“Schindler’s List” is not a film about the Holocaust. So asserted the director Stanley Kubrick in one of his conversations with the author and screenwriter Frederic Raphael when they were working together on “Eyes Wide Shut,” which turned out to be Kubrick’s last picture. “The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ is about 600 who don’t,” Kubrick said. The film was first shown in limited release in the United States in December 1993, in wide release the following February and in Israel shortly afterward, with Spielberg arriving for the local premiere. To mark the 25th anniversary, the film, which won seven Academy Awards, was recently re-released for a limited theatrical engagement. In a short introduction, Spielberg declares that his film is more important today than ever. He does not explain, but clearly that was a reference to the surge of anti-Semitism in the United States in the Trump era.
Spielberg’s words underscore the director’s importance in his own eyes. In my review of “Schindler’s List” (Haaretz, March 11, 1994), I wrote that in the film Spielberg aspires to be the cinematic Schindler. One rescued Jews from annihilation, the other sought to rescue their memory and the memory of the Holocaust as a whole.
I noted that Spielberg, in the large-scale press conference he held in Israel, was asked whether it was true that in the mass scenes of the roundup, deportation and annihilation of the Jews, he did not hold rehearsals with the actors and extras who played the Jews. Spielberg replied that this was correct, because the Nazis also did not hold rehearsals with their victims when they sent them to the gas chambers. That’s one of the simplest, most complex and altogether amazing answers I have ever heard from a film director. The reply gives expression to everything that’s problematic about “Schindler’s List” and about Steven Spielberg’s total vision, which believes in the endless power of the illusion that cinema is capable of creating.
I’ve watched “Schindler’s List” several times since that first viewing, and now, as on every viewing, I am astonished by the directness with which Spielberg refers to the question of cinema’s ability to recreate what was or was not. It’s true that before “Schindler’s List” few feature films dealing with the memory of the Holocaust were made, and accordingly Spielberg had an almost justified feeling of being a pioneer in his attempt to create the memory of the Holocaust in the cinema.
I am not talking about documentary films on the subject, the most outstanding of which were aware of the importance of the dialogue concerning the connection between cinema and the representation of the memory of the Holocaust.
Spielberg lacks this awareness entirely, a fact that is revealed in its full extremity in the most appalling scene in “Schindler’s List,” in which his camera penetrates a gas chamber containing a large number of naked women. However, because Spielberg, too, understands that those who enter a gas chamber do not leave it, he uses the scene as a stratagem of tension that befits a cheap horror movie. While the viewers and the women depicted in the film believe that doom awaits, it turns out that this time it’s not a death chamber but in fact a shower.
Acts of atonement
Half a year before “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg released “Jurassic Park,” which quickly became the most profitable movie in cinema history until then. Seemingly, there could not be two more different films than these, yet both express Spielberg’s vision equally. “Jurassic Park,” too, demonstrates Spielberg’s belief in the power to recreate on the movie screen what has become extinct – in this case, dinosaurs. The film also locates the plot in a region enclosed by electrified fences, and most important, it is also about capitalism – “Jurassic Park” presents its destructive, dangerous side, “Schindler’s List” its beneficent, redeeming side.
This parallel discussion is conducted by a director operating in the capitalist film industry – and the source of Spielberg’s attraction to and identification with Oskar Schindler appears to stem from his desire to confront that fact. In the same way as Spielberg portrays Schindler as someone who is trying to atone for the acts of exploitation and the ideology that has guided him to date, so too, “Schindler’s List” seems to be an act of atonement by Spielberg: In this film he sought to obtain at long last the full appreciation he deserved. This he would do by proving himself able to make a picture – within the heart of an ultra-capitalist industry – that recreates the past and accords renewed life. For what is the point of the power placed in the hands of a film director if he isn’t capable of restoring life from out of the past? Another element common to both “Schindler’s List” and “Jurassic Park” is that at the center of both films Spielberg posits a father figure who comes into being before our eyes. Present or absent fatherhood is a central theme in his work. “Jurassic Park” begins with a scene in which the protagonist (played by Sam Neill) declares that he doesn’t intend to be a father, and the point of the whole trauma he undergoes during the film is to prepare him for fatherhood. Oskar Schindler represents the image of the compassionate father who, as in a fairytale, saves his children from their looming destruction. Spielberg’s choice of Liam Neeson to play Schindler was not random – he is head-and-shoulders taller than all the actors playing Jews who surround him. It’s only toward the end of the film that the representation of Schindler’s absolute status as a father is undercut, when one of the survivors, played by the Israeli actor Ezra Dagan, puts a ring on Schindler’s finger, in what is presented as a symbolic wedding between the gentile father and his Jewish children. Only then does Schindler get into his car and go home, as many of the protagonists in Spielberg’s films wish only to return home.
The power of color
“Schindler’s List” was shot in black and white, because that’s how the memory of the Holocaust was imprinted in our memory in its photographic documentation. Spielberg uses the almost legendary power of color in the scene that’s most remembered from Schindler’s List, in which, amid all the black and white, we see, together with Schindler, who is mounted on a horse on a hilltop, the image of a beautiful little girl in a red coat walking to her death together with the other ghetto deportees. The way Spielberg plays off black and white against color in the film is one of his chief manipulations of the viewers. It reaches a peak in the scene with the girl in the red coat, but develops at the end of the film, which switches to color to document the encounter between some survivors and the actors who played them at Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem. The meeting is meant to represent the connection between the historical truth and the illusion of recreating that truth, which occurs in the movie thanks to Spielberg. But this is also the moment at which “Schindler’s List” becomes Spielberg’s List.
I have no doubt about the historical importance of “Schindler’s List” in preserving the memory of the Holocaust, but is this the image of the memory we wished for? Spielberg’s film burst the floodgates, and in its wake a large number of pictures were made dealing with the memory of the Holocaust from various angles. Few of them were good, but all of them attested to the transformation of the memory of the Holocaust into entertainment. For every film, including “Schindler’s List,” seeks to provide entertainment to viewers. This includes even Jerry Seinfeld, who in one of the most brilliant and most memorable episodes of his series is caught smooching with his partner throughout their supposed viewing of “Schindler’s List.”
After the success of “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg felt commited to making a film about the harsh history of African Americans, a subject he had already touched upon in “The Color Purple” (1985). In 1997, he made “Amistad,” about a true event dating from the period of slavery in the United States. The film was not a commercial success, unlike the sequel to “Jurassic Park,” which was released that same year and became a megahit. I think it’s unlikely that “Amistad” will be re-released on its 25h anniversary because, after all, success or failure is the heart of the matter. But the long list of Spielberg’s projects for the years ahead includes a film version of the successful musical based on “The Color Purple.” As for “Schindler’s List,” it will undoubtedly be re-re-released on its jubilee anniversary, because, after all, reality won’t change by then, and the past will still serve as a source for the eternal illusion for which cinema strives.
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