In Language and Silence (1967), Cambridge University’s George Steiner famously suggested that, because the Holocaust “lies outside speech as it lies outside reason,” the proper response to it is silence. Far more than the unimpeachable Shoah (1985), Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List stands as both confirmation and refutation of Steiner’s dictum.
Janusz Kaminski’s crisp cinematography makes the exteriors look like ragged documentary footage and the interiors like 1940s films noir, the latter’s light sources burning through shadows. Working from Thomas Keneally’s book, Steven Zaillian’s script alternates between quick, explanatory vignettes and drawn-out tableaus made harder to watch because of the vignettes’ economy: for example, the scene where Ralph Fiennes’ (Amon Goeth’s) gun jams as he tries to execute one of his smarter Jewish prisoners. In other words, Spielberg, working with masters yet in a style recognizably his own, manages to harness the quotidian horror of the Holocaust into dramatic pathos, and the result is at once somewhat trivializing and staggeringly effective.
Marissa Lee has written about the genre of “white savior” films, whereby a white man shows up in an Other culture, finds himself despised by the Others, proves his mettle, and then finds the others trusting him, sleeping with him, and letting him “save” them. Schindler’s List doesn’t quite transcend this trope as much as render it beside the point. Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler is so powerful and seductive that one prefers to forget that this Holocaust film casts a German as its hero. Forgetting is made easier by Fiennes, who incarnates evil Nazi-dom so exquisitely as to render other Nazi portrayals superfluous. If you had said, upon the release of Schindler’s List, than neither Neeson nor Fiennes would win an Oscar in the next 25 years, most people wouldn’t have believed you. It is left to Ben Kingsley (who had already won an Oscar for Gandhi), as Itzhak Stern, to represent the Jewish soul, and this Kingsley does admirably and in the exact style of the rest of the film: by seeming to be too busy to represent much of anything.
Far more than Keneally’s book, the movie of Schindler’s List lingers on distaff characters, like Schindler’s wife Emilie, Goeth’s sex-prisoner Helen Hirsch, an unnamed female engineer who corrects a faulty construction (and is killed for her acuity), a woman who begs for her parents to work at Schindler’s factory, and the girl in the red dress. Each is used both economically and expressively, left onscreen just long enough for us to register their emotional witness to man’s inhumanity. Essentially, Spielberg’s minor characters are used to play major chords, to remind us of all the stories we’re not hearing. Spielberg’s and editor Michael Kahn’s clever juxtapositions of wide shots and close-ups mean that the Jews never seem like simple victims, or chattel. Stern’s relationship with Schindler is actually a lot like Murtaugh’s to Riggs, or any number of action comedy duos where the loner keeps giving shit to the family man. But Stern’s family is the list, the list is life, and Schindler’s eventual prostration of himself for the list’s subjects feels earned, not manipulated.
Hidden within Schindler’s List is a minor deconstruction of capitalism itself as both savior and destroyer of Jews. Anyone with half a brain knows that Jews are associated with money because of centuries of Catholic policy against usury, making Jews the only European residents who could loan people money. In Schindler’s List, Oskar can only save Jews by proving their material, not spiritual, value: the scene where Oskar defends a child’s life by saying that he needs the kid’s hands to clean shells is very much taken from the book. What’s striking about Schindler’s List is that even in an American major-budget film, Spielberg leaves open the possibility that capitalism has been, for Jews, at best a poisoned chalice. In the melodramatic denouement (very much NOT in the book), when Schindler cries that his gold ring could have been exchanged for one more Jewish life, we in the audience weep less because of an “aw, Oskar, don’t beat yourself up” and more because of a “yeah, why are we letting money determine everything?”.
It would be nice to experience Schindler’s List without the wider context: without knowing Spielberg is Jewish, without knowing that most people won’t see any other Holocaust film, without knowing that powerful leaders in several countries deny that the Holocaust ever happened. Happily and sadly, we can’t divorce Schindler’s List from its context. It can and does refute the deniers, even as it ultimately cannot be “The Holocaust Film” in the way that Shoah is. It probably does refute Steiner, letting us experience a window onto a world-historical tragedy and emerge with profound revelations and melodramatic catharsis.
Problems with Schindler’s List usually stem from a misunderstanding of its core theme – is it grace? Survival? Exodus? At its heart, Schindler’s List is about a very, very base man (much more than the book, the film asserts his worst qualities again and again) who did a very, very good thing. Many understand Steven Spielberg the same way, as a director of popcorn films who made one important one here. But this both overrates the film and underrates the man. Schindler’s List is an outstanding film, but it’s hardly a substitute for a Holocaust museum. And Spielberg was never that bad; his films were always moral. The final titles tell us that there are less than 4000 Jews left in Poland, but over 6000 descendants of the “Schindler Jews.” Well, trite as this will sound, today there are less than 4000 classmates of Spielberg’s from Cal State Long Beach working in film, but more than 6000 filmmakers influenced by Spielberg. That’s probably also a good thing.