Most Holocaust-themed movies minimize the Nazi atrocities. Life is Beautiful trivializes government-sponsored death camps and promises everyone a moral pass with the theme that humor alleviates mass murder – Oliver Stone similarly tried to hustle an upside to Islamicist mass murder in World Trade Center – implying that no one should take life too seriously. Not even death camps. I can’t think of a single Holocaust movie that fits the horror of the facts (though there is one that history Professor John Lewis recommended which I have not yet seen).
That includes Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), which many regard as perfect. I wish I could say I agree. But after seeing it a second time – I saw it in a movie theater during Christmastime in 1993 – I stand by my original appraisal. I recently watched Schindler’s List, which is being released on Blu-ray and DVD by Universal on the studio’s 100th anniversary for the picture’s 20th anniversary, and I found it seriously flawed. I did find more to appreciate.
Mr. Spielberg is a master filmmaker – E.T. (1982) is his best picture, and his first, The Sugarland Express (1974), is an intensely involving tragedy – but, other than last year’s Lincoln, his recent pictures, including the offensive Munich (2005), middling War Horse (2011) and the atrocious War of the Worlds (2005), are flat, mixed or worse. Based on a 1982 Australian novel, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally, and shot in black and white, Schindler’s List is his definitive Holocaust film. The audio-visual impact is striking and it’s not just because of the subject matter, which covers the National Socialist extermination of Jews in Poland. The score by John Williams and violin solo by Itzhak Perlman are suited to the story and many shots, frames and scenes of Nazi atrocities are deftly left alone without accompaniment for a blunt effect that puts the Holocaust in a realistic perspective, particularly in scenes involving an evil, sadistic concentration camp commander.
Smoke creeps into cold, dark, gray Nazi Poland, beginning with religious ritual Shabbat candles being lighted and burned down until the flame slowly goes out in a ribbon of smoke that rises as the picture moves to the smoke from a train. We hear the whistle and we know what this means. We will soon be among Nazis – who swept into power when the German people elected them after accepting their fascist philosophy in full – and, very quickly, we learn of orders to round up Jews. The Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler, whose altruist, collectivist, totalitarian book Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) was widely read and popular in Germany, none of which is mentioned in this 3-hour, 15-minute movie, are in total control of every aspect of everyone’s life. They aim to practice what they preach: purification of the race and annihilation of Jews (also others).
In fragmented set-up scenes, we meet Oskar Schindler, the movie’s handsome hero, whose arm smoothly slips into a sleeve as he ingratiates himself to the SS using women, cash and alcohol. Schindler, and the movie, are as cold and impersonal as one expects from Nazi Germany and the whole movie exudes a sense of death, which is fitting. Schindler’s List unfortunately does not include, let alone exude, any prior sense of life, a precondition to caring about the characters. Lacking a pre-camp depiction, even in flashback, of the lives, loves and works of those being detained for slaughter, victims do not become dimensional characters. Instead, Mr. Spielberg emphasizes Jews as a collective – not as individuals – who are bound by a series of vaguely defined religious rituals. The only character in whom we become invested is the dubious Oskar Schindler.
That a Holocaust movie is more focused on the Nazi with a heart of gold than it is on those designated by the state to suffer and die precludes a serious dramatization of what led a civilized nation to exterminate millions of people. Consequently, any chilling horror – which must be part of any sincere Holocaust film – stems from grisly scenes, not from a fundamental grasp of the magnitude of the evil. There are no copies of Mein Kampf, no sense of what led to the Reichstag voting itself out of existence or of Nazi power and its propellant, hatred of Jews based on the Germans’ acceptance of National Socialist altruism for the god-state, volk and race. On the film’s terms, Jews are detained, exploited and murdered or, in the case of Schindler’s Jews, liberated, all without cause.
Leaving aside the absence of strong Jewish characterizations in a movie about the systematic slaughter of Jews, one wonders about Schindler’s list: why is it composed? Early in the story, industrialist playboy Schindler refuses to consider ability as a factor when hiring a secretary, so we know that he is not motivated by pride or productiveness. Instead, he explains that his father taught him that he needs three things in life: a good doctor, a forgiving priest and a clever accountant and he adds that he, Oskar Schindler, only has use for the third.
The line is not especially funny and it isn’t intended to be. Yet the picture’s subtext that our supposed hero, a Nazi who goes on to save over a thousand Jews, may be moved only by what he can get away with, not by a higher ideal, such as reverence for life, is unmistakable. To underscore the point, Schindler’s refusal to consider ability as criteria is integral to his saving specific Jews, which is left to his “clever accountant” Itzhak Stern (expertly portrayed by Ben Kingsley). Schindler’s List implies that the businessman’s character improves; he ends up wanting to save Jews for life. But there is no evidence that this is true, even on the movie’s terms. Played to perfection by Liam Neeson, who had already played a sympathetic Nazi a year earlier in Shining Through (1992), Schindler tells his wife that his Jews have one purpose – “to make money for me” – and, when he speaks of being driven by doing something extraordinary, he’s speaking of acquiring all the riches of the world. We’re set to expect a transformation of an opportunistic playboy into a savior of the Jews. The change, if and when it comes, is not convincing. The movie’s premise – the good Nazi – is fundamentally a lie.
Concentration camp monster Amon Goethe, brilliantly played with precision by Ralph Fiennes, appears an hour into the film and he is irrevocably aligned with Schindler. Comparing the two men in matching shaving scenes, we see that they are alike. Later, we see Goethe and Schindler differentiated as the hedonist dances with women while the sadist beats and murders them. The men ultimately blur into a single German archetype, as Goethe expresses his smallness in doubts, fits and one last “Heil, Hitler!” to the god-state while Schindler expresses his smallness in doubts, fits and one last breakdown to the “chosen”. Goethe and Schindler are counterparts. The difference, in the words of Schindler’s bookkeeper, is that Schindler’s list is life; Goethe’s camp is death.
Mr. Neeson is excellent as Schindler – he excels in every part he plays, from a master in Batman Begins (2005) to a pioneer in Kinsey (2004) – and his best scene, in which he grants an exceptional gift of humanity to a Jewish slave named Helen Hirsch, in which he gently intones, “it’s alright, it’s not that kind of a kiss …”, conveys the character’s best qualities. It must be remembered, however, that Schindler, who simultaneously wears a swastika and a poker face, at best self-administers his own atonement, aiding a dictatorship for profit while saving some of its victims to assuage his guilt or for the thrill of getting away with it – or both – and, in any case, his final estimate that he “could have done more” is correct; he could have denounced the Nazi philosophy before Nazis were elected.
That he did not and that he instead chose to become a Nazi doesn’t undo the good that he did, though this also means that the good that he did does not undo the fact that he sanctioned and supported evil; he saved a thousand Jews in the midst of having morally and materially aided the slaughter of six million Jews.
As docu-drama, one might argue that Schindler’s List has historic value. We see Jewish kapos – Jews who turned against Jews and cooperated with Nazis – looting seized property. We see how dictatorship pits people against eachother when a Jewish boy runs from a roundup at the death camp and is rejected by other children from each hiding place; he ends up ostracized and alone inside a toilet covered in sewage with a look of terror on his face. The heart-stopping scenes involving the March 13, 1943, liquidation of the Krakow ghetto are searing. Seeing Jews being hunted in stark moving pictures without music, hearing German and English language dialogue (as Schindler watches in shock from a distance while atop his horse), with acts of euthanasia in the hospital, roaming death dogs and stormtroopers, while Nazis listen to Mozart as they commit mass murder and loot the corpses are scenes of real-life atrocities that everyone should learn, know, remember and never forget. Such horror turns the stomach and more so for those who know why the Nazi philosophy is evil and most – including and especially Holocaust, Tolerance, Shoah and other museums and centers, do not. Numbness sets in as it should – this is no small achievement – and, when someone says, “someday this is all going to end,” you know, if you’ve heard of Soviet Russia, which was worse than Nazi Germany, that it will not end.
Schindler’s List is ultimately themed with faith, dogma and blood-based tribalism. The German Catholic playboy who became a National Socialist and, then, a Jew saver, is redeemed by religion – he sponsors religious ceremonies, moments of silence and chanting. After three hours, we’re back to lighting candles for Shabbat. The postscript that over 6 million Jews were murdered – and Soviet Russia, the nation that shares the Nazi moral philosophy, was emboldened by the war, is what it is. So is the fact that the “good” Nazi ended up with a tree planted in his honor on the avenue of the righteous in a city, Jerusalem, currently threatened with total destruction by a former Nazi ally.
The recurrence in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List of a girl in red, whatever the director’s intent, represents the color of what is, at this writing, the bloodiest century on earth. As someone says, “whoever saves one life saves the world in time.” Oskar Schindler saved a thousand lives. Mr. Spielberg’s movie about him - released in the Clinton presidency and now again under the Obama administration – shows that saving lives does not automatically save the world, not until we accept the reality that being alive means not being sacrificed for the sake of others; life means being free to live for one’s own sake. Created by one of the 20th century’s greatest directors about one of the 20th century’s most monstrous acts of evil, Schindler’s List elevates a Nazi at the expense of the memory of every one who was at the mercy of being on a Nazi’s list.
The United States government’s Homeland Security badge is added to the new FBI warning on the anti-piracy message that precedes Schindler’s List. On the main feature, “Voices from the List,” a solid, one-hour documentary on the Blu-ray and DVD edition, director Steven Spielberg asserts that the movie shows us that “one person, not an army, can make a difference,” ignoring that there would be no difference to make had it not been for the Nazi army and the armies of men who fought and died to end Nazi Germany, liberate the Jews and prosecute Nazi war criminals. Mr. Spielberg talks about what redounds to his pacifism and says that making Schindler’s List “deepened [his] faith” and he names the cause of the Holocaust as “hatred and ignorance”. Someone points out that Poles yelled “Good riddance!” as Jews were herded from the Krakow ghetto to the camps and these personal accounts, many of which are taken from people who are depicted in the film, are extremely powerful. One woman describes seeing Nazis swing children by the feet and hit their heads on walls, killing them. Another woman explains that she “didn’t know if I was dead or alive…” Others say they knew that concentration camp commander Goethe would be killing Jews from his balcony based on what hat he chose to wear. And, they say, if he was wearing white gloves or was whistling happily, they knew there would be a slaughter. “We are already dead,” one survivor remembers. She adds: “they took my soul out.”