—does it really take Steven Spielberg to render the Holocaust “undeniable”?—echo Spielberg’s own claim, unquestioned by reviewers, that the making of Schindler’s List constitutes an act of documentary witness. “I recreated these events and then I experienced them as any witness or victim would have,” Spielberg told Newsweek. “It wasn’t like a movie.” In Time he is reported as having instructed his cast, “We’re not making a film, we’re making a document.”

This is perhaps the most pernicious notion that has become attached to Schindler’s List—that it is somehow more than a movie, more than a simulation: that it is “the real thing.” Yet to confuse any aesthetic representation with the object represented is either to participate, or to be lost, in a lie. In the case of the Holocaust, it would seem a matter of particular urgency not to confuse fact with fiction, reality with illusion.

The equation of artifice with historical artifact quickly leads to even broader distortions: Terrence Rafferty, for instance, suggests that Spielberg’s accomplishment as a director is “nearly as miraculous” as Oskar Schindler’s acts of salvation. This impulse to crown memorializers of the Holocaust as heroes themselves—as if those who look back upon the event were actually living through it—is an all-too-common mode of contemporary flattery.

Worse, it is plainly anti-historical. Hailing Spielberg’s “visionary clarity,” Rafferty quotes the critic James Agee on the Civil War scenes in D.W. Griffith’s epic The Birth of a Nation (1915): “A perfect realization of a collective dream of what the Civil War was like, as veterans might remember it 50 years later, or as children, 50 years later, might imagine it.” In fact, Agee’s observation is better taken as a criticism of Schindler’s List than as a salute to it. Veterans’ memories and children’s imaginations are notoriously unreliable sources of historical representation; they tend to be idealized and clichéd—in a word, cartoonish—which is precisely the quality Spielberg brings to the Holocaust.



Spielberg has not been alone recently in promoting the possibility of confusion on these matters. Indeed, historians of American mass culture may look back on 1993 as the year of the Holocaust. Even as polls have shown that Americans’ awareness of the Nazi war against the Jews has become subject to widespread ignorance, skepticism, and outright denial, hundreds of thousands of visitors, most of them non-Jewish, have flocked to the new Holocaust museums that opened in Washington and Los Angeles last winter and spring, and many more wound up the year watching Schindler’s List.

For all their differences, both the museums and the movie were conceived as efforts to preserve the memory of the Holocaust at a time when the generation which witnessed its events is on the brink of becoming a memory itself. This crucial moment of generational transition would seem to demand a heightened sense of responsibility to the past. Yet the mindless critical hyperbole which has greeted Schindler’s List suggests that powerful spectacle continues to be more beguiling than human and historical authenticity—and the psychology of the Nazis a bigger draw than the civilization of the people they murdered. It is profoundly disheartening that Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust may be the only example of “Jewish culture” seen by millions; and I imagine Oskar Schindler would roll over in his Jerusalem grave if he knew that his life had become an object lesson in the false and foolish notion that goodness is incomprehensible.

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