Schindler’s List as an Empathy Machine

Drama is a distillation of life. It inhabits a hyper-reality of the imagination where emotions are heightened and events play out in a controlled, compact fashion. The scene in Schindler’s List, for example, where Schindler implants the notion of pardoning-as-power in Goeth’s head is immediately followed by three distinct encounters where Goeth tries to play emperor and dispense pardons to massage his own ego. It’s a textbook example of the way that most mainstream cinematic storytelling works. Unlike life, with all its untidy, intersecting subplots, there’s a logical progression of scenes that communicate a specific point.

In this way, the realm of fiction and dramatization can sometimes, despite its essential artifice, speak to a higher truth. When he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the aforementioned Roger Ebert said, “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” What gives Schindler’s List such undeniable potency is its ability to arouse empathy — not mere sympathy, but profound empathy — in the viewer.

This a movie that hijacks the entertainment urge, drawing viewers into a story — letting them escape from their own lives momentarily — all the while raising awareness of a dire moment in history that shouldn’t be forgotten, lest it happened again. The aim of Schindler’s List is nothing less than to put the viewer in the shoes of people who were led off to the gas chamber and concentration camps.

It’s one thing to hear and imagine the horror of that; it’s another thing entirely to see it unfold in crisp black-and-white. Images like the wheelbarrowing of the little girl in the red coat, and Goeth’s random sniping of people from his balcony, sear themselves into one’s brain. We survive the vicarious experience, just as Schindler’s Jews survived the real one, but we come away from it changed, unable to forget the enormity of what we saw.

Spielberg himself was never the same after Schindler’s List. Since 1993, even his more spectacle-driven films like Minority Report and War of the Worlds have been characterized by a more somber look and feel, thanks in no small part to Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography. It was only after Schindler’s List, a more personal film where Spielberg was dealing with his own heritage and the burden of history, that the muse that drives him seemed to change, once and for all. He reportedly even considered retiring as a director after Schindler’s List.

Spielberg’s films post-1993 still evince trace sentimentalism, but there’s also more cynicism when it comes to human nature and how things turn out (an example of this … spoiler alert … would be the ending of Bridge of Spies, which resolves the hug-or-back-seat setup by placing Mark Rylance’s character firmly in the back seat.)

In addition to transforming Spielberg’s career, Schindler’s List also heralded the arrival of two great actors. Kingsley was already known for playing Gandhi, but before Neeson went through his mentor or action star phase, or before Fiennes played Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies, they first embodied twin pillars of good and evil in this film.

World War II was the defining event of the twentieth century. It’s a harrowing chapter in recent history, and as such, it comes with a built-in pathos. If handled the wrong way, the subject matter of the Holocaust could (and in other movies, has been) exploitative. You could certainly accuse Spielberg of using manipulative moviemaking techniques, but the real question is, to what end does he employ those techniques? Is Schindler’s List a hollow facsimile, straining at redemptive relevance, or is it a drama with true purpose?

By appealing to the viewer’s emotions through drama, Spielberg’s film is able to elicit a commonality or kinsmanship of experience, one that transcends the limitations of personal experience. The controversial shower scene is a miniature impression of survival: we feel the sense of peril and the great sense of relief when women who think they are about to be gassed receive the spray of water instead. It’s the same when Goeth leads the hinge-making rabbi outside the factory, has him kneel down, and holds a gun to his head, only to find that the gun is not working.

Like Lanzmann, Stanley Kubrick had a quote where he was critical of Schindler’s List, saying, “Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.” 

The Schindlerjuden actually numbered over a thousand, and as noted at the end of the movie, their descendants numbered thousands more. Still, what Kubrick said rings true, up to a point; but perhaps we should take that further and say that Schindler’s List is about the living, full stop. As the movie’s tagline puts it, “The list is life.”

This film is about the survivors, the lucky ones, yes, but it’s also about the audience, all the people who are alive right now, losing touch with history. An in-depth CNN report recently showed that anti-semitism was on the rise in Europe again, with a startling number of people being ignorant of Holocaust history altogether. In the wake of the worst anti-semitic attack in U.S. history at a Pittsburgh synagogue this October, Schindler’s List and Shoah seem especially relevant to what is going on in the world right now.

Holocaust denial is a real thing, and if there’s one thing history has shown, it’s that the past is quickly forgotten and history repeats itself all too soon. As the World War II generation dies off, these movies are two vital artifacts that we have to keep the memory of what happened alive.

After twenty-five years, the power of Schindler’s List has not diminished. It and Shoah are easily two of the most important films of the twentieth century. Both movies should be required viewing for cinephiles, students of history, and anyone alive in 2018 who’s still human.

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