A Dissent on ‘Schindler’s List’

Despite its seven Oscars I doubt that Schindler’s List will survive its season either as a memorable film or as a comment on the concentration camps, for the evil that Spielberg tries to portray lies beyond his imagination.

Hitler’s genocide was a crime against humanity, a crime in which a great part of humanity was itself an accomplice. Hitler’s victims were multitudinous, but his accomplices—both active and passive and not simply in Germany—were far more numerous. Schindler was an exotic exception and Spielberg’s film lets viewers take comfort and pride in his virtuous behavior, but the Holocaust raises terrible questions about the quality of our species, and it is these questions that Stephen Spielberg, for all his good intentions and craftsmanship, did not ask, perhaps because they did not occur to him.

His coarse and self-indulgent Nazis suggest that he has grasped the banality of evil. But he has not understood its universality, its persistence, or the magnitude of its victory in our time. This is not to say that in evil times good deeds may not be celebrated. They must be celebrated, but with some sense of historical perspective, and here Spielberg fails. He has placed the oddity Schindler in the foreground of his tale and let him determine the triumphant outcome. But Schindler’s good deed was marginal and its motivation obscure, so different from the behavior of countless others at the time and since as to suggest that he might have come from a different planet, like another famous Spielberg character.

Except to the people whose lives he saved, Schindler made no difference to the outcome of the Holocaust. But the film’s aim is to show that he made a huge difference, for he is meant (like Spencer Tracy at Black Rock, etc.) to prove that remarkable individuals can outsmart evil. What then of the others? Did they die by the millions simply because they weren’t clever enough themselves or lucky enough to find a Schindler of their own? Does the film mean to suggest that if only there had been enough Schindlers, the problem of evil which the Holocaust raises would have been solved, that it was merely for lack of cleverness or luck on the part of the victims that they died? And not only Hitler’s victims, but the victims of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and their various imitators: Did they too die for lack of someone with Schindler’s spunky wit? In China and elsewhere are so many still dying simply because they aren’t clever and nervy and lucky enough to survive?

The aesthetic and moral failure of Schindler’s List is a matter of misplaced emphasis. A dramatic representation of Hitler’s crime should leave us shaken and humiliated on behalf of our species for the Holocaust raises the most serious questions about our collective sanity, to say nothing of our moral quality. Washington’s Holocaust Museum faces these appalling questions with courage and dignity—perhaps a little too much dignity—and without attempting an answer. Schindler’s List doesn’t face…

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