Tanya Gold

Thirty years on, Schindler’s List should never have been made

Schindler’s Jews are terrorised people who cannot be whole in Steven Spielberg's 1993 film

March 02, 2023 12:50

Schindler’s List is 30 this year and its hopes are extinguished. The bringing of the Shoah to a mass market through cinema has done nothing to diminish antisemitism. It seems, rather, to have heralded a desensitising culture.

Steven Spielberg had an impossible task. Perhaps he knew it. After reading Thomas Keneally’s novel, he waited ten years to film it, offering it to Roman Polanski, Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese to direct.

Perhaps he didn’t trust himself? Spielberg is not the most successful filmmaker in the world, by numbers, for nothing, and there’s a contradiction in making any film about the Shoah: either it’s not watchable or it’s not about the Shoah. Any popular film — and this one made a quater of a billion dollars — will be sanitised into fiction.

Claude Lanzmann, who made the documentary Shoah, said it was a unique event. “It erects a ring of fire around itself, a borderline that cannot be crossed because there is a certain ultimate degree of horror that cannot be transmitted. To claim it is possible to do so is to be guilty of the most serious transgression”.

He added: “If I had stumbled on a real SS film — a secret film, because filming was strictly forbidden — that showed how 3,000 Jewish men women and children were gassed in Auschwitz’s crematorium 2, not only would I not have shown it, but I would have destroyed it.”

The American film critic J Hoberman echoed this: “Is it possible to make a feel-good entertainment about the ultimate feel bad experience of the 20th century?”

When Schindler’s List arrived in 1993, to rapturous praise from mainstream critics and seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, there was an augur in the wind: many of the most perceptive critics hated it.

The most important objection was the obvious one: Schindler’s List is not really about Jews. It is about a member of the Nazi Party called Oskar Schindler. Or, rather, it is about two members of the Nazi Party. The other is the commandant Amon Göth.

If you think of the film, you will recollect their faces; Jews here exist to finesse what we can plausibly call the Nazi spiritual journey. The film-maker Ken Jacobs said it was about “styles of manhood and how one deals with one’s lessers”. Jews, he added, functioned as “background and pawns of this dramatic contest.” The first Nazi is redeemed by his treatment of Jews, and the second Nazi is damned by it.

The writer Philip Gourevitch complained: “Schindler’s list depicts the Nazi’s slaughter of Polish Jewry almost entirely through German eyes”. I see this in John Boyne’s repulsive book The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas too, which has become the most popular text for teaching the Shoah.

Its hero is Bruno, the son of a Nazi like Göth. He is a tiny Oskar Schindler. Gourevitch adds, and I think he is right: “The mindless critical hyperbole which has greeted Schindler’s List suggests that powerful spectacle continues to be more beguiling than human and historical authenticity — and that the psychology of the Nazis is a bigger draw than the civilization of the people they murdered.”

That is true, too. Schindler’s Jews are terrorised people who cannot be whole. They are a cringing mass, with none of the intellectual or spiritual sophistication of the protagonists which is insane when you consider who did what to whom. The critic Liel Leibovitz said the film was, “the least Jewish in sensibility” of any film about the Shoah he had seen.

This was the director Stanley Kubrick’s response: “Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t. Anything else?”

Deborah Lipstadt was kinder. She asked: “Did it bring the story to countless people who no other filmmaker would have been able to reach?” Yes, but what did it teach them? I fret that Schindler’s List, for all its artistry and beauty, and perhaps because of it — it looks like it was made in 1942 — eased in the phenomenon that the Shoah is about non-Jews, so there is nothing to learn from it. Spielberg took his story and gave it to everyone for themselves.

That’s his way. And so the dejudaisation of the Shoah rolled out.

I went to see Spielberg’s new film The Fabelmans at the cinema a few weeks ago. I fell into conversation with the young man behind the counter.

I told him that I did not like the scene in Schindler’s List with the girl with the red dress. “I loved that scene,” he told me delighting in the recollection.

“It popped.”

March 02, 2023 12:50

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