AN AMERICAN VIEW

The problem with Schindler’s List

FRED BRUNING April 25 1994
AN AMERICAN VIEW

The problem with Schindler’s List

FRED BRUNING April 25 1994

The problem with Schindler’s List

AN AMERICAN VIEW

FRED BRUNING

The least politically correct opinion in America these days is that Schindler’s List is a movie with problems. Reviews of the Steven Spielberg epic extolling a clever German industrialist who saved more than 1,000 Jews from Nazi death camps were euphoric. Spielberg collected an armful of Oscars as reward for bringing a Holocaust message to the masses. Audiences leave theatres silent, shaken and often in tears. At last, we are told, the director of Jaws and Jurassic Park turned his box-office genius towards something worthwhile and produced a masterpiece in the process—a positively transformative work of film art.

“What Spielberg achieves in Schindler’s List is nearly miraculous,” wrote New Yorker magazine movie critic Terrence Rafferty. “It is by far the finest, fullest, dramatic (i.e. nondocumentary) film ever made about the Holocaust. And few American movies since the silent era have had anything approaching this picture’s boldness, visual audacity and emotional directness.”

Rafferty’s assessment was typical. With something like acclamation, the most skeptical and demanding U.S. critics proclaimed Schindler’s List an esthetic wonder and Spielberg a superhero for tackling perhaps the most daunting subject matter of the century. It was not simply that Spielberg had the moxie to address the Holocaust—a risky enterprise for any entertainer—but that in some remarkable way he had escorted moviegoers straight to its terrible soul.

But there is a worrisome countercurrent in all this adulation—a sense in published hosannahs and private conversations that only someone stupid or insensitive could possibly fail to appreciate the artistic merit and sociological significance of Schindler’s List. Perhaps, like no other film, this one arrived vacuum-sealed with uncommon sancti-

Fred Burning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

Determined to render so meticulously the nature of Nazi evil, Spielberg streamlined the villainy and made it sterile and familiar

ty. To question Schindler’s List was to trifle with the memory of the Holocaust. More likely, the opposite is true.

As a cinematic experience, Schindler’s List is irresistible. With his stellar technical skills, Spielberg gives the story of Oskar Schindler the pacing and patina of a fabulous and rivetting adventure story. Filmed in black and white, the movie looks strikingly authentic in many sequences—a newsreel unearthed after more than a half-century—and encourages viewers to believe they, too, are fleeing the Krakow ghetto, laboring in the Schindler enamelware factory and, at last, languishing in Nazi concentration camps. Music is ethereal and heartbreaking. Those unfamiliar with the Holocaust story—and scores of Americans have only the dimmest notion of what went on—suddenly are able not only to grasp Hitler’s Final Solution but to survive the debacle themselves!

Here is where Spielberg runs into serious trouble. He is dealing with the Holocaust, after all, an event so stupendous that instant replay may only parody its scope or hint, wrongly, that Movietone images yield metaphysical truth. Surely it was unintentional, but Spielberg—who in his interviews sounds gen-

uine and self-effacing—left the impression throughout the 196 minutes of Schindler’s List that he had appropriated the event, analysed it perfectly and was delivering to the public nothing less than a freshly minted version of reality. Brains splatter, blood flows, naked inmates dash pathetically across the screen. Much is shown, little suggested. Somebody on the set should have yelled: Stop.

This is not to say Spielberg went awry by making too persuasive, graphic or hard-hitting a movie. In simplest terms, however, Spielberg fell into the most obvious Holocaust trap of all. Determined to render so meticulously the nature of Nazi evil, he streamlined the villainy and made it sterile and familiar—strangely exciting in high-gloss Hollywood fashion. He allowed no other interpretations but his own, no room for the imagination to wander, no psychological depth or turmoil. Spielberg packaged the Holocaust as tightly as a TV dinner.

It wasn’t so long ago that thinkers like T. W. Adorno and George Steiner argued that the Holocaust is an experience beyond words and images. The debate has broadened since then—few argue any longer that the subject is untouchable—but academics and artists warn that great care must be taken if the event is not to be trivialized and diminished. Melodrama and easy emotions are the obvious enemies of Holocaust art. “If it can avoid kitsch, and sentimentality, and avoid dragging us into the ditch of misused art—if it will work—then it will teach us,” says Cynthia Ozick, author of the Holocaust-related short story The Shawl. “If it doesn’t work, it will besmirch us. It’s the finest possible line to walk.”

Many artists—including Ozick—have made the trip without tumbling. There is a long list of admirable Holocaust work—the documentary Shoah by Claude Lanzmann; the novel The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart; the short stories This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski; the essays of Elie Wiesel, to name a few. Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for the Maus cartoon books depicting Auschwitz inmates as mice and Nazi torménters as cats. “I entered my work so gingerly,” Spiegelman said. “There were so many ways to do it that are disrespectful to the ghosts.”

These are not effete and inconsequential issues. In America, anti-Semitism has deep roots. The swastika still mesmerizes renegade graffiti artists. Neo-Nazism rises putrid as industrial exhaust and Holocaust deniers haunt the talk shows. The Holocaust itself? A 1992 poll showed 22 per cent of Americans doubted it happened. No doubt, we need an antitoxin. Is it Schindler’s List?

Defenders say Spielberg’s movie will reach the public and prompt debate in the manner of the 1978 NBC mini-series Holocaust. But what will be the nature of that discussion? Will audiences ask themselves the awful questions about betrayal, brutality and ethnic hatred that attend the Holocaust? Or will they emerge speechless from the theatre, dab their tears and be glad they escaped so easily?