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Hollywood and the Holocaust

Schindler’s List

A film directed by Steven Spielberg
Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

Suppose the Disney organization announced that it was planning a film about the Holocaust. Better still, suppose Walt Disney himself had, thirty or forty years back. In common fairness, we would have had to wait and see how it all worked out; but common sense would have suggested heavy misgivings. The gap between the Disney tradition and the demands of the material would simply have seemed too wide to be bridged.

Something of the same doubts stole into my mind when I heard that Steven Spielberg was finally making his long-deferred film of Schindler’s List. Disney was the greatest popular entertainer of his time. Spielberg is his closest contemporary equivalent. Such words are not to be lightly spoken; they argue a kind of genius. But popular entertainment has its limits, and anything you can profitably say about the Holocaust—except, perhaps, at the level of simple lessons for children—lies well beyond them.

Spielberg’s films up until now have mostly been fairy tales or adventure stories, or a mixture of both. Like other fairy tales, they have their terrors and sorrows, but terrors and sorrows that are firmly contained by the knowledge that it is all finally make-believe. And at the same time, much of his most effective work has been purely playful. This past year, reading press stories about the making of Schindler’s List, I found myself recalling the fun-and-games Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (In The Last Crusade Hitler himself puts in an appearance.) Both movies are highly enjoyable hokum but one wouldn’t have said that the sensibility which informs them was particularly well equipped for dealing with the realities of slave labor and genocide.

Of course, no one could have doubted that Schindler’s List was going to be a serious film, and that it was meant to be a new departure. But here, too, the auguries were at best only mildly encouraging. The one partial precedent in Spielberg’s work was Empire of the Sun, the adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel about a small English boy caught up in the fighting in China in World War II; and though there are some thrilling sequences in the early parts of that film, the later Japanese prison-camp scenes struck me as superficial and melodramatic. High-level melodrama, if you like, but no more than that.

In the wrong hands, too, Schindler’s List could easily lend itself to its own forms of falsification. Schindler’s courage, and the survival of those he saved, are rays of light in a dark night; but the darkness remains, undispelled, and one should be careful not to make the positive aspects of the story seem more significant in relation to the Holocaust as a whole than they were. The problem, for a film maker, is how to celebrate them adequately without being too upbeat about it—and Hollywood isn’t exactly famous for resisting upbeat solutions.

I can’t pretend, then, that I approached the movie with a completely open mind. I was apprehensive—afraid of seeing terrible events sentimentalized, afraid of sentimentality proving all the more insidious for being applied with sleek technical skill. In the event my fears, or the worst of them, were altogether misplaced. The skills are there, certainly, but Spielberg also shows a firm moral and emotional grasp of his material. The film is an outstanding achievement.

It is also a straightforward piece of storytelling. Whether or not its box-office takings eventually rival those of ET or Jurassic Park, it is also accessible to a mass audience. No previous American movie treatment of the Holocaust (certainly not Sophie’s Choice, still less the dire Holocaust itself) comes anywhere near to it, but in its energy and confident popular approach it is still a recognizable product of Hollywood.

We open on what looks as though it is going to be a note of dark glamour. For the moment, and it’s a shrewd narrative gambit, Spielberg holds the misery and viciousness of the story in reserve. We are in Cracow in the autumn of 1939, the Cracow of the conquerors. Oskar Schindler, his Nazi lapel badge pinned firmly in place, is preparing for an evening out. We follow him—tall, handsome, fur-collared—into a nightclub patronized by senior German officers and officials. The women are well-dressed, the drink flows, the dancers pose for flashbulb photographs. Memories of a hundred forgotten war movies stir. But these Nazis are the real thing. (Not a Conrad Veidt among them.) With a succession of subtle touches, Spielberg creates a tremendous atmosphere of unease. Curiously enough, indeed, I felt Schindler was more in danger in this scene than later in the film, though in the course of it he simply ingratiates himself with the local top brass and lays the foundation of his success as a wartime industrialist, an employer of slave labor. But then the scene is also our first introduction to the group of men who plainly intend evil. Merely to be in their presence seems dangerous, whoever you are.

They soon begin to show what they are capable of. The Jews of Cracow are deprived of their rights, herded into a ghetto, subjected to savage illtreatment. The appalling conditions under which they live are recreated in a semi-documentary style which carries complete conviction. (No decision Spielberg took about the film was more important than deciding to shoot it in historically appropriate black and white.) And bad as things are to start with, they grow steadily worse. Deportations begin; individual Jews are killed with less concern than it takes to swat a fly. In a sense, since it is now obvious that the persecutors set no value at all on their victims’ lives, we ought to be reconciled to the possibility that anything can happen, just anything. Yet nothing we have seen quite prepares us for the liquidation of the ghetto, which took place in March 1943.

If one can use such a phrase in such a context, this is the high point of the movie. (It occurs about a third of the way through.) In the space of fifteen minutes Spielberg creates an impression of terror and confusion which, in my view, equals Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence—no, if I am to be honest, which goes beyond it. The camera seems to be everywhere at once, amid the shooting, the shouting, the darkness, the blinding lights, the frantic scramble, the pillaged apartments, the suitcases tossed off balconies, the random murders at street corners. There are moments that seem too grotesque to be true, though one believes in them. An SS man takes time off to play an abandoned piano. Two of his colleagues argue. Is it Mozart? Is it Bach? And on every side, homes are broken into and hiding-places winkled out. Most of the earlier ghetto scenes take place in the open; here the violation is more intimate and more absolute.

Until the liquidation, or just before, there is little direct focus on the Nazis themselves. They are not so much individuals as a malign and largely anonymous force, which Schindler (no Nazi at heart, despite the badge) does his best to handle, and which the Jews have to do their best to endure. But with the arrival of Amon Goeth, oppression and persecution assume a distinctive set of features.

Goeth is the commandant of Plaszow, the dreadful labor camp near Cracow to which thousands of Jews from the city, including Schindler’s workers, were dispatched. We learn a good deal less about him from the film than we do from the documentary novel by Thomas Keneally on which the film is based.^* It is to Keneally that we have to go if we want to find out about his early background, his education, his marriages, his cultural pretensions, the bizarre hatred he nourished for engineers—and about the full extent of his sadism, which was even more monstrous than anything we are shown on the screen. But to make up for this, the film sets the man vividly before us. Along with his savagery, the actor who plays him, Ralph Fiennes, conveys the sinister softness, and the touch of madness—though we shouldn’t read too much into this last. As somebody once said of somebody else, his evil isn’t a product of his insanity; on the contrary, his insanity is one of the aspects of his evil.

Fiennes is also good—as is the whole film—at bringing out the strong element of malevolent glee that so often accompanied Nazi atrocities. There is one especially revolting scene, where Goeth and his underlings shake with helpless laughter at the antics (as they suppose) of Schindler, who is trying to alleviate the agony of the sweltering victims being sent off to Auschwitz by hosing water into the cattle-trucks in which they are penned. And there are many lesser reminders of how much “humor” there was in the Holocaust, on the part of those who carried it out. You sometimes feel they saw the whole thing as a filthy joke—the filthiest (and most exciting) conceivable.

With the Jewish characters, Spielberg avoids the obvious pitfalls. He doesn’t make them unnaturally noble or lovable, neither does he reduce them to a mass of undifferentiated victims. But that is putting the matter negatively. He in fact strikes an admirable balance between portraying a huge collective tragedy, and forcing us to recognize that those caught up in it suffered their fates one by one. Time and again—briefly, tellingly, and unostentatiously—he singles out a face, a gesture, a fleeting reaction, a few spoken words. Who can forget, for example, the mother desperately whispering to her child (“Look at the snow! Look at the snow!”) while an old man is just about to be shot nearby?

It seems fair to assume that Spielberg is tapping something deep in himself in all this. (How else can we explain a success that couldn’t have been predicted from his previous work?) And that “something” plainly includes a reservoir of specifically Jewish feeling. According to Philip Taylor’s 1992 book about him, his earliest memory, a warm one, was that of being wheeled in his pram down the aisle of a synagogue in Cincinnati. Taylor adds that

he typically describes it in cinematic terms. Out of the darkness, like a tracking shot, came a burst of red light. Bathed in it, in silhouette, were bearded men handing biscuits to him: Hassidic elders, wise old sages, bringing comfort and reassurance after the fear and wonder.

Perhaps this is more fantasy than memory, but either way it suggests the makings of the direct emotional investment that helps to give Schindler’s List its urgency.

Not that there is anything parochial about Spielberg’s approach. It is a sign of the film’s breadth that the principal Jewish part, that of Itzhak Stern, should be played (and played very well) by a non-Jewish actor, Ben Kingsley. In Kingsley’s performance, Stern—an accountant who managed Schindler’s factories for him—is above all a study in iron self-control. His impersonality may not protect him against the Nazis (what can?), but it is a strategy for getting things done as long as circumstances permit. A strategy rather than a mask: the thoughts and feelings it conceals are fairly easy to deduce, though they are all the more eloquent for remaining unspoken.

And Schindler? It seems to me an inspired stroke to have cast Liam Neeson in the part. He has the star quality Spielberg’s conception of him calls for, without being—as yet—a full-blown, over-familiar star. He may look unmistakably Irish, but he manages to look convincingly Central European as well. He gets across Schindler’s expansiveness, his opportunism, his wiliness, his nerve. And in the end you are left baffled, as you are in Keneally’s book. Schindler was a wheeler-dealer, a tireless womanizer, a slippery customer all round. That such a man should have risked his neck on a sudden generous impulse might have been understandable; that he should have acted as he did, systematically, over a prolonged period of time, seems inexplicable.

The mystery has been heightened by an extraordinary interview which his eighty-six-year-old widow gave to the London Daily Mail just before Christmas. Emilie Schindler, who lives outside Buenos Aires, is not a sweet old lady—she refers to her husband in the interview as “the asshole”—but on her own showing she has ample reason to feel bitter. Her marital troubles began on her wedding day, when Oskar was arrested on a charge brought against him by a mistress she had known nothing about; and after that they practically never stopped. Nor was it only a question of his infidelity. According to her account he was also lazy, boastful, childish, and undependable about money. After they had separated in the 1950s, for instance, he did virtually nothing to support her, even though she was living in semi-destitution: when a group of Jewish survivors gave him $1,000 to pass on to her, he pocketed half of it for himself.

On a number of points Emilie also challenges the account of Schindler’s rescue work given in the book and the film. One of these is rather more than a point of detail. In October 1944, Schindler managed to get his workers sent back from Plaszow to the comparative safety of a factory in Moravia, but three hundred women prisoners were inadvertently sent to Auschwitz. According to the Keneally-Spielberg version (although Keneally leaves the matter in some doubt), Schindler rescued them by going to the camp himself and bribing SS functionaries with diamonds. According to Emilie, the job was accomplished by a friend of the family, a young woman who offered the functionaries her sexual favors.

Who can say where the truth lies? Certainly not an ordinary reader or moviegoer; and at this late hour, possibly not even a historian. But even if we take some of Emilie’s charges with a grain of salt, it seems likely that the real Schindler was a less congenial figure than the man we see in the film.

That only makes him more of a puzzle than ever. Emilie was closely involved with the later stages of his rescue work—she did a great deal to succor the prisoners with medicine and food once they had been moved to Moravia, where she spent the war; and though she is more than willing to query his motives, she is finally forced to admit that he was “a man of principle in some respects.” They were significant respects, too; they helped to save 1,200 lives. So we are left with the same core of altruism, and same unanswerable riddle: Why did he do it? Perhaps we should stop fretting about his motives, and simply accept him, with gratitude, for what he was.

To some extent Schindler’s List is bound to be Schindler’s film, which means a film with a strong positive undertow. In all but the darkest moments he dispenses a certain cheer; having him at the center of events makes the story much more bearable than it would otherwise be, and much better adapted to popular taste.

But the film is also more than Schindler. The images which stay with one most from it are those of anguish and terror—a group of guards having a desultory technical conversation about pistols while a prisoner kneels in front of them waiting to be shot in the head; doctors arriving for a life-or-death inspection; a farmer’s child glimpsed from a train speeding toward Auschwitz, drawing a finger across her throat. Most daring of all is the image of the small girl, not much more than a toddler, whom we try to track through Schindler’s eyes as he watches the liquidation of the ghetto from a hill overlooking the city. For the first time the film acquires, as though by magic, a dab of color: the girl is wearing a red coat. In itself, the device might seem no more than a gimmick, but in the context that Spielberg has established, it is extraordinarily effective. Focusing on a single victim, we are tempted to invest all our hopes in her; if only this one special child is spared, somehow everything else will come right. About an hour later we see her again, in the camp at Plaszow. She is still wearing her red coat, but this time she is a corpse on a pushcart.

Most of the movie’s faults are minor ones, and it would seem fussy to point them out. In comparison with its enormous strengths, the brief lapses (usually into cinematic cliché) seem of small importance. But once or twice, toward the end, it does threaten to lose its way in a more serious fashion.

The episode in which the women prisoners are sent by mistake to Auschwitz, for instance. In general the hellishness of the place is frighteningly well conveyed. As the prisoners stumble through the dark, as the crematorium chimney belches smoke, as an unnamed Josef Mengele interrogates the older women (“How old are you, Mother?”), we feel that we have reached the ultimate verge of horror. But the central incident, in which a group of women, their heads shaved, are thrust into a “shower-bath,” is at odds with the rest. The whole scene has a slightly unreal, antiseptic look, and the last-minute reprieve—the showers spray down water rather than gas—is enacted in a cliff-hanging, happy-ending style which suggests that Spielberg has momentarily wandered back to the world of adventure stories.

Again, the closing moments of the film (the penultimate ones, at least) are heavy-handed. Schindler’s final address to the assembled prisoners and SS men follows Keneally’s account, but it feels contrived: you can see the way Spielberg has stage-managed it. Schindler’s prolonged leave-taking—breaking down, sobbing about how much more he could have done—seems positively stagey. Here there is no counterpart in Keneally; and according to Emilie, Oskar in fact sat paralyzed with fear as the two of them waited to be driven away. They were now about to become fugitives themselves.

After they have gone, we revert briefly to Keneally’s scenario. A Russian horseman rides into the camp. “Don’t go back east,” he tells the former prisoners, “they hate you there. But don’t go west either.” And then, abandoning Keneally, we cut to a shot of the prisoners, in full color, marching across the horizon, singing an anthemstyle Hebrew song (as far as I could make out, “Jerusalem the Golden”). This is a mistake. I’ve no trouble with the sentiment, but I wish it could have been presented more subtly, in a manner more consonant with the general spirit of the film.

The last scene of all, however, redeems everything. We are in the Latin Cemetery in Jerusalem where Schindler is buried. A group of mourners, mostly elderly, file past, placing stones on his grave. They are actual survivors from Cracow, men and women whose younger selves, played by actors, we have already met. It is an intensely moving scene, more moving than anything else in the film. Indeed, it derives much of its power from the contrast with the rest of the film. Here, after three hours of storytelling, is the point-blank proof that we haven’t just been watching a story.

For all its brilliance, Schindler’s List as a whole can’t transcend the limitations of docudrama. We remain aware, if only at the back of our minds, of the element of artifice; and if we have read Keneally, we also realize how much has been tidied up or left out. In a sense, it is a film that falls between two stools. It can’t quite match the searing authenticity of a true documentary like Shoah or Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, and it can’t completely win us over with its artistry, as Louis Malle does in the lower-key Au Revoir les Enfants.

But what it can do, it does superlatively well. It offers as truthful a picture as we are ever likely to get of regions where no documentary compilation could hope to penetrate. (The footage doesn’t exist.) And it reaches out toward the mass public, the public that primarily wants to be entertained, without sacrificing its own integrity.

As a contribution to popular culture, it can only do good. Holocaust denial may or may not be a major problem in future, but Holocaust ignorance, Holocaust forgetfulness, and Holocaust indifference are bound to be, and Schindler’s List is likely to do as much as any single work can to dispel them. One point leaves me uneasy, though. Gulag ignorance and Cultural Revolution forgetfulness are bound to be a problem too—they already are—and indifference to the fate of the Ibo and Cambodians and Eritreans and a list that is already too long for most of us to remember. Are the other genocides and mass exterminations of our century ever going to find their Spielbergs? And how many films about them can we absorb if they do?

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