Article from the March 3, 1994 issue of "The Wanderer"
"SCHINDLER'S LIST" IS A FATALLY FLAWED EPIC
by John Boland
Before feeling guilty about being less than effusive over Steven
Spielberg's critically acclaimed "Schindler's List," consider: President
Bill Clinton, who speaks no evil of the "Shoah" going on today in abortion
clinics across the United States, has "implored" the American public to
see it. And "Commentary," the voice of the American Jewish Committee
(February, 1994), says it is morally ambiguous. On top of that, this
three-hour-plus flawed epic on the slaughter of Poland's Jews during the
Holocaust is absolutely mesmerizing cinema.
FACT FROM FICTION
Oskar Schindler was a real person--a Sudeten German entrepreneur in
Nazi-occupied Krakow who used his financial and personal connections-with
the Hitler National Socialists to save more than 1,000 Polish Jews from
death, employing them as slave laborers in his enamelware factory.
Schindler was also a fallen-away Catholic who embraced Nazism at the
same period of time that Pope Pius XI was warning about the storm clouds
of evil hovering over Germany in his encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge.
A rake, a womanizer, and an opportunist, after the war Schindler went
through bankruptcy, alcoholism, and emotional depression. He ended his
days by living off the generosity of those Jews he had saved: the real
"Schindlerjuden" who appear in the poignant epilog of "Schindler's List,"
laying tributes on his grave in Jerusalem.
Author Thomas Keneally heard about Schindler from one of those
survivors quite by accident while ordering a piece of luggage one day.
Later, he wrote a novel about him called "Schindler's List," which is the
basis of Spielberg's movie.
In Keneally's story, Oskar Schindler evolved from Nazi to anti- Nazi
after witnessing atrocities in Krakow's Jewish ghetto. "I was now
resolved," he says, "to do everything in my power to defeat the system."
Spielberg's Schindler, however, is a different critter: a tough,
silent, Indiana Jones anti-superhero whose motives for saving "his Jews"
remain a mystery to the end.
As "Commentary" summarizes: Spielberg's Schindler strips him "of his
human complexity and replaces it with--nothing. By robbing us of
Schindler's renunciation of Nazism, even in private, Spielberg gives us a
simply enigmatic creation, the good Nazi. See, the director seems to be
saying, heroism is ambiguous, goodness is ambiguous, right action,
decency, following feeling-- all ambiguous."
And for this--the Jewish publication adds--"for introducing the
suggestion of moral ambiguity into the Holocaust, the very heart of the
absolute, he has won the ecstatic plaudits of the critics."
Ten years ago, in 1984, it should be remembered, a chilling film
about a more recent holocaust--in Cambodia--was equally praised by the
critics: Roland Joffe's "The Killing Fields." In that one, the massacre of
seven million fellow Cambodians by Pol Pot and his vicious Khmer Rouge was
blamed on the Communists' reaction to American bombing during the
Southeast Asian war in Vietnam.
Vincent Canby, dean of the "New York Times" movie reviewers, went
even further, saying that the killing was also a "Khmer Rouge attempt to
reduce the population to a manageable size"-- much as the Chinese
Communists today are instituting a Nazi-like "eugenics and health
protection" pogrom using the same demented reasoning. No doubt we will
wait many years for Hollywood to tackle this Chinese holocaust--or, for
that matter, the millions slaughtered under Stalin and his successors.
For purely artistic merit, it is no wonder "Schindler's List" has
captured the critics' acclaim. Shot in startling, documentary-style
black-and-white, it's unlike anything they've seen since the advent of
The acting is uniformly fine, especially from those in minor roles as
the Jewish victims, and Steven Zaillian's script is spare and uncluttered.
It is Spielberg's handling of the chaotic crowd scenes, ultimately, that
is utterly brilliant. Not since Lenin's favorite Soviet filmmaker, Sergei
Eisenstein, has a director used pandemonium so masterfully .
"Schindler 's List," as "Commentary" notes, is also something of a
breakthrough in the film industry's self-policing code: warning parents of
"nudity," "violence," and "adult situations." While scenes of Jews being
forced to strip naked as a form of degradation are generally handled in
good taste, "Spielberg supplies emotional relief and contrast by cutting
to shots of barebreasted Aryan women dallying with their Nazi paramours."
As for violence, "Jewish heads explode . . . at an average rate of
one every 12 minutes," usually at close range by pistol fire. SS sadists,
too, shout their orders in the now too-familiar American expletive heard
repeatedly in gangster movies and Madonna films.
Director Spielberg, according to recent news reports, was upset when
a young high school class viewed R-rated "Schindler's List" as a history
project, and laughed and jeered throughout the film. Like so many other
current moviemakers, he wants it both ways: buxom nude blondes, buckets of
gore, foul-mouthed bullies--and reverence.
In today's youth-oriented MTV society, you don't get that by mixing
"The Diary of Anne Frank" with "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."