Good intentions don’t necessarily make good movies. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was inspired by the director’s revulsion at ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and other forms of racism. His highly acclaimed film about the fate of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland couldn’t have come at a better time what with so-called “revisionist” historians denying the reality of the Holocaust and gaining credibility. Spielberg’s moving story and vivid images will bring the reality of the systematic destruction of European Jewry home to millions of viewers, not only in the U.S. but also in Germany and East Europe, where the subject has been taboo for fifty years. Yet if Schindler’s List has all the power of a major Hollywood production, Spielberg’s deeply flawed film also embodies Hollywood’s failings.
Schindler’s List is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, a Nazi businessman who saved 1100 Jews from the gas chambers. He did by employing them as slave laborers in an enterprise originally capitalized by squeezing money out of ghettoized Jews in Cracow, Poland. The exceptional story of the emergence of Schindler’s underlying decency and of his remarkable success in beating the Nazi system deserves to be told. Schindler’s List will certainly be seen by millions who will never be exposed to gritty documentaries like Shoah and The Sorrow and the Pity. With its happy ending and its focus on an identifiable Everyman character, Spielberg’s film is able to confront mass audiences with a subject so horrifying as to be quite literally unbelievable.
But does Schindler’s List truly succeed in awakening its mass audience to the reality of the Holocaust experience? Alas, in curious, but quite specific ways Spielberg’s film actually invites its audience to deny that reality.
The Holocaust, a “Myth”?
To begin with, the film explicitly fails to contradict the revisionist thesis that Nazi’s use of gas chambers at Auschwitz for mass extermination of Jews is a “myth.” The first mention of the gas chambers in the film is a rumor, which Schindler’s Jewish women refuse to believe: “Why kill us?” they reason. “We are valuable workers for the German war effort.” Then, as the film reaches its climax, these women, whose lives the audience had considered “saved” (Schindler had bought them from the Nazis), are shipped to Auschwitz by mistake. Our expectations are suddenly reversed. We witness the horror of the train entering the Death Camp… Night and fog, dogs and searchlights. The shaved heads of naked, terrified women herded into sealed chambers marked “Bath-Disinfectant.” Hysterical farewell embraces: the terrible rumor was apparently true. As we watch and listen in horror, the shower-heads begin to hiss, and out comes – water! Fresh, cool, life-giving water to soothe and cleanse the parched throats and bruised bodies after the slave-labor camps and the cattle-cars.
This stunning anti-climax is never explained, and the audience is only too glad to have been spared the horror. Next morning, Schindler arrives like John Wayne and rescues “his” Jewish women for the second time. As the women reembark on the train to safety, we get glimpses of dead bodies and smoking chimneys. Viewers who already believe in the gas chambers are free to imagine what they believe. So are Holocaust-deniers, who are free to imagine that the bodies represent workers who died of disease and the smoke from the chimneys comes from the factory. Nothing has been shown but a shower-bath. At the heart of Spielberg’s darkness there is – avoidance.
After this central anti-climax, his film has no place to go but down, and it wallows in bathos for the next un-dramatic hour or so. We are treated to endless scenes of tearful re-uniting, lip-quivering gratitude, and heroic modesty with “Schindler’s Jews” (they are never referred to otherwise) standing around their Gentile savior in carefully choreographed groups with dumb grins on their faces, like the Munchkins after Dorothy has saved them from the Wicked Witch. The audience walks out numbed as if they had attended a B’nai Brith Awards Ceremony minus the boiled chicken.
The Jews of Silence
Even during the first half of the film, which is far more dramatic and historically grounded, “Schindler’s Jews” are never developed as characters. Jews are depicted merely as objects of Schindler”s benevolence or as victim’s of the Nazi’s cruelty. There is no space in Spielberg’s very long film for developed dialogues between Jewish husbands and wives or Jewish parents and children. Indeed, Spielberg’s Jewish “characters” only get to speak when they are spoken to – by Nazi officials or by Schindler himself. The actors are reduced to speaking lines like “Ja, Herr Direktor” or later, tearfully and gratefully: “God bless you, Herr Direktor.” Rarely do we hear Jews talk to each other.
The two exceptions to this rule are themselves remarkable for their curious ambiguity. One is the scene, cited above, where a Jewish woman passes on a rumor about the gas chambers to her companions and is disbelieved. In the other, a circle of idle Jewish men are shown schmoozing in a Krakow street, having just been herded into the ghetto and deprived of their occupations. They conclude that “Here, we are free.” Again, at the heart of darkness – avoidance.
Visually, too, Spielberg focalizes his Jews almost exclusively through Schindler’s Gentile eyes. For example, we look down with Schindler and his mistress (on horseback) from a cliff high above the Krakow ghetto as we watch the SS round up the Jews for the camps. Although the film is shot in black and white to give it a documentary flavor, during this scene the dress of one little Jewish girl is tinted red, which enables the audience, looking down with Schindler, to follow her individual fate during the roundup. Later, we see the red dress again through Schindler’s eyes as the child’s body is dragged by on a cart at Auschwitz while Schindler is loading “his” Jewish girls on the rescue train. Thus does Spielberg “individualize” Jews.
To be sure, during the scenes of the SS roundup of the ghetto Jews, we are shown a few examples of Jews taking action to save themselves. However, they are soon captured and brutally killed. In Spielberg’s Krakow there is no salvation outside of Schindler’s list (although in real life, some Jews did resist and even survive).
The visual and auditory messages are clear. There are two types of Jews: passive victims of the Nazis and passive benefactors of Schindler. The Jewish “characters” barely even rise to the level of stereotypes, their main function being to act as stand-ins for the actual names on the real-life Schindler’s list. There is hardly a need for actors (as opposed to extras) in this production, although Ben Kingsley struggles manfully with the ungrateful role of the grateful Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s Jewish accountant and reluctant confidant.
Indeed, Spielberg dispenses with actors and actually shows us the real-life survivors at the end of his film. A dozen of Schindler’s Jews, most of them in their eighties today, file by the real-dead Schindler’s grave, smiling and grateful and above all silent. As the survivors place stones on the tomb, the audience reads subtitles proclaiming their names – remembered from the famous List. I suppose one could argue with the authenticity of this dubious shift from fiction-film to documentary, but I would gladly have accepted it if only, at long last, Speilberg had allowed some real-life Jews to speak for themselves! No wonder Claude Lanzmann, whose documentary Shoah is made up entirely of first-person survivor narratives, protested Schindler’s List.
Schindler alone is active in Spielberg’s film. He is the omnipotent entrepreneur who pits his capitalist skills against the omnipotent SS and wins: first by piling up a fortune exploiting Jewish slave-labor, then by keeping his business going in the face of the “final solution,” eventually by rescuing his Jewish workers.
In Spielberg’s fable, the capitalist ethic is thus depicted ambiguously as saving humanity, or at least a remnant of Jewish humanity. To his great credit, Spielberg also shows us the larger reality, which is the fact that the camps were all slave-labor enterprises run at a profit for German businesses. What the film perhaps cannot be expected to show is the big picture – that Nazism was the final solution to the crisis of German capitalism. (*) To be sure, Spielberg’s film makes tricking the Nazis look almost easy: a little bribe here, some psychology there and voilà! Of course, Schindler is as much a con artist as an entrepreneur, but he soon has the sinister SS buffaloed much as in the world of TV Hogan’s Heroes pull the wool over the eyes of their cute dumb German captors.
This is the level on which Spielberg’s film fails to convince both as document and as drama. Like Hogan’s Heroes, Spielberg’s Jews remain fat and relatively well-dressed throughout World War Two! They look nothing like the photographs of skeletal concentration camps survivors that horrified those of us who were alive in 1945 when the camps were liberated and which continue to shock today. In Spielberg’s sanitized “ET Goes to Auschwitz” version of the Holocaust, Schindler’s Jews are not even believable victims.
Thus, during the final self-congratulatory sequences set in Czechoslovakia, where Schindler has managed to install “his” Jews in a factory in his home town, the Jewish extras appear as chubby and grateful as the happy slaves on Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation. In these crowd scenes Spielberg’s well-fleshed extras are shown massed, Hollywood style, like Dorothy’s Munchkins. Why didn’t Spielberg, that stickler for visual authenticity, bother to hire out-of-work actors with AIDS as extras? After all, they used real midgets in The Wizard of Oz.
Even the extras’ costumes fail to convince us they have endured five years in the camps. Their “slave” outfits look as fresh as if they had just been sewn by the mothers of the Hollywood Hills Jewish Center for their children’s’ Passover Pageant. No wonder there wasn’t a wet eye in the house, when I saw Schindler at the East Hartford shopping mall Cinemas.
Even the character of Schindler, whom Spielberg does attempt to develop as an individual, gets spoiled and sentimentalized in these concluding scenes. Throughout the film Schindler had appeared as an opaque figure, a cynical bon-vivant who, having consciously chosen to make his fortune out of war and slave-labor, inexplicably stops short of implicating himself in the ultimate Nazi horror and chooses to invest part of his profits in bribes to save the workers who have made him rich. The poker-face he uses to deal with the SS is an ideal mask to conceal his motives from the audience and create a totally credible character whose singular aura is enhanced by mystery.
Then Spielberg throws it all away by having Schindler remove his mask before his final getaway. While his chorus of grateful Jews masses around his waiting Mercedes, Schindler breaks down blubbering about how many more Jews he might have saved if only he had drunk less Champagne! It is as if, at the end of Casablanca, Claude Rains, the Vichy Police Captain who saves Bogart, had begun beating his breast about how guilty he felt lining his pockets instead of exiting on the immortal line: “I am only a poor corrupt French official!” Alas, Schindler’s tear-jerking exit scene is more of a homage to Dorothy’s or to ET’s farewells than to Claude Rains’ and Bogie’s tight-lipped, cynical/sentimental departure from Casablanca.
Schindler’s weepy exit lines not only destroy him as a consistent character, they also undermine the logical premise of the plot by suddenly making it appear that this unscrupulous conman-cum-entrepreneur had secretly been nourishing some sort of benevolent plan all along! But only a cynical Schindler who had no scruples about spending his evenings wining and dining Nazi mass-murderers to win contracts could possibly have brought off this tour de force rescue under the very noses of the SS.
Spielberg’s sentimentalized Hollywood ending not only breaks with dramatic consistency, it also violates historical reality. According to Thomas Keneally, the author of the nonfiction novel on which Spielberg based his film, the real Schindler actually fled with a small fortune in jewels he had stashed away.
The final horrendous inaccuracy occurs after Schindler’s departure, when Schindler’s Jews march off into the sunset over the green fields of Czechoslovakia (now in Technicolor like the Munchkins after Dorothy drops out of grim, black-and-white Kansas and saves them). As the camera pans back, the music comes up in a magnificent chorale of triumph and liberation, sung in Hebrew. One imagines some traditional Jewish song or one born of the Holocaust, like the authentic camp song “Peatbog Soldiers.” But no! I immediately recognized the strains of “Jerusalem of Gold,” the stirring anthem commissioned in 1967 to celebrate the victory of the Israeli Defense Forces over the Arabs – a hymn familiar to anyone who has been a tourist in Israel or attended an Israel fundraiser. Let’s not even talk about the ideological twist this 1967 Zionist song gives to this story of the Holocaust – especially for the Jewish audience. Have Schindler’s Jews been transmogrified by Spielberg into Rabin’s Israelis?
One might also object to Spielberg’s exclusive focus on Jews as Holocaust victims, to the exclusion of the millions of Communists, Socialists, Gypsies, Christians, homosexuals and resistance fighters who were sent to the camps. But again, my quarrel is with the film Spielberg DID make, not the one he didn’t. To conclude: I had entered the theater with much trepidation, having grown up during the Holocaust, an American descendant of Krakow Jews and one who is easily upset by graphic movies. I left the theater dry-eyed, with a distinct taste of cold boiled chicken in my mouth.
* The true story of the real Schindler shows how one decent businessman was able to save 1100 Jews without losing his life, indeed while amassing a sizable fortune. It is good that Schindler be remembered and his story told. But Spielberg’s monocular and monopolist focalization on his fictional Schindler prevents the audience from asking the obvious question: why didn’t more German businessmen save more Jews? I’m sure in real life it was much more difficult than in the movies, but the fact remains that German businesses like I.G. Farben profited from the slave labor camps and calculated down to the last gram of bread what was necessary to keep their workers dying slowly enough to maintain profits until the weak were gassed and sent to the ovens to be replaced by ever-new supplies of Jewish labor. Every mark and pfennig was accounted for. No one but Schindler – who in any case was apparently a Czech, not a German, and more of a con-man than a capitalist – seems to have though to keep them alive, even for the value of their skills. Schindler tried to convince his business colleagues to follow his example and fails. Spielberg’s film thus depicts capitalism’s ethic as both complicit in the Holocaust and resisting it. One cannot ask for more.
Richard Greeman, in Beware of Vegetarian Sharks.