Hollywood and the Holocaust

Schindler's List

A film directed by Steven Spielberg
Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

Oskar Schindler
Oskar Schindler; drawing by David Levine

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…

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