Steven Spielberg’s landmark Holocaust film Schindler’s List celebrates the 20th anniversary of its release next month. An adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s historical 1982 novel, Schindler’s Ark, it recounts the story of Oskar Schindler, a businessman and Nazi Party member who, by the end of the war, had saved hundreds of Jews from extermination.
It was, and remains, a controversial film. Of course, many praised its educational merits and the insight it gave into the Holocaust for a mass audience who may well have been generally ignorant of its details. Shot in documentary-style black and white, going to extraordinary lengths to be factually accurate and historically authentic, and using a high profile cast (Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes), it was a powerful docudrama that brought the Nazi genocide into sharp focus.
In so doing, it took its place alongside Claude Lanzmann’s monumental documentary Shoah (1985) and the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 1993, in the trend that helped to create what US historian Peter Novick called a “Holocaust consciousness”.
Arguably, the film was part of a wave that helped to inspire national educational curriculum changes, the growth of Holocaust degree programmes, the institution of an annual remembrance day in the United Kingdom and the setting up of museums and memorials across the globe. As a result, it is no longer respectable in Western countries, in public at least, to deny the Holocaust.
Yet Schindler’s List had, and still has, many detractors. It has been criticised for its sexualisation of female suffering. Jewish concentration camp inmate Helen Hirsch (played by Embeth Davidtz), for example, is filmed from the front, her breasts clearly visible through her negligible shirt.
Elsewhere, a group of women inmates are forced to strip and herded into a large chamber labelled “Bath and Inhalation Room”. Thinking they are about to be gassed they panic and shriek. Although they survive this ordeal, as water comes out of the shower heads, the sequence makes us very aware of their nudity, which many argued was superfluous.
Some feel the film, which won a best picture Oscar, serves to embed a narrative of Jewish weakness and passivity, in which Jews were nearly always portrayed as undeserving victims. By choosing to focus on Schindler (Neeson) and the commandant of the Płaszów concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, Amon Goeth (Fiennes), Spielberg marginalised the Jews to supporting roles (with the exception of Schindler’s accountant Itzhak Stern, played by Kingsley).
Spielberg portrayed them as cardboard cut-outs, a monolithic mass of feebleness, lacking in psychological depth, to be saved or murdered at the whim of the non-Jews. From this point of view, then, Schindler’s List is not about the Holocaust or the Jews at all, but a biopic of Schindler and his conversion from ambivalent antihero to righteous gentile.
The film was also criticised for over-focusing on those who survived. By shining the spotlight in such a powerful way on the peculiar experiences of a particular set of Jews, who were not representative of the murdered six million, it gave a distorted view of the Holocaust. As the famous Jewish-American director Stanley Kubrick is reputed to have said: “Think that was about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t.”
Perhaps Kubrick was bitter. It is rumoured that he abandoned plans for his own Holocaust film to be called Aryan Papers, because Schindler’s List got there first.
Many thought that Spielberg’s ending in particular was inappropriately upbeat and sentimental. It showed Schindler’s Jews leaving the camp and walking over the hill in the direction of a nearby town. As they walk, the film changes from black and white to colour, and the actors dissolve into the surviving Schindler Jews in what looks like present-day Israel. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack plays Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold), a post Six-Day War song, written 22 years after the Holocaust, and describing the Jewish people’s 2000-year longing to return to Jerusalem. The song inscribed the film with an irrelevant Zionist, even religious narrative. It was replaced with Hannah Szenes’s less emotive song Eli, Eli for Israeli showings.
In these various ways, many argued that Schindler’s List trivialised the Holocaust.
However, a perhaps unforeseen consequence of Schindler’s List is that it has embedded the Holocaust genre firmly into filmmaking. Several hundred films, in which the Holocaust figured as either the main or secondary plotline, have been made since. And because films like Schindler’s List have established the facts, younger filmmakers have felt increasingly empowered to make bolder and more provocative films about the Shoah.
A new paradigm in Holocaust filmmaking has emerged in its refusal to present Jews only as saintly victims and Nazis as monstrous oppressors. Jews are not merely there to be rescued or killed anymore. Watch Defiance (2008), The Pianist (2002) and, in particular, Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone (2001) — all of which are based on true stories — and you will even see Jews killing other Jews.
Even more noticeable is that the Holocaust is now cropping up in films and TV programmes which are not about World War II or the genocide at all. The Holocaust is now used either as a plot device in such exorcism horror films as The Unborn (2009) and The Possession (2012), or as a throwaway line or joke. A memorable episode of the popular sitcom, Seinfeld, for example, mimics the plot of Schindler’s List in order to mine it for jokes. At one point, Jerry is seen heavily petting his girlfriend during a screening of the film.
In the film Funny People (2009) a woman explains the idea behind JDate. “So that way you can date whoever is listed,” she says. The character played by Adam Sandler replies: “That’s interesting, I never thought Jews would like to be listed at all”. She looks at him blankly before he adds, “because of the whole Holocaust thing”.
So the question still remains — can Schindler’s List’s faults be forgiven because it informed a mass audience about the Holocaust who would otherwise have remained ignorant? Or it gave that very audience a disastrously false view of the genocide of the Jews? It is an issue that film-lovers will still be debating for the next 20 years.