AFI Film Club: Schindler’s List Shaped How We Remember The Holocaust
Welcome to The Wisdom Daily’s AFI Film Club! Each month, I will be counting down the Top 10 American Film Institute’s list of Motion Pictures (the 2007 update) and exploring an American ideology/ theme in a recap. Why AFI? Why here? Why Now? Why Me? Click here for a brief rant on my connection to the catalog (insert inappropriate “the list is life” joke here). Enjoy the post and comment (about the film please- I already know that I’m terrible at the kazoo). Here is AFI’s #8, Schindler’s List:
Indulge me in a brief oversimplification of film theory (I know movie-nerds, I’m just scratching the surface); there are two schools of thought on the role of cinema in society, the fantastical formuliasm and the gritty realism. Twentieth century psychologist Rudolf Arnheim believed that film should be a reflection of the imagination; a modality in which we can engage with the surreal. On the other side of the pendulum is Siegfried Kracauer, who believed the camera should be an eye to the world, documenting and exposing all hidden truths.
Up until now, this column has been dealing in Arnheim’s movieland, focusing on wondrous films like the The Wizard of Oz and (arguably) Vertigo. It has been relatively easy for me to crank up some HAIM, pop in some blueberries, and type out ideas on masculinity in the Cowardly Lion or Hitchcock’s love of the Bay Area. If I insult a character, no sweat, their legacy lives inside a silver box.
It’s harder to recap a Kracauer film. It’s harder to write about a movie where people die.
Actual human beings, not bat mutants or werewolves or redheaded wizards. It’s those “based-on-a-true-story-that-you-wish-weren’t” movies. You feel the full extent of your privilege, when sitting on your comfy bean bag, nacho-cheese on your face, watching the horror of genocide.
Schindler’s List has shaped the way that I (and most Americans under the age of 37) understand the Holocaust. While I believe the film is a triumph in storytelling, I fear that it can sometimes be turned into just that, a story. Steven Spielberg, who refused to take what he considered “blood money” for making the film, fought hard against the film morphing into a dystopian epic, starting his Shoah Foundation and partnering with the US Board of Education to use Schindler’s List in classrooms. Still, when pounding the keyboard this time around, I want to remember that these accounts, even if sometimes adjusted for dramatic affect, happened to real people with the same names. What I write here is simply a commentary on the film, an insubstantial speck on the great mosaic of Holocaust studies and memory. This film is beautiful and acclaimed and a treasure, but it is a piece of PTSD, a manifestation of World War II trauma that continues to torment the modern person.
Now, the breakdown:
This movie is not about Oskar Schindler.
Yes, it centers on the man who, along with his Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern, saved 1100 Jews from the claws of the Auschwitz death camp, but that’s to keep the WASPs in their seats.
In my opinion, the whole film is depicted in the first 20 seconds, and the rest is commentary. A match is struck, and two candles are lit. It’s Sabbath evening, and a family is gathered around the patriarch of the family, listening to him recite the kiddush blessing. Praises of God echo and gratitudes for the Exodus elevate the mundane to holy. The flames burn out and the smoke swiftly rises, the shot turns to black and white, and we, the audience, are hit with the immediate dread and irony, that indeed, they were heading back to Egypt, into an enslavement of another regime.
Cut to a train horn and it’s 1939 Krakow; the sounds of Sabbath are long gone. Poland’s Jews are treated like second class citizens, stripped of their possessions and forced to wear an identifying star. Great news for the opportunity-seeking Oskar Schindler, by the way, who is able to run a business on the backs of Jewish laborers who are “cheaper than the price of a Pole.”
Jewish life in the Ghetto is filled with constant humiliation and fear of death, but many Jews are optimistic that this is the worse it will get. If only. Germans liquidate the ghetto, forcing Jews out of their homes, positioning people into “right” and “left” lines, and killing the sickly, quick to murder anyone who doesn’t (or does) obey.
Schindler befriends Amon Goeth, the SS-Untersturmführer in the Plaszow concentration camp, a man notorious for shooting prisoners with a sniper rifle from atop his bedroom balcony. They finagle a deal, and Schindler is able to keep his Jewish prisoners working, thus protecting them from any extraneous torture or death. World domination is not going how the Nazis hoped, and they are shipping everyone off to Auschwitz, including the Schindler Jews. Schindler, with his accountant, Itzhak Stern, allocate funds to “buy” Jewish workers to keep at a labor camp and work in Krakow with him, saving them from the death camps. He employs over a thousand people, but Schindler cannot celebrate this fact, realizing how much more he could have done. Schindler’s Jews are liberated by the Russians, Geoth is hanged, and the film shines with color as the actual Holocaust survivors, accompanied by the actors who portrayed them, put stones on Schindler’s grave.
Paperwork has a transcendental power, a divinity that can destroy and build. The Germans used the typewriter as a weapon, collecting Jewish people and names – “Zucker, Weissman” – in order to turn them into commodities and numbers. Like Stern, many of Krakow’s Jews have dedicated their livelihoods to lists, figures, and expense reports; in one scene, Jewish investors who are skeptical of Schindler, and think he is trying to swindle them, tell him they won’t invest because “Money is still money.” Schindler, steely replies, “No it’s not;” paperwork is failing the Jews, and their money and gold fillings are being drained from the people to whom they belong. The Nazis use their papers and their lists to reduce individuals to nothing but items, objects to persecute and label “healthy” or “sick.”
At the Plaszow inspection, the Jewish prisoners are stripped of their clothing and are gaunt bodies running in circles. The nudity is particularly jarring here, and not for the typical voyeuristic reasons; Schindler’s List is already extremely sexual. Spielberg takes a particular (and excessive) interest in Schindler and Goeth gallivanting, using a lurking lens to capture the bare breasts of the women they are wooing. Spielberg contrasts this with the Plaszow Jews’ skeletal bodies, using his pallid color scheme to make their bodies look less like objects of desire, and more like alien forms of flesh. It seems that to Spielberg, this is the biggest affront to their humanity, ransacking Jews of their sensuality. It’s extremely hard to watch, as if uncovering a dark shameful secret, one that continues to haunt the Jewish psyche.
And yet… Is it heretical to laugh during Schindler’s List?
Without rehashing the Castlemont High School controversy (highly recommend checking out the This American Life episode), I happen to think that a good portion of the movie is riddled with comic relief. A Rabbi goes into a Jewish bank with the Talmud, trying to guilt the bankers using the prohibitions of thievery. The Jewish black market meets in a Catholic Church during mass, with their heads down making backhand deals. A man waiting to get his work order, doesn’t understand how history and literature aren’t considered essential for the war effort. “You laugh at that?” one horrified Jewish women says to her husband.
“I have to laugh.”
He has to laugh. Not just because it’s cathartic, but because it is an act of Jewish resilience. Spielberg celebrates the spiritual resistance, nostalgically shooting a Jewish man donning tefillin in the Ghetto, a couple getting married at the concentration camp, a conversation about cholent recipes in the cattle cars. It’s a distinct Jewishness that they are preserving. Schindler chooses to bring good from the German’s deadliest tool – lists, to give the prisoners back their names. “The list is life,” a tired phrase in the pop culture zeitgeist, sums up Spielberg’s hypothesis that this list is a breathing organ that returns the Jewish prisoners back to their lives and roots.
Our Neeson do-gooder should be taken with a grain of salt, though, Many historians and journalists have pointed out that Schindler took more advantage of Jews than depicted, and that some of Schindler’s most heroic acts in the film (like going to Auschwitz to save the children), really belong to another righteous factory owner, Otto Weidt.
The criticism is legitimate. There is an over-fascination with Schindler’s life, maybe a “shiksappeal” for the Jewish-American director. Schindler is the bridge between the S.S. socialiting world and the atrocities of the camp, so much so that we are not completely sure of his loyalties. In one scene, Spielberg cuts between Schindler and Goeth grooming themselves, and it is remarkable how similar they look, two men cut from the same cloth. Spielberg seems to suggest that Schindler and Goeth could’ve been anyone, but it’s the choices they made and the places they went that determined how history would remember them. There’s a randomness to it all, Schindler went one way and Geoth the other.
I think it’s more than an admiration of an Aryan hero that draws Spielberg to Schindler. When Spielberg read Schindler’s Ark, he tried to pass along the movie rights to a more “serious” filmmaker, like Scorsese and Polanski, but nobody bit. It ate at him at night, and he convinced Universal to let him produce it, promising he’d follow the picture with the family pleaser Jurassic Park. He insisted that it be filmed on location, in Krakow, at Schindler’s factory and in Auschwitz, employing shaky hand held shots, never wavering from showing the horror and instability.
At nights, when the ghosts of years past haunted him, he arranged a phone call with Robin Williams every night, to remember the California light waiting for him 5,000 miles west. At the 1994 Oscars, Steven Spielberg wins his first ever Oscar for best director (he was robbed for E.T.), and he looks at the statue much like Oskar Schindler looks at the ring he was presented with from his workers, with disbelief, slight appreciation, and an overwhelming undeserving.
Spielberg makes all of his obligatory thank you’s before his voice cracks and says “for to the six million who can’t be watching this among the one billion watching this tonight.”
It may sound silly, because, really, Steven, you are bemoaning that fact that more people can’t watch celebrities get dressed up? 6 million is not an abstract number for Spielberg, he sees 6 million people who lost their rights to become teenagers, gossipers, lovers, accountants, and even prime time television watchers. Spielberg is the modern day Schindler, a Hollywood American Jew whose life was far from that of the terror of Eastern Europe. Yet, almost as a fluke, found himself directing hundreds of actors to get just the right expression, the right action. If he could just preserve one more memory, one more child who is not just looking terrified, but praying or kicking a ball or yelling at his mother, he could be bringing that person, or people like that person, back from the graveyard of history.
This doesn’t feel like enough. Both Arnheim and Kracauer’s point of view is limited by nature of the eye’s inability to capture the infinite. Maybe this is where film fails. Itzhak Perlman’s wailing violin is the iconic sound of the film, following the Jews from misery to misery. When the war is over, and Schindler’s Jews are walking free, the violin solo does not play, but rather a choir rendition of Naomi Shemer’s Jerusalem of Gold. Its lyrics yearn for a redemption in which we could take part in, anthropomorphizing the songwriter as a “kinor,” which historically means a lute, but in modern Hebrew is a violin.
Even as a new generation of Jews emerge, the Jews of the violin are not only still there, but built into a new song. I suppose as a post-WWII society, we all deal with it in different ways, but Spielberg is grabbing the instrument by the waist, etching knock-knock jokes on the scroll.
Lingering Thoughts and Questions:
- This may be one of the only SL recaps NOT to mention the girl in the red coat. I feel everything worth saying about it has been said, and I never personally connected to that image, but if you would like to get your fix, this reddit thread has some cool ideas.
- What did you think of the depiction of the Goeth and Helen Hirsch relationship? It’s written with sympathy for both parties, not sure how I feel about that….
- Adam Levy’s ability to save Danka and Mrs. Dresner plays beautifully with the idea that “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”; it’s as if this Adam is fathering a new humankind.
- “People die, it’s a fact of life. He wants to kill everybody? Great, what am I supposed to do about it? Bring everybody over? Is that what you think? Send them over to Schindler, send them all. His place is a ‘haven,’ didn’t you know? It’s not a factory, it’s not an enterprise of any kind, it’s a haven for rabbis and orphans and people with no skills whatsoever. You think I don’t know what you’re doing?”
- “I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know. If I’d just… I could have got more.If I’d made more money… I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I’d just…”- Schindler was wrong, money still means something, at least when he uses it.
Thanks for reading! Tune in for next month’s recap of AFI’s #7 spot, Lawrence of Arabia.
Archer, Stephanie. “Tribeca: 25th Anniversary Of SCHINDLER’S LIST & Cast Panel.” Film Inquiry, 11 May 2018, www.filminquiry.com/tribeca-25th-anniversary-schindlers-list/.
Fox, Margalit. “Rudolf Arnheim, 102, Psychologist and Scholar of Art and Ideas, Dies.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 June 2007, www.nytimes.com/2007/06/14/obituaries/14arnheim.html.
Hutchinson, Sean. “14 Fascinating Facts About Schindler’s List.” Mental Floss, 29 Sept. 2015, mentalfloss.com/article/69150/14-fascinating-facts-about-schindlers-list.
Oscars. “Steven Spielberg Wins Best Directing: 1994 Oscars.” YouTube, Oscars, 6 May 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bRNEZVNVSs.
Von Moltke, Johannes. “Siegfried Kracauer – Cinema and Media Studies – Oxford Bibliographies – Obo.” Oxford Bibliographies – Your Best Research Starts Here – Obo, 20 Apr. 2018, www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199791286/obo-9780199791286-0123.xml.