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Spielberg's Success

Critics have charged that Schindler's List turns the Holocaust into a Hollywood fantasy. But is it a fantasy that exploits commercial means for high moral purpose?

Alan A. Stone

THE NEW Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. is an unexpected popular success. People wait in line for hours and for many tourists it is the most memorable part of their trip to our nation's capitol. Cynics have an explanation for this popularity: the museum, they say, is Washington's answer to a Disney theme-park experience. But even the cynics admit that it has summoned up the six million ghosts of the Jews killed in the Holocaust.

Schindler's List,
this year's Academy Award winner, is the museum's cinematic equivalent -- perhaps the ultimate Hollywood Holocaust Museum. Spielberg is in a way a contemporary Walt Disney. Like Disney, he creates monuments of mainstream popular culture that appeal to adults as well as children. E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Jurassic Park are his Snow White, Dumbo, and Fantasia. Spielberg, of course, is a more traditional director than the unique and eccentric Disney. He knows film and his own movies are filled with references to his predecessors. But Spielberg is most like Disney in his child-like and reality-bending imagination. His films reach out beyond children to the child in all of us. Where Disney gave us Mickey, the anthropomorphic mouse, Spielberg gives us real children with whom we can empathize and identify. Eliot, the young boy who befriends E.T., is the best example -- the unhappy child of divorced parents who first wants to keep the "alien" as a pet and then learns to "connect" with him. And E.T. survives only because he "connects" with his fellow creatures, teaching Eliot -- and all of us -- about the place of love in the "Great Chain of Being." E.T. is a Christ figure and Eliot and the children are his faithful apostles in the cruel, disconnected world fashioned by adults. When E.T. rises from the dead and goes home to Heaven, even the adults in the theater wept for joy.

Spielberg's spirituality is part of his imprimatur as a filmmaker. Like every child in the human family, he still believes in miracles. And his underlying optimism and hope are a throwback not to Disney, but to Frank Capra and Preston Sturges -- the great happy-ending directors of Hollywood's past. In fact, movie nostalgia is one of Spielberg's trademarks as a director. When Spielberg decided to make a film about the Holocaust he took on a monumental task, one not obviously suited to his moviemaking talents. His "art film" critics had long since dismissed him as a commercial director who could only win an Oscar for Best Box Office Revenues. Furthermore, his personal Jewish identity was on the line in much the same way that Spike Lee's personal black identity was when he made Malcolm X. Both directors knew they were making the most important film they had yet undertaken, and that anything less than a sweeping success would be a failure. Spielberg's challenge may have been even greater than Lee's. The Holocaust is the most traumatic and important event in the history of world Jewry and its memory is sacred to any Jew who acknowledges his Jewishness -- sacred in all the complex and ambiguous ways of a fractious people. Some form of Jewish identity has been a continuous presence on Earth for almost three millennia, and unlike any other people, Jews of the diaspora have survived throughout that time as an oppressed minority united in suffering -- and not in political or military dominion. Still, no one can deny that the "Chosen People" have prospered. And the modern world, overwhelmed by all of the competing claims to victim status, has grown weary of the Jew as the specialist in suffering, and all the Jewish dirges about their Holocaust. From the rabid denials of the new anti-Semites to the yawns of sympathetic but bored listeners, the answer to "Never Forget" is "Enough is Enough." The non-Jewish world wants no more of the Holocaust and for many Jews, like this writer, the subject is at once too painful and too sacrosanct for Hollywood movies.

Because Steven Spielberg's challenge was not unlike Spike Lee's, the limited popular success of Malcolm X provides an instructive contrast. The most obvious limitation of that film for general audiences is that Lee gave non-blacks no one on the screen with whom they could identify. The cross-over audience that responded enthusiastically to films like Do the Right Thing never materialized. Despite the proliferation of X-caps, the film also displeased some factions in the black community because it misrepresented their most important convictions about Malcolm and his place in African-American history. Denzel Washington was unable to project Malcolm's larger-than-life charisma on screen and Lee's musical-comedy zoot-suit style was ill-suited to the social, political, and religious gravity of his subject. Ironically, the black Muslims who were "Spook" Lee's most severe critics blamed his failure on Jewish money-lenders who supposedly had a negative influence on Lee's directorial imagination. But the truth is that Lee obtained complete artistic freedom. If he failed it is because The Autobiography of Malcolm X was simply beyond his cinematic reach. Spielberg avoided or overcame similar pitfalls. His achievement rests in large measure on that moment of genius more than a decade ago when he recognized that Thomas Keneally's mediocre novel, Schindler's List, would make a great movie. Mozart and Verdi must have had a comparable task in selecting the right librettos for their operas. The leap of creative imagination and faith from text to images is surely one of the film director's most daunting challenges. Spielberg met the challenge. He found just the right story, got a brilliant screenplay, and made the blockbuster Hollywood movie about the Holocaust; a distinctive achievement which by its very terms -- Hollywood and Holocaust -- seemed impossible. Schindler, the protagonist, is the non-Jew who mediates the Holocaust experience for Spielberg and his audience. He is there on the screen for non-Jews who do not really care about the Holocaust and he is there for Jews who care too much. He solves two basic psychological problems at once. Because he is a person with whom non-Jews can identify, he creates for them an emotional connection to the events of the film. And because of his otherness, he keeps Jews at a safe emotional distance from re-experiencing their terror.

Unlike Malcolm X, Schindler (Liam Neeson) is an unknown quantity to his audience. Spielberg and Neeson were therefore free to create their own Oskar Schindler. Their Schindler is larger-than-life on the screen. Neeson's film presence is iconic. His carved features and size suggest some Roman statue of a god come to life. Like Schindler, Neeson was relatively unfamiliar to American film audiences and so did not carry much baggage of past roles into the part. Indeed, his physical presence in those roles was more memorable than the characters he played. We do not know yet whether he is a great actor, but it is already clear that he projects the magnetism and authority of the legendary film stars.

Those qualities transform Oskar Schindler, failed businessman and bon-vivant, into a mysterious and imposing personality who can carry the historical weight of the film. Spielberg capitalizes on the theme of mystery as the movie begins. Our first encounter with Schindler is with his back, his hands, his cache of money, and his preparations for some high stakes gamble. We watch the figure of Schindler bribe the headwaiter. And he is already sitting at a ringside table in the art deco cabaret before we first see Neeson's iconic profile in a sudden hand-held camera shot that, looking up from floor level, magnifies his majestic presence. Neeson is well over six feet tall and Spielberg decided, shrewdly, to emphasize his height rather than minimize it.

Schindler is throwing his money around to ingratiate himself with Nazi authorities in the occupied Polish city of Cracow. We do not know exactly why he is doing it, only that he is a kind of magician overcoming every resistance as he transforms the separate tables of the cabaret into one joyful drunken party of wine, women, and song for the Nazi officials. This, we learn, is Schindler's only skill as a businessman, his way of setting up shop as a war-profiteer. He also quickly establishes contact with Jewish operatives in the black market for the luxury goods with which he continues to ply the Nazi officials he will need to grease the wheels for his business ventures.

Spielberg's brilliant decision to film Schindler's List in black and white is a key ingredient in the movie's aesthetic success. Color intensifies most of the emotional values in film -- as though part of our primitive brain gets turned on by color information. Certainly this is true for images of sex and violence, both of which are portrayed in the film -- but shot in black and white, they are less arousing to our basic instincts. The lack of color allows Spielberg to be explicit without becoming tastelessly graphic.

Spielberg's black and white also achieves a number of other coherent aesthetic objectives. It echoes newsreels and documentaries of the Holocaust made at the time, thus establishing historical context and a feeling of authenticity. The black and white, together with other obviously intentional directorial touches, remind us of German Expressionist films. This creates and sustains a style throughout the film which adds to our sense of watching history unfold, in real time. Moreover, this nostalgic evocation of earlier expressionist directors is a typical feature of Spielberg's films which, if it seemed kitsch in earlier films, works perfectly in this one.

Spielberg puts an "asterisk" of color in his film and parentheses of color around it to insure his audience is aware of his aesthetic choice of black and white. At one point in the "Final Solution" to the Cracow ghetto a Jewish mother and her daughter cross the screen and the little girl is wearing a red coat. The plaintive red signifier quickly vanishes and we do not know what has happened to the child until the film's most ghoulish scene. The Nazis are ordered to dig up all the Jewish corpses they have buried to incinerate the evidence of the slaughter of the Cracow ghetto. As the decomposing corpses are trundled in wagons to the fires we catch again a glimpse of the exhumed red signifier amongst the dead.

Spielberg's color parentheses in the film come at the beginning as we watch two candles burn out and near the end when a candle is lit and burns against the darkness. At both times, in the white flicker of the flame, we see the reddish-orange glow of combustion -- the sign of life, extinguished and then rekindled. There are other choreographed moments of point and counterpoint that indicate how thoughtfully the film was edited. Cracow, where the events depicted in the film took place, is the surviving gem of Poland's medieval cities, its castle and cathedral spared by the armies that for centuries marched back and forth across Poland. It is less than a half day's journey from the great rail crossings of Eastern Europe which meet at the infamous Auschwitz, built on that site by the Germans as the most convenient location for their calculated plan of genocide. The artifacts of the unthinkable slaughter can still be seen there. Anyone who has visited Auschwitz, as I have, will recognize how much those artifacts contribute to the images in the film. I walked around Auschwitz and wept as I saw heaps of children's shoes, of gold dental fillings, of eyeglasses, of human hair, of suitcases with Jewish names and addresses from all over Europe. Spielberg shows us how those artifacts got there. He also makes good use of the Cracow location, particularly the cathedral where Schindler encounters the Jewish black marketeers who, in the early days of the occupation, regularly attended services as a cover and meeting place for their commercial transactions. When Schindler later negotiates with the Jews of Cracow and offers to make them partners in a deal -- they will supply the enamel pot factory, the capital, the labor, and the know-how, while he takes care of the "presentation" -- the audience understands what he means. The Jews accept his hard terms; he will give them some of the pots to sell on the black market. They have little bargaining power as we watch them and their kinsmen: first forced out of the countryside and crowded into the city of Cracow, then herded out of their homes into the ghetto as they are reviled and pelted with rocks by their Polish neighbors, then, in the "Final Solution," rounded up for slave labor and slaughter.

Oskar Schindler takes over a wealthy Jew's lavish apartment just as he takes over the Jewish-owned factory -- not in a greedy or mean-spirited way, but like a man who sees his chance and takes it. This giant of a man knows best the pleasures of the flesh and like a child can deny himself nothing. Schindler maintains a kind of majesty at the same time that he is a rake and a ne'er-do-well. Women love him and the Nazis find his charm, his parties, and his bribes irresistible.

The actual Schindler's character -- in the old-fashioned moral sense of the word -- is the deepest mystery of this amazing story, and Spielberg and Neeson never really solve it. Their Schindler's original intention is clearly to exploit the situation, living as high as he can and packing away as much money as possible. He had failed before as a businessman and he will fail thereafter. This time he follows the German Army into occupied Poland like a carpetbagger taking advantage of the war to exploit Jews, not to save them. He will be converted, but not like Saul, struck by revelation on the road to Damascus. Instead, as he watches the atrocities, some gradual process of self discovery takes place which he does not himself understand. Jews beg for his help, which he eventually gives, spending his entire war profiteer's fortune and taking personal risks to do it. He is certainly unlike the other Germans, and particularly SS Officer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) who is portrayed as a sadist.

War has many horrors, but the most obscene is the sadism that pours from the hearts of so many human beings. Sadism is also the fundamental human perversion -- thus the standard movie depiction of the S.S. officer as a Marquis de Sade, uncontrollably cruel and taking pleasure in it. In juxtaposition to such leather-booted archetypes, Oskar Schindler seems a benevolent satyr.

Just as he is not a sadist, Schindler is not a good German in the traditional sense -- the dutiful man who goes about killing
Jews efficiently because that is his job. Spielberg gives us many such "good Germans," who chuck children under the chin and call old women "mother" before they slaughter them like cattle. Schindler is neither good nor evil. His sins are those of the flesh and his virtues are those of the bon-vivant who genuinely wants everyone to enjoy the party. He even sees the good side of Amon Goeth and forgives and indulges himself and everyone else.

How does this exploitative, high-living, self-indulgent man become the savior of so many Jews? One possibility is that just as the real Schindler seized the easy opportunity to make money, he seized the easy opportunity to save Jewish lives. Not because he was a hero or saint but because he was a man who could not resist opportunities and grand gestures. Schindler might be the kind of man who is neither born to goodness nor achieves goodness but has goodness thrust upon him. In the moral adventure of life he simply finds himself in the right place at the right time to play the hero's part. Schindler might then demonstrate that acts of good and evil are in large measure fortuitous, that saintliness is not required for great deeds -- as the good German demonstrates that deeds of great evil are not confined to the wicked. This postmodern interpretation of Schindler as the opportunist who has goodness thrust upon him was certainly not Spielberg's intention. His own psychological interpretation of Schindler's conversion is ambiguous, though, and in the end so melodramatic that it is the major disappointment in the film's artful construction.

The character of Spielberg's Schindler evolves in a sequence of scenes in which he interacts with his accountant, Yitzhak Stern, played by Ben Kingsley who is best known for his role as Gandhi. Schindler knows that he is himself incompetent and that he needs Stern to run his enterprise. Stern, a Gandhi-esque accountant, recognizes Schindler for what he is: an opportunistic war profiteer. But as the world of Cracow's Jews collapses, Stern realizes that Schindler can be useful and becomes his faithful middleman, organizing and running the enterprise. The contrast between Stern's discipline and asceticism and Schindler's self-indulgence establishes both the characters.

At the same time, Schindler's "party drinking" and pleasures of the flesh contrast increasingly with the mad drunkenness and perverse violence of the commandant, Amon Goeth. But neither Stern nor Goeth are presented as rounded psychological characters. Stern has no private or personal life in the film. Although he has a family, his relationship to them is barely acknowledged. Above nepotism and all of the ugly, self-interested motives, he uses his position with Schindler to save people only on humanistic grounds: intellectuals, musicians, rabbis, who are to be exterminated because they have no "essential skills." Stern is the "pure soul" of the film (no stretch for the man who played Gandhi). Goeth is put together with smoke and mirrors. He is part sadistic madman, part fop, part alcoholic, and part imbecilic fool. These parts do not make a believable commandant even in Hitler's camps. But both characters come to admire Schindler and they serve Spielberg's purpose: to establish a middle ground between good and evil for Schindler to occupy and within which he can move toward Stern and save his soul.

But Goeth's unreal character is on the screen for other reasons, too. This commandant is the human embodiment of those responsible for the Holocaust. He kills arbitrarily without rhyme or reason. He kills Jews who try to help and he kills Jews who obstruct. He kills randomly for sport and systematically for policy. He kills with a long range rifle, he kills with a pistol at point blank range, and he kills without remorse. His is the modern figure of Satan in the guise of psychotic sadist. Foucault worried that madness had driven evil from the world, but Nazis like Goeth demonstrated that there is no moral distinction, as Allied Forces concluded when they found Goeth after the war in a sanatorium and hanged him for war crimes. Children have been a characteristic presence in Spielberg's major films. E.T. was no exception. Jaws, Close Encounters, Indiana Jones, and The Empire of the Sun all feature children whom Spielberg uses the way a symphony composer uses violins to play on our heart strings. Children powerfully evoke sympathetic identification and intense emotional responses as we react to their vulnerability. Spielberg is the master of this, so it was predictable that children would figure in Schindler's List. In a stroke of inspired balance, he has used them both as victimizers and victims. There is the memorable image of a young Polish girl screaming "Good bye Jews" in an ecstasy of hatred as her neighbors are taken away. And there is an even younger Polish boy making the universal, grisly gesture of the hand across the throat as the Jews pass in cattle cars toward Auschwitz. These children are Spielberg's reproach against those who say "We didn't hate Jews" and "No one knew." Then, as counterpoint, there is the searing image of the Jewish boy in the labor camp desperately trying to find a hiding place to escape being sent to the ovens. His last resort is the latrine under the toilet holes. As the young boy jumps in we see other children we recognize from earlier scenes already hiding in the fecal sewage.

The horror of this image of children submerged in human waste is tolerable only because of Spielberg's decision to use black and white rather than color. So, too, we are spared the redness of the gushing blood in the many scenes in which Jews are shot point blank through the head. Spielberg has also filmed some of the most lurid scenes from on high and at a distance, a visual perspective reminiscent of Breughel's Slaughter of the Innocents, which, in the very act of affirming God's existence, denies His concern for us. But if the perspective was inspired by Breughel, Spielberg's film is silent on the subject of God. His Jews go through the Holocaust without ever asking how God could do this to his Chosen People. They light candles, they pray, but for those on his list Schindler is the only god in this film. His unexpected goodness is their miracle. He is the one who looks down from above at the Cracow slaughter. Conscious of the limits of his medium and the scope of his own talent, Spielberg leaves the problem of God and theodicy to the Rabbis. His film is not a philosophy of the Holocaust, except in the sense that Spielberg has found even there his characteristic message of hope.

But if Schindler's List does not pose deep philosophical questions it does provide some answers. Amon Goeth is a concrete answer to Hannah Arendt's abstract query as to why so many Jews went unprotesting to their deaths. The locomotives steaming into Auschwitz; the unrestrained hatred of the Poles; the indifference of the "good Germans" -- all these too are concrete answers. And that Schindler saved so many Jews is an answer to all of those who claimed that nothing could be done. Spielberg insists on confronting the explicit horror of the Holocaust but not in a way that would drive the Jewish members of his audience out of the theater. Almost none of the Jewish characters we get to know well are killed. We experience again and again the gratitude of those who survive and the miracle of their survival. The children who hid in the latrine are saved. And even in this movie Spielberg is not above taking us on the kind of emotional roller coaster for which Hollywood and he are famous. This he does at the most terrifying moment when the women and children on Schindler's list are mistakenly sent to Auschwitz. With their hair cut and stripped naked they are herded into the gas chambers. The women are screaming in fear, clutching each other, when water comes out of the first shower head, and then all the others. One weeps with relief, and we watch with them while the lines of other Jews, not on Schindler's list, are unknowingly lead toward the gas chambers. Spielberg's camera does not follow them to their destruction. Instead it pans to the ominous smoke and cinders blown from the chimney of the crematorium. Earlier we have seen those same cinders of human flesh and bone raining down on Cracow. We are expected to bear witness to the enormity of calculated genocide but we are not required to watch it. Schindler manages to save more than a thousand Jews and pulls it off by using the very same talents that made him a war-profiteer -- his flair for "presentation," bribery, and grand gestures. During his gradual conversion in what may be the greatest human scene in this film, Schindler awakens from what Elie Wiesel, poet-philosopher of the Holocaust, has called the greatest sin and punishment -- indifference.

It is a very hot day and the Jews have been packed into cattle cars at the train station for transport to Auschwitz. The Nazis, joined by Schindler, are sipping cold drinks while their human cattle are dying of thirst and suffocating in the heat. Schindler, awakened by a moral sensibility, convinces Commandant Goeth to allow him to spray the desperate Jews with the fire hose. His futile gesture amuses the Nazis who know how the train ride will end. But it is a convincing and believable moment when Schindler is saved from the sin of indifference and escapes the punishment of deadened sensibilities -- convincing and believable because one sees the same convivial Schindler in this act of mercy.

The same cannot be said for the Schindler we see in the last few moments of this film. It is as though Spielberg, having restrained the bathos for so long, gave in to his worst impulse. Schindler has not only taken heroic risks and spent most of his fortune to save his Jews and provide them sanctuary in his munitions factory in Czechoslovakia, he has also decided to manufacture only defective munitions and lose the rest of his money to sabotage the German war effort. When the war finally ends, the bankrupt Schindler delivers a marvelous speech convincing the guards to go home without killing his Jews. As though this were not enough, Spielberg gives Neeson a final scene in which Schindler must have a convulsion of contrition and self-loathing as he berates himself for not saving more lives. His gold Nazi pin could have saved two lives, his automobile, five lives. He collapses in paroxysms of remorse and his Jews step forward to take him in their arms and comfort him. In the background, we vaguely discern someone taking off his identifiably striped concentration camp uniform and in Schindler's last scene he is wearing the inmate's garb. His transformation to heroic martyr is complete and utterly unbelievable. Only as one sits down and reflects on the whole movie can this directorial lapse be forgiven. Spielberg escapes banality only because we realize in retrospect that he was himself on that terrifying roller coaster ride with us. His risk-taking in the end is what saves Schindler's List from what it could have been -- a film that merely manipulated film goers instead of leaving them in stunned silence as the screen credits roll. There will be some who find fault in Spielberg's movie and particularly those who cringe at Schindler's last scenes. But Steven Spielberg's accomplishment cannot be gainsaid. He is vindicated both as a director and a Jew. He made his kind of film, a film that makes the Holocaust a part of popular culture; by celebrating the few who survived, Spielberg has put unforgettable human faces on the nameless dead. 

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