by Les White
Cut, no. 39, June 1994, pp. 3-6
My father is a "Schindler Jew." When I was younger, his nightmares woke me up. He did not talk about his experiences. My mother warned me and my sisters that something terrible had happened to him. We were not to ask about his background nor why we had no grandparents, aunts or uncles. Other children of survivors grew up similarly and in their families, too, the Holocaust was not discussed.
Ten years ago when I was 28, I demanded my father tell me his experiences. They were worse than anything I had imagined. He remembered events and actual dates as if they had just happened yesterday. When he was sixteen, the Nazis marched in. On December third and fourth, his ghetto was liquidated. On May seventh, he was liberated by Russians. His mother and sister were shot, buried in a mass grave. His brother was hanged. Another, nine years old, was gassed. His father was plucked from a naked parade.
Because nature ties fathers and sons, as his son I had tried to model my personality after his. After hearing what he went through, I compared my foundation to walking with a cane, one now kicked out from under me. Though everyone says I look like my mother, my nose, I thought, was his. My father informed me that his nose stayed broken since the middle of the war when an SS officer kicked him in the face.
The movie SCHINDLER'S LIST has re-opened discussions of the Holocaust. The movie's accolades and p.r. suggest that only the world's most commercially successful director could have risked tackling this subject, deemed unfilmable, and made it successful. Like Billy Joel's recent pop, muzak-like hit, "We Didn't Start the Fire," which lists historical events in the form of USA Today headlines, SCHINDLER'S LIST has transcended the entertainment genre to be taught in schools as history. Its director claims, not incorrectly, that the movie provides a "public service." Though my father considers the movie "Hollywood schmaltz," he concedes, "At least the goyim will learn something."
It is what the goyim will not learn which frightens me. Though the movie counts Holocaust survivors among its consultants and producers, the filmmakers' technical choices and simple characterizations contribute not so much an understanding of the Holocaust as cloak its horrors. Spielberg praises the movie's screenplay for "inordinate restraint." I feel like I did at 28, demanding that my father cut the bullshit.
Reviewers and survivors praised the movie's black and white cinematography as aptly symbolic of a dark world, yet it distances events. The film's Holocaust is removed from reality. Yet the Holocaust deserves to he rendered truthfully in all its detail because it challenges and contradicts any advances made by human beings. The way the film limited its color palette diminishes the contrast between the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp, built of gray wire and concrete on a hilly field of mud, and the medieval splendor of Krakow and the luxury of the concentration camp Commander's villa and the apartment Schindler confiscates. When it rained in Krakow-Plaszow, mud like shit flowed without restraint. The camp's substandard rations often produced maroon urine. Without color, the ash from the crematoriums resembles white, purifying snow and not dirty, non-melting ash.
That the film's ending shifts to color to show life reclaimed ignores a true horror. After liberation, as many of the survivors raced pillaging the nearby town, some unwittingly killed themselves from overeating. For years they had subsisted on rations often no more than an eighth of a small loaf of bread and watered-down soup with a few peas. The movie never shows the camp diet, a rudimentary part of the Nazi extermination plan.
The black and white cinematography is augmented by the filmmakers' use of the "handheld camera" technique to connote "reality." We are to consider the movie documentary-like, as if the camera captured events as they happened or the documentary filmmakers did not have the money for color nor the time to set up level-positioning tripods. Today, television commercials, like those for AT&T and U.S. Sprint, which purport to show real people in real situations use the device of handheld camera shamelessly, as do both highly acclaimed television series, like NYPD BLUE, and "reality" shows labeled "tabloid," like COPS, HARD COPY, EMERGENCY 911, and UNSOLVED MYSTERIES.
In SCHINDLER'S LIST, the shakiness of the handheld camera is also meant to convey the chaos of the Nazi world. What the movie does not convey visually is the Nazi obsession with order, planning, and pageantry. The Nazis carried out a mass extermination of a people with a precision and distribution of labor comparable to a construction team's erecting a building from detailed blueprints. Hitler, who had set out to be a painter, deplored the subjective, "chaotic" quality of modern art, preferring the ancient Greek ideal inherent in that culture's quest for the perfect human form as sculpted by nameless artisans and in large scale Greek architecture emphasizing balance and linear symmetry (the golden mean). The huge Parthenon-like edifices created by Albert Speer for Hitler, the ideal towns the Nazis planned (as faceless as suburban subdivisions), indeed the order of the concentration camps and the assembly-line efficiency of the crematoria represent the subjugation of the individual to the masses. The face the Nazis showed the world — reflected in Olympiad and Triumph of the Will, official Nazi films publicized as documentaries — was of hundreds of thousands of goose-stepping soldiers and adoring, waving fans, choreographed like a Wagnerian opera beneath huge torches, gold eagles, and swastikas. The Holocaust was as plotted and executed as the grandiose plans of the four aristocrats in the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, who were heavily fined if they dared veer from the crimes' detailed timetable.
The filmmakers' "inordinate restraint" and their fear of portraying the Holocaust and conditions in the Krakow-Plaszow camp more chillingly lessen the impact of Oskar Schindler's heroics. SCHINDLER'S LIST is reduced to resembling a 1950s Hollywood biblical epic: Schindler as Jesus; Amon Goeth, the concentration camp commander, and the other Nazis as Nero or Pharaoh and the Romans or Egyptians; and the Jews as innocent Christians.
From the start, Schindler is portrayed and soon accepted by the Jews as a Christ figure: more a man on a mission to save Jews rather than a Nazi sympathizer and carpetbagger. The film shows him reviving a shut-down factory and hunting Jews to work for him, rather than the historical situation of him taking over a factory owned by Jews which was doing well. He is shown as having little business sense: only after has hired Jews is he informed that by having hired Jews over Poles will his profit margin be larger. Wining and dining the Nazis, he constantly barters jewelry for more Jewish workers. He also never gives the Jewish party line. When the Jewish accountant asks Schindler why he risks his neck for Jews, Schindler replies "Trust Me" — wink, wink. The filmmakers did not show Schindler as a man who first wholly embraced the war machine to enrich himself because that would have risked audience identification. In fact, Schindler followed the Nazis into Poland soon after the country was overrun in September, 1939. But he did not open his concentration camp in Czechoslovakia until the end of 1944, which may be an indication that he sensed the changing outcome of the war.
If Schindler is an enigma, if his actions as he evolves from carpetbagger to savior cannot be explained — as many including Spielberg contend — why then does the film give reasons for the Nazis' behavior? The Nazis are portrayed as alcoholics, often partying and orgiastic (all Schindler has to do to gain another concession is present a bottle of wine). Anton Goeth usually kills when drunk. Because his status as antagonist serves to represent the Nazis as a whole, we are led to surmise that the Holocaust can he blamed on alcohol abuse. Perhaps the Holocaust would have never happened had Goeth and company accepted their addiction and gone to AA. (In contrast, Schindler has to goad the Jewish accountant into having a drink.) The movie reflects certain mores in today's United States: a popular acceptance of victimization and an AA philosophy of "powerlessness," with its presumption that alcoholism is one of the main causes of society's ills. The film depicts the Nazi movement as disorderly and confused, not highly organized: e.g., it does not execute genocide with cool efficiency.
SCHINDLER'S LIST ascribes reasons to the Holocaust. Goeth seems to kill only those who are infirm, not willing to follow orders, or sitting down on the job: i.e., the one-armed man, the woman architect whining about faulty construction, the slow hinge maker, and the boy failing to scrub out a stain. These are reprehensible reasons to kill but reasons nonetheless. Even when Goeth takes a practice shot from his balcony, he kills a fat babushka taking a break and sitting down outside a line of hard workers. Yet my father is by accident the only survivor from his family. His mother and sister were shot, his father and youngest brother were gassed, and his other brother was hung indiscriminately.
SCHINDLER'S LIST's heavy emphasis on hope in the scenes of Jews in the concentration camps further mitigates the horror. For example, the movie dramatizes a mother and young daughter surviving together. It juxtaposes an orthodox Jewish wedding performed in a camp barracks against a wild party at Goeth's villa attended by whores. Though these scenes may represent events based on fact, in consideration of the Holocaust, such events were so rare that they cannot and should not be accepted as representative. Nothing better demonstrates the filmmakers' lack of conscience than their choice to dramatize the women's being mistakenly rerouted to Auschwitz and not gassed, and the film's not dramatizing what happened to the men en route to Schindler's new camp in Czechoslovakia. That transport was held up at the Gross-Rosen camp. There, in freezing cold, the men were ordered to sit naked, legs spread, one behind the other. The guards whipped them to form a tight chain simulating sodomy. Squeezed in such a way, the men had difficulty breathing; any attempt to shift for more air was met with punishment. For two days, the men were forced to hold this position. The bodies of those who died were not removed.
Because of the influence of the auteur theory (the director as author) on film criticism and Hollywood production, comparisons of SCHINDLER'S LIST to Spielberg's other movies cannot he overlooked. Schindler does come off like a super-human Indiana Jones or the archaeologists in Jurassic Park. The Nazis can he compared to the dinosaurs running loose in JURASSIC PARK or to the shark in JAWS: nature that cannot be wholly controlled, but nature that can be explained as primitive. The Jews-the pitiful Jews showing fear — represent the child in us, like the Indian children rescued by Indiana Jones or the children scared by dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK.
SCHINDLER'S LIST backs off from showing us starving concentration camp inmates who, if lucky to remain alive had to release their souls from their bodies in order to survive as emotionless robots. To have thought about the surrounding horrors would have killed one's will to live. To have reacted to the horrors would have called undue attention to oneself and more than likely have resulted in being shot on the spot. The audience's horror is mitigated because the faces shown mirror our own fear. How differently we would react if we were watching the concentration camp inmates remain impassive, expecting their treatment. We would be outraged that people can treat other people so senselessly, and we might face the painful truth that all of us have within ourselves the capacity to accept such treatment or be killed or even work in the camps in such a way that we partake in killing our own. SCHINDLER'S LIST puts a face on the Holocaust which makes it more comfortable for the audience. The filmmakers and the author of the original book, in fact, used as one of their main resources a survivor who supervised other Jews and thus received preferential treatment. People did what they could to survive.
Perhaps I owe a debt to Steven Spielberg and SCHINDLER'S LIST. Millions are being introduced to the Holocaust for the first time, especially children drawn by Spielberg's name. My father now speaks to high schools and to movie theater audiences. Newspapers call him for interviews (although People magazine rejected him for an upcoming feature). He is to speak before a medical group. However, I fear that SCHINDLER'S LIST will prevent Hollywood from producing more credible and daring films on the Holocaust. Unlike other hit movies which prompt the production of others with similar themes, SCHINDLER'S LIST is being held up as an ultimate expression. Hollywood has offered its "public service." The movie's p.r. inundates us with information that all the producers connected to the movie thought it would bomb, that Universal put up the money only as a favor to Spielberg. Perhaps SCHINDLER'S LIST is the best Hollywood can do.
I remember calling the National Jewish Theater in Skokie a few years ago and inquiring about submitting a play. After mentioning that two characters were children of survivors, I was told, "Don't bother sending it in." The theater would not stage anything "even hinting of the Holocaust." The assistant's boss confirmed the policy: "Our audience has spoken." Now, because of all the hoopla surrounding the film SCHINDLER'S LIST, rabbis and Jewish leaders in Chicago have encouraged my father to appear in front of audiences after presentations of the film. At first, to make all the screenings at all the theaters, my father was not given time to speak. He was just introduced as a survivor by an m.c. What was an audience to make of that? Recent surveys show the Jews to be the highest earning ethnic minority in the United States, with Holocaust survivors topping the list. If audiences must judge from the film and from appearances, what they see is not a man who lost everything but a well-dressed physician, prosperous and looking well.