Making History Hollywood Style


For better or worse, movies are the closest thing
we’ve got to a cultural Rorshak test. Like Rorshak’s inkblots, movies
are infinitely interpretable, and the way we view a given film often
tells us more about ourselves than it does about the film in question.
So it follows that when a filmmaker manages to tap into our deepest
emotions as a society, he’s telling us an awful lot about our cultural
psychology.

In recent weeks,
just about everyone I know has been talking about Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and what a great film it is. One particularly
cynical friend, who has never been a fan of Spielberg’s particular
brand of schmaltz, and who is also one of the most insightful film
critics I know came out of the film saying, "Well, I guess
pigs can fly." Now, I’ve never been a big Spielberg fan either,
but I admired his two previous efforts at adult filmmaking (The
Color Purple
and Empire of the Sun), and I’d like to
think I approached the film with an open mind. Because I’m descended
from European Jews, I’m pretty sure I approached it with an open
heart- there’s nothing I’d rather see than a great film about the
Holocaust.

Steven Spielberg with Liam Neeson on location
in Poland.

But when I finally got around to seeing Schindler’s List this weekend, I wasn’t overwhelmed. Yes,
I was impressed with Spielberg’s technical achievement and I was
certainly moved by the uplifting and life-affirming story he chose
to tell. And the performances by Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph
Fiennes and the rest of the cast were remarkable. But ultimately,
I walked out of the theater disappointed.

Schindler’s List contained
as many parts commercial entertainment as it did cinematic art,
which helped make it a great Steven Spielberg movie, but not a great
movie. Looking at what many of us consider to be the defining tragedy
of the twentieth century, Spielberg managed to make a film that
in many ways fits comfortably into an ouever that also includes E. T.

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, who protected
Jewish workers in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Much of my disappointment has to do
with the film’s context. It’s one of only two major Hollywood movies
in recent years to deal directly with the Holocaust. For my money,
the other one, Sophie’s Choice, was a much more powerful
film. It seems to me that the title character of Sophie’s Choice,
a woman forced to decide which of her two children will have to
die at the hands of the Nazis (and who ultimately takes her own
life because she cannot live with the fact that she made the choice),
is a much more potent and fitting symbol for the Holocaust than
the title character of Schindler’s List, a man who risked his life
and squandered his fortune to save 1,100 Jews who would otherwise
have perished. (Interestingly, neither of these two symbols of the
Holocaust are Jewish.) The thing is, I don’t want to be uplifted
by a story about the Holocaust. I want to horrified. Granted, there’s
plenty of horror in Schindler’s List, but it’s a question
of balance. Is Spielberg giving us a spoonful of sugar with our
medicine, or is it the other way around?

Indeed, there were several moments
in Schindler’s List that were so undeniably sentimental that
they made me cringe. Schindler’s transformation from opportunist
to humanitarian comes when he watches the destruction of a Jewish
ghetto from the remove of a distant hilltop. He’s transformed, however,
not by the mass cruelty he witnesses, but by the ordeal of one little
girl (wearing a red coat in an almost entirely black and white film)
who wanders through the chaos to her doom. Children, of course,
have always been central to Spielberg’s vision (e.g. E.T. and Hook), but here his strategy seems painfully manipulative.
Even more manipulative is Schindler’s final scene, in which he chastizes
himself for not having done more to save the Jews. Coming after
we have learned that Schindler has lost his entire fortune to his
efforts, this breakdown rings utterly false.

I was also bothered by Spielberg’s
depiction of Amon Goeth, the concentration camp commandant. He’s
the only Nazi we get to know in the film, and, thanks to Ralph Fiennes’s
terrifying performance, he comes across as a psychopath (and as
a convenient stand-in for Hitler). The implication is that the Nazi
horror was perpetuated by people like Goeth, and was not the responsibility
of the German people or the result of a national xenophobia that
clearly still exists today. If those who do not remember history
are doomed to repeat it, this type of portrayal is particularly
dangerous. After all, a whole generation will probably grow up learning
about the Holocaust from Schindler’s List, (especially if
it wins the Best Picture Oscar, which it is clearly poised to do),
and the lessons the film teaches, it seems to me, are not nearly
strong enough.

Or is this merely my own bias? As
I wrote at the beginning of this piece, the way we view a given
film often tells us more about ourselves than it does about the
film in question. Perhaps the film’s ultimate optimism about humanity
simply doesn’t jibe with my more pessimistic views. At any rate,
it’s unquestionably a good thing that Spielberg made it. Better
that a generation should grow up learning about the Holocaust from
this film than not at all. Furthermore, the film’s commercial and
critical success may well open the door for other filmmakers to
examine the horrors of the Holocaust. Like his Schindler, Spielberg
may not have done all he could to save the world (though, judging
by the tone of his interviews, he doesn’t seem to realize it), but
he has at least made a noble effort, which is far more than most
moviemakers can claim. MM

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