Jewish Boy Does Good | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

Jewish Boy Does Good 

Schindler's List, the Feelgood Movie of the Year

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Schindler's List was the Statement Movie of 1994. I've seen it twice now--once before and once after this year's Academy Awards ceremony--and each time I came away with a different notion of what exactly that statement is. Not that I discovered new layers of meaning in Steven Spielberg's immensely popular based-on-fact film about Oskar Schindler, a Nazi businessman who ended up saving over a thousand Jews; my changing impressions had less to do with the overt content of the film than with my sense of the compulsions that brought it into being. The unstated statements it makes. Each time I saw the thing, a new pathology emerged. Each time I saw it, I became more alienated from what was onscreen and more aware of a melancholy narrative that seemed to be playing itself out in the director's psyche.

The first time I saw it I was just plain angry. Granted, Schindler's List is a powerful film, and I'm hardly immune to its effects. I was moved, sure. What choice did I have but to be moved? I mean, that little girl in the red coat--. And Schindler himself, when he finally breaks down--. The whole world knows that Spielberg is an extraordinary director in the old-style Hollywood sense of being able to structure a sentiment, like wonder or fear, and glide us easily through it.

And yet even as I was moved--or more accurately, as I was being moved--by my first look at the film (my pre-Oscars "Oskar"), I was insulted by it too.

It wasn't Spielberg's manipulations that set me off. Yes, he uses Jews here pretty much the way he used swimmers in Jaws; and yes, there's something obscene about that--something obscene, for instance, about the little girl in the red coat, tagged with color in an otherwise black-and-white setting so that we can watch her travel, like barium, through the bowels of the Final Solution. But then most of what can be seen or read about the Holocaust is equally obscene. What set me off during that first viewing was Spielberg's willingness to shove the Jews from the center of the Holocaust narrative--the center of their own story--and then to replace them there with Oskar Schindler, Aryan saint.

Not merely to replace them, either, but to subordinate--and, in a way, subjugate--them. The Jews don't suffer for their own sake in Schindler's List. They don't suffer for their religion, or their sins, or their God, or even for nothing. They suffer so that Schindler can achieve his apotheosis. Schindler the profligate must become Schindler the Good Father, and so the Jews are imagined as children. Schindler the egotist must become Schindler the Savior, and so the Jews are made out to be helpless.

To his credit, Spielberg recognizes the arrogance of this formulation, at least insofar as it applies to Schindler. There's a longish passage in the film during which Schindler seems to spend most of his time offering chaste kisses to young Jewish women. The kisses have an experimental quality, as if, after his years of womanizing, he wanted to sample the subtler thrill of a paternal kindliness. Spielberg doesn't fail to notice the condescension in Schindler's newfound piety.

What seems to escape him entirely, however, is the extent of his own condescension toward the Jews in the film. For all that the story ostensibly hinges on their human dignity, "Schindler's Jews" are a repulsive lot. Physically they're small, dark, and scrawny, with pleading, furtive eyes. Socially they're selfish, suspicious, and shortsighted. Ghetto mice par excellence. Their skills are those of the black market: cunning and accounting. Their idea of the main chance consists of grabbing whatever's in reach. Faced with deportation and possible annihilation, they either bicker or collaborate or try to wriggle free. Spielberg makes a darkly comic motif of the fact that they are forever shooing some desperate fellow Jew away from their hiding places, hissing No more room.

These Jews have no communal consciousness. No sense of the collective, either political or religious. At least not until tall, handsome, self-assured, German Schindler comes along. With one notable exception--a secret wedding at a forced labor camp--Schindler's Jews express their Judaism only after Schindler has permitted it. They discover their group identity only after Schindler has created it. They demonstrate their own generosity only after Schindler has defined the term for them.

In short, Spielberg treats his Jews pretty much the way directors traditionally treat the natives in films about missionaries. His Jews are Hollywood Third World.

True, there's the apparent exception of Schindler's Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern. Played by Ben Kingsley in the film, Stern has dignity, distance, individuality. He doesn't succumb to Schindler's charm as easily as everyone else does, and so would seem to be Schindler's one and only narrative equal.

But in fact he isn't. On the contrary, Stern's actual role is to serve as a kind of moral tote board, a device for gauging what might be called Schindler's Authenticity Quotient. Minorities are often used this way, in everything from movies to jeans ads: The white central figure's authenticity is signaled by his ability to befriend his social inferiors. We know, for instance, that Forrest Gump is OK as soon as he offers a chocolate to that nice black lady on the bench. The underlying assumption is the stunningly racist one that black folks are wise in their simplicity and know instinctually, like dogs, whether the white guy's worthy of their trust. Though he's deployed with considerable sophistication, Stern is basically Schindler's Nazi-era version of a nice black lady.

From the point of view of its racial dynamics, Schindler's List is hardly more than a solemn reworking of Spielberg's own Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In both films, an entire population of helpless brown children are taken from their homes and forced to work and die for a maniacal, magnetic leader; in both, only a fair-skinned, cool-headed hero can liberate them. Watching Schindler shepherd his Jews to safety after a brush with Auschwitz is remarkably like watching Indy lead his swarm of Hindu kids back to their ancestral village. The only difference is that the Jews aren't going home.

All this went through my mind as I watched Schindler's List for the first time. I left the theater that night thinking that the Jewish director of this movie had fallen victim to something like the Patty Hearst syndrome--the psychological phenomenon whereby victims end up identifying with the people who brutalize them. Loath to equate himself with the tribe of pathetic little schlemiels who let themselves get butchered in the death camps and ghettos of Europe, Spielberg had internalized the aesthetics of the oppressor instead. His hero could be none other than a full-blown member of the master race, rendered not just human but positively Christlike by his creeping recognition that genocide is wrong. As a consequence, Spielberg had succeeded in doing what 50 years of revisionism and a nunnery at Auschwitz had failed to do: he'd removed the Jews from the Holocaust.

As firmly--as angrily--as I held these opinions, however, I felt them fade somewhat during my next viewing of Schindler's List. Which is not to say that they were disproved by anything I saw the second time around. My basic sense, that Spielberg denigrates Schindler's Jews in order to aggrandize Schindler, still held. Still holds, in fact. What changed was my hard opinion of Spielberg's impulses.

Watching Schindler the second time, I was able to suspend some of my anger and recognize what can only be called the yearning behind the travesty.

After all, it would be foolish to argue that Spielberg's intentions were anything but good. Oskar Schindler is undeniably a fine subject for a film. Both his achievement and the emotional dialectic that led to it are marvelous to contemplate. And Spielberg has a perfect right to contemplate them. It's possible, moreover, that what I saw as Spielberg's Jewish problem has less to do with his presumed neuroses than with the shortcomings of his narrative approach. Schindler's List is a melodrama, and melodramas conform to a narrow, well-ordered, essentially 19th-century structure; trying to stuff the Holocaust into such a structure is like trying to stuff the ocean into an ice tray. Maybe Spielberg was constrained by the conventions of the form he chose. Maybe his Jews seem caricatured because so much of them was lost in spillage.

(By contrast, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah is far and away the greatest film document of the Holocaust precisely because Lanzmann recognised the impossibility of trying to capture the thing itself, and decided to record its resonances instead--much the way astronomers "capture" a black hole by recording the traces it leaves in the universe.)

Considerations like these helped ease my anger. And then along came the Academy Awards and showed me something that disarmed me entirely, making Spielberg seem more sympathetic even as it made his movie infinitely more appalling.

Spielberg, of course, was hard to miss among the winners. As I watched him make his various acceptance speeches, the one overwhelming thought that came to my mind was, What a good boy he is. The articulate way he remembered the six million. The tender way he honored his mother, who kvelled so happily she almost seemed to levitate herself out of the audience. Yes, it was like a bar mitzvah.

And I realized that, for all its skillful horror, its ugly manipulations, Schindler's List is still first and foremost the work of an extremely good boy. A preternaturally good boy. Perhaps one of the greatest good boys of our generation--after Bill Clinton, whose political difficulties seem to stem from a manic desire to be the best good boy in the world.

Now every good boy's first responsibility is to placate, to mollify, to take away the hurt. Every good boy senses the mysterious anguish his elders feel, and sets to work trying to free them from it. (In this connection it's interesting that both Spielberg and Clinton come from broken homes.)

As a Jew, Spielberg knows that the ultimate, unassuaged, won't-go-away anguish of the 20th century is the Holocaust. The Holocaust is the good Jewish boy's Everest. So he set to work trying to create a film that would not merely scale that Everest--since scaling it won't negate its power to hurt--but raze it entirely, once and for all.

Schindler's List is the result: A film in which shower heads spray water rather than gas. In which children are returned to their mothers. In which the train leaves Auschwitz with living Jews on it. In which a thousand redeem six million. In which a Nazi becomes a saint.

This isn't Spielberg's most unsparingly true-to-life film, as some say. It's his sweetest fantasy. A feel-good Holocaust movie. Wish fulfillment on a scale to dwarf the beautiful, long-necked apatosauruses of Jurassic Park.

Which makes it a travesty on a level I didn't even contemplate the first time I saw it.

To understand exactly what level, it's useful to have read The Last of the Just. Published in 1959 by a French Jew and former resistance fighter named Andre Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just is a novel based on the Jewish legend of the Lamed-Vov: The notion that there are 36 truly just and righteous men alive in the world at any given time. The Lamed-Vovniks themselves don't know who they are; but if not for their goodness, the legend goes, God would fall into complete despair and destroy creation. Schwarz-Bart follows one line of just men through the centuries, arriving finally at Ernie Levy, who has the misfortune of living in Europe during the Holocaust. At the end of the book, in one of the most majestic and devastating scenes I've read or can imagine reading, this last Lamed-Vovnik is gassed in Auschwitz.

In other words, the world ends. By placing Ernie Levy in a gas chamber, The Last of the Just acknowledges the impossible yet fundamental psychic truth that the Holocaust was nothing less than the end of creation. The end of the biblical covenant and of the God who made it and of the people who lived by it. The end of an intelligent and compassionate universe. The end of any pretense of law or limit. That, though we continue to breathe and eat and send faxes, we are living through the days after the End of Days. Armageddon's come and gone.

I can sympathize with Spielberg's impulse to run screaming from such a thought. As a Jew, I've often allowed myself the luxury of thinking that my two sons are answer enough to the Nazi genocide. But Andre Schwarz-Bart knew the true dimensions of the horror into which his own parents disappeared. And nothing--not my sons, nor Schindler's thousand, nor their 4,000 descendants, nor Schindler himself, however precious they all are--can alleviate that horror in the least part. Absurd as it sounds, the end of the world is a fact we have to live with. Spielberg's very attempt to suggest amounts to an epic case of denials expressed as art.

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