How Long Will Schindler’s List Endure as a Public Memorial to The Holocaust?
Paul Morton Revisits Spielberg’s Controversial Film, 30 Years Later
Schindler’s List is not a movie about the Holocaust. For hundreds of millions, it is the Holocaust. Ralph Fiennes’s Amon Goeth, a nauseating, casual sadist, is Nazism. An unnamed girl in a red coat is six million Jews. Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler, a businessman who uses his talent for sleaze to save 1,100 people, is the near-best of the rest of us.
The release of Schindler’s List, 30 years ago this month, was welcomed as an event, for Steven Spielberg’s career, for the possibilities of Hollywood film, for world Jewry, and for humanity. The cinematographer Janusz Kamiński utilized a severe black-and-white, influenced as much by German Expressionism as by Italian Neorealism, to depict the Krakow ghetto and its liquidation, Auschwitz, and a villa where Nazis drink fine alcohol while ignoring the smell of death that emanates from a labor camp next door.
“Rising brilliantly to the challenge of this 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,” wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times. “With every frame, he demonstrates the power of the filmmaker to distill complex events into fiercely indelible images.”
The detractors in the intellectual class shouted against the masses. “Close Encounters of the Nazi Kind” read the headline of Leon Wieseltier’s essay in The New Republic, which placed the film’s sentimentality within the context of Spielberg’s childhood fantasies. In Commentary, Philip Gourevitch argued that the Jewish characters—black-marketeers and diamond smugglers, hoarding their wealth in the face of annihilation—could have been inspired by Der Stürmer. The case against Schindler’s List was long.
The film honored Jewish kitsch not Jewish culture, including, inexplicably, a Hebrew song associated with the aftermath of the Six-Day War. It was about survivors, not the dead, and it centered on the redemption tale of a good German, an actual member of the Nazi Party.
The most damning criticism came from Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah, a nine-and-a-half-hour documentary consisting mainly of interviews with survivors. It was essential to Lanzmann’s project that he rejected the use of archival footage as the film is about perpetual trauma; the Holocaust did not end in 1945. There were other reasons to avoid such imagery. “If I had found a film shot by the German SS showing how 3,000 people died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz, not only would I have not used it, I would have destroyed it,” he told an English journalist. “You don’t show this.”
In one of the most derided scenes in Schindler’s List, a group of women, shaven, naked, and humiliated, enter a chamber at Auschwitz. The room goes dark and silent and they shriek in terror, only to be relieved when luminescent white water, as glorious as silver, shoots from the faucets instead of Zyklon B. “I was watching the Spielberg film and I thought he’ll never go so far,” Lanzmann said. “And he did. But he even created suspense… And these people, all of them are actors. All of them. They’re actors. They do not look like people who have had these experiences. It is an adventure film.” He was saying what the film’s celebrants didn’t want to admit: Schindler’s List is an entertainment.
(Schindler’s List was even more a work of fiction than was known at the time. David Crowe’s 2004 revisionist biography, which corrected both the film and Thomas Keneally’s original book, argued that the real Schindler’s life did not follow anything like a classic redemption story, and that he had very little to do with the list of the film’s title.)
Lanzmann won the argument in academia. Maslin won everywhere else; the “indelible” images in Schindler’s List today make up the visual lexicon of the Holocaust. Itzhak Perlman’s melancholic violin in John Williams’s score is the soundtrack of the Shoah. The historian Deborah Lipstadt all but declared a détente five years ago, on the occasion of the film’s 25th anniversary. “[D]id it reach a tremendous number of people who would otherwise not have been reached? Did it bring the story to countless people who no other filmmaker would have been able to reach? There is no question.” More people have seen Schindler’s List than have visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, or Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. More have seen it than have visited Auschwitz.
The “indelible” images in Schindler’s List today make up the visual lexicon of the Holocaust.
This is a long way of saying that Schindler’s List is not comparable to Shoah, or any of the other hundreds of movies about the Holocaust, because Schindler’s List is not cinema. It is a public memorial, one constructed not in granite or stone, but with the tools of great Hollywood filmmaking from the greatest of Hollywood filmmakers. Public memorials are meant to last forever, but many don’t, and at some point—in 10 years or 500—I suspect the Schindler’s List statue will be quietly removed from the public square. For the moment, it should remain.
The critics of Schindler’s List argue in binaries, between entertainment and instruction, between mourning that is proper and mourning that is improper. These binaries misunderstand Spielberg’s audience.
Spielberg has several signatures. The most effective usually appears near the middle of the second act or the beginning of the third of his apocalyptic films, when the enormity of the horrors that have been felt throughout the narrative can no longer remain unseen. It’s a slight, casual move of the camera to the right or left, which places the viewer’s attention for only a few seconds on something too terrible to be discussed in dialogue. It is followed by a quick move back to its original position, or a hard cut.
In War Horse, the image is a pile of horse carcasses, themselves metonyms for the human dead of World War I. In War of the Worlds, a small girl witnesses floating corpses in a river, stand-ins for the victims of 9/11. In Schindler’s List, the group of women, spared the worst horrors of Auschwitz, marches away, and the camera moves to a long line of Jews, fully clothed, walking like cattle straight into a crematorium.
There are several interpretations for this technique. The least generous—the Lanzmann-ian take—is that Spielberg uses these moments to heighten the dramatic stakes, to suggest that things could be much worse for his heroes. The most generous: he is making a movie about mass death, but understands that no one can linger on the reality of mass death for too long. See these horrors. Acknowledge them. Keep them in the peripheral of your mind’s eye. And even when we get to the inevitable happy ending that concludes a Spielberg film—even this Spielberg film, the Holocaust film—don’t forget that most people in this story did not enjoy such relief.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle, but given the film’s legacy, the latter interpretation may be closer to the truth. Few people walk away from Schindler’s List forgetting about that line entering the crematorium, or about the lone, brutal individual deaths that punctuate the film: that of an elderly one-armed man, of a female engineer who questions the wisdom of the Nazis’ plans for a camp, and of a young boy who uses soap instead of lye when cleaning a tub.
Again, these deaths serve a dramatic purpose, each meeting a beat in a slick narrative. They may appear arbitrary, but they are each setup for a precise moment of shock; the black blood in the snow is as awful and aestheticized as the geyser of red blood spurting up from the ocean in Jaws. And in each case, the mass of Jews in the film continues to work, mechanically for the sake of survival, all of them denied the viewer’s luxury of grief.
I don’t quite know what it means to get or not get a Holocaust death, nor do I know what it means to get or not get a genocidaire. But the ugly charisma of Fiennes’s Amon Goeth, a brute inflated with power, is more believable than any Warner Brothers Nazi. I’ve met this man, and every now and then, as with Fiennes, I find him engrossing. His kind exists in every civilization; the goal is to keep such ogres out of police departments, militaries, and corporate boardrooms, and contain them in places where they can do the least harm.
There is, however, a problem when audiences cheer at Goeth’s comical execution at the end of the film, permitting them the simple pleasure of vengeance. In a Hollywood movie, the viewer wants a villain it loves to hate, which makes it that much harder to depict a Nazi, a figure who must be damned more than hated. But ask them what they remember of the character, and it will not be his pathetic end, as much as the image of Goeth, shirtless, nauseous, taking potshots at children from his balcony, a force of evil in the form of an overweight, middle-aged man-child.
There is much that disturbs in Spielberg’s film, and at least one particularly dishonest turn.
There is much that disturbs in Spielberg’s film, and at least one particularly dishonest turn. In his exit scene, Schindler sobs as he looks at every accoutrement of wealth he has accumulated that could have been instead traded for lives, among them his Nazi Party pin. The moment plays differently in Keneally’s book, in which Schindler accepts without ceremony a gift of a ring engraved with a Talmudic saying, and then drives off in a car stuffed to the brim with his wealth. I know of one academic who has taught the film in order to destroy it, and compares the scene to the award ceremony in The Wizard of Oz.
There is a deeper problem in this scene. It flatters the viewer’s ego and offers him a means of catharsis. “To cry is a form of pleasure,” Lanzmann complained. And yet, even here I find myself giving in to audiences, who need this catharsis to leave the theater, to go on in the world, and who have been moved to ask themselves the same question, as Christian as it is Jewish or utilitarian. You have heard the Holocaust invoked casually, at Thanksgiving tables and on cable news, to argue for the end of universal healthcare or the commission of war crimes. Let’s just stop talking, and have tears and more tears.
I visited Terezin in the fall of 2005. The parking lot was surrounded by food stalls and souvenir stands. Before you enter the grounds of the camp itself, you first pass through a mini exhibit, not about Terezin’s use in the 40s but about its origins as a fortress in the 18th century. There may have been some use for that exhibit, but it had a flattening effect, turning this one site of mass murder into just one more chapter in a picture-book history of Central Europe.
This was before smartphones, so no one was taking selfies, but tourists took pictures of each other. Some had long-barreled lenses, and they may have been inspired by Kamiński’s work. For them, Terezin was a photogenic park with ruins, like the Forum in Rome or the skeleton of the Franciscan monastery on Margaret Island in Budapest.
The bus back to Prague was filled with young German educators in town for a conference. The man next to me was moved by the experience and noted his feelings of guilt. A woman was excited to learn I was American, and she yammered on about her summer on an exchange program in a rural town somewhere on the East Coast, where she couldn’t find any decent food.
I do not commend the man for reciting the correct script nor condemn the woman for her inane chatter. I will only say that I came away with a visceral feeling—not a hardened, intellectual belief—that no one, including myself, needs to visit a concentration camp, and that the world would be slightly improved if we burned every single one of them down.
There are plenty of viewers of Schindler’s List, who, even if moved, are as morally idiotic after viewing the film as they were before. Among the film’s admirers in Central and Eastern Europe, I have met Hungarian ethnonationalists and anti-Romany bigots, and among its admirers in the United States, I have met xenophobes and Christian Zionists.
But there is a minority of viewers for whom the film has been a starting point, not the end, for Holocaust and genocide education. Spielberg stumbles in both the film and in his interviews, and the shower scene remains one of the worst abominations in modern Hollywood history. Like most re-enactments of actual murder, his film disrespects the dead. But he is more morally intelligent than a concentration camp tourist. And he almost certainly influenced one or two people to respect the living.