'Schindler's List' is a Fatally Flawed Epic

Authored By: John Boland

Article from the March 3, 1994 issue of "The Wanderer"


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.


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 Technicolor.

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."

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