Criticisms of Schindler’s List

It’s this kind of creative license-taking, the changing of details, the shifting of focus to suit the needs of a drama-fed audience, that was so anathema to Lanzmann as a documentarian. In his criticisms of Spielberg’s film, he expressed disapproval not just of it, but of any sort of Holocaust reenactments or dramatizations whatsoever. Believing such storytelling to be exploitative, he even went so far as to label Schindler’s List a “kitschy melodrama.”

Surprising as it may seem for a movie that received such widespread acclaim, that’s an opinion shared by others, not just Lanzmann. The online Jewish magazine Tablet ranked Schindler’s List dead last on its list of the 100 greatest Jewish films, with a blurb that called it “astoundingly stupid.” (Another surprising result, given its own initial controversy within the Jewish community, was that Spielberg’s Munich ranked much higher on that list). A follow-up article on the same website argued that Schindler’s List was “both a moral and an aesthetic disaster, an embodiment of much that is wrong with American-Jewish life.”

The abject horror of the Holocaust may hit too close to home for some people of Jewish heritage to embrace any Hollywoodized version of events, particularly one with a sentimental, humanistic streak like Schindler’s List. Having said that, many criticisms of Spielberg’s film seem to stem from intellectuals, deep thinkers with a cache of knowledge that goes beyond the level of awareness general audiences would have. That’s not to devalue those criticisms; it’s just to say that the movie perhaps purposely appeals to the emotions over the intellect.

Having once sat in on a graduate-level Studies in Film course that centered on depictions of the Holocaust, I can say from personal experience that it’s eye-opening to hear how some college academics view Schindler’s List. When I was younger, it never occurred to me that the movie was anything other than a masterpiece, but that course drew my attention to things like how the music manipulates the audience. In the end, it made me much more conscious of the mechanics behind Spielberg’s approach.

In Schindler’s List, the full-tilt madness of the liquidation of the ghetto doesn’t come until about an hour into the movie. Prior to that, there’s a good deal of setup, much of it propelled by John Williams’ score, which gives scenes that might otherwise be dry an ongoing momentum. There’s no denying that Schindler’s List engages the viewer in a more kinetic manner than Shoah. It’s a film where Spielberg, the greatest popular filmmaker of his generation, brought to bear his full creative prowess on the most powerful subject imaginable.

In any examination of history, or an old film, or an old historical film, there’s a danger of applying one’s own anachronistic, revisionist standards to a chronicle that is, fundamentally, of a different time. It’s the kind of thing where you’re liable to hear modern analysts talk about the Jewish characters in Schindler’s List not having enough “agency”—even though the film’s whole narrative necessarily revolves around them being stripped of their agency.

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds subverts these criticisms. It’s given a free pass, but it’s also a work of Hitler-destroying alternate history. Schindler’s List draws from the messier, less appealing truth of people rendered passive and powerless, made to run naked in circles and appraised for their health and usefulness like animals.

Characters like Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern or Jonathan Sagall’s Poldek Pfefferberg do exercise agency, acting of their own accord to save lives, including their own. Pfefferrberg is the character who escapes into the sewer during the liquidation of the ghetto. He’s based on the real Holocaust survivor who inspired the Schindler’s List novel and was instrumental in “carrying the story” to Spielberg (or at least that’s how Spielberg described it when he made Pfefferrberg the very first name he recognized in his Oscar acceptance speech).

Schindler’s List is rooted in fictionalized fact, but as it provides its back-door history lesson, the issue with it as a teaching tool seems to be that it focuses on an extraordinary figure and an extraordinary survival tale. The Schindlerjuden, or Schindler’s Jews, were really the exception to the norm. Most Holocaust victims were not so lucky.

Despite the smokestacks we see spewing ashes on screen, the sheer totality of people who did not evade the gas chamber and, in fact, died in Auschwitz is something the uneducated viewer might not be able to fully appreciate from watching Schindler’s List alone. The impression or intimation of horror is there, but it’s a fake-out. To get a fuller measure of what happened, you’d need to watch Shoah.

It’s true that Schindler, Spielberg’s decidedly non-Jewish hero, is also a less-than-ideal protagonist in some ways. For much of the movie, he’s an unrepentant womanizer and war profiteer. Yet even though he’s German, his business ambition, his ability to put on his best face and work a room to achieve the desired end, seems steeped in something like the American dream. In the 21st century, he’s the perfect surrogate for the average self-interested viewer with no familial or religious connection to the Holocaust.

Continue Reading ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Shoah’: How Two of the 20th Century’s Greatest Films Illuminate Each Other >>

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