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What ‘Schindler’s List’ Is Hopeful About

The Rebutter

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(Schindler's List (Universal))

Senior writer Liel Leibovitz’s weekly “The Arbiter” column tends to attract its share of disagreement and general verklempt-ness among staffers and readers alike for the evident joy with which this self-appointed Moses sets about smashing so many Jewish cultural idols (and, other times, worshipping Jewish cultural artifacts that most would be happy to relegate to the dustbin). “The Rebutter,” an occasional column from contributing editor Rachel Shukert, gives voice to your outrage and, perhaps, puts Liel in his place.

In my function as Tablet Magazine’s official Liel Leibovitz “rebutter,” it is sometimes my privilege to receive a preview of which beloved cultural touchstone our charmingly illogical contrarian has in his firing line this week. Here is the very first thing I wrote in my notebook when I received the email informing me of this week’s target: “Schindler’s List. OH SHIT.”

Here’s the thing about making movies—or any creative product intended for mass consumption—about the Holocaust: you can’t win. You can win Oscars, but in the harsh court of Jewish public opinion, there’s always going to be a distinguished someone ready to tell you you’re doing it wrong. The film is too depressing or alternatively not nearly fatalistic enough; the filmmakers have undermined the individuality of the victims by portraying them as a faceless mass of suffering (“What about Anne Frank?”) or alternatively they have denigrated the unimaginable vastness of Jewish victimhood by focusing on a single personal story (“What about all the other Anne Franks?”). The film has cheapened the atrocities by attempting to realistically depict them—going for “the spectacle,” in Liel’s derisive terminology—or alternatively it has cowardly shied away from showing them at all. A film like Schindler’s List is criticized for portraying helpless Jews utterly beholden to an omniscient Gentile savior, while a film like Edward Zwick’s Defiance, in which Jews are the orchestrators of their own salvation, is raked over the coals by critics for its Bettelheim-lite insinuation that those too old, too sick, too fearful, too broken to fight back were somehow complicit in, even responsible for, their own destruction. And then, inevitably, Claude Lanzmann pops up to announce that he alone cracked the code, that Shoah is definitive and everyone else might as well pack up and go home.

I mention Lanzmann in no way to dispute the preeminence of his form nor the singularity of his achievement, but because Liel brought him up as a filmmaker against whose vision he finds Spielberg wanting. Liel thus one again displays a maddening rhetorical tendency to critique a work of art for what it isn’t rather than for what it is. Schindler’s List is not a documentary; comparing it to Shoah or The Sorrow And The Pity isn’t even a matter apples to oranges—it’s like comparing an apple to a machine gun. The filmic vocabulary of Lanzmann and Ophüls, the “context and close-up” Liel recommends, is useless here. One can imagine Spielberg mercilessly training the camera on the face of Ralph Fiennes as Commandant Amon Goeth—whatever you might think of his performance—to see … what, exactly? The guy from The English Patient looking unrepentant and intense as he tries to conjure up some kind of Method-y memories he doesn’t have because he was born in Ipswich in 1962?

By this reasoning, the question Liel seems to be raising isn’t whether Schindler’s List is a good movie. (For what it’s worth, I think it is, although there are a couple of things I take issue with. To take one example, the implied Puritanism that Oskar Schindler’s boozing and womanizing somehow made him a peculiarly unlikely candidate for moral heroism doesn’t fly—give me a pragmatic libertine over a clean-living fanatic any day. To take another, the way it suggests Israel was some kind of reparative bequest on behalf of the world community to the Jews belies the truth that it’s a country whose borders were established through a mixture of diplomacy, bloodshed, and luck, like virtually ever other nation in the world.) Liel is wondering, I think, whether a film like Schindler’s List ever even had the possibility of being good.

I think so, and here’s why. When it comes to the Holocaust, everything is right and everything is wrong, and in the face of such fiendish complexity, most of us retreat into the comforting embrace of our own narcissism, consciously or subconsciously turning the horror of the Holocaust into a kind of satisfied referendum on ourselves. We congratulate ourselves either for managing to draw uplift from the well of despair, or (as Liel has done) for being clear-eyed realists able to stare directly into humanity’s darkest depths. Gentiles—who actually make up the vast majority of the population, hard as it is to remember—ask themselves if they would have done something to help; Jews wonder if they might have managed to survive (my husband and I have an ongoing argument about this: he claims his chronic disregard for things like parking tickets indicates he would have had no compunction about ignoring the summons to the concentration camp, thus saving our lives; I argue that my finicky obsessiveness over government paperwork would have gotten us our exit visas by 1937 at the latest).

But the truth is, none of us really want to know the truth. A non-Jew doesn’t want to admit that more than likely he would have idly stood by as his neighbors were murdered in front of him; a Jew doesn’t want to admit that, through no particular fault or lack of qualities, she would not have been among the 1100 souls on Schindler’s list, or 1,123 left underground in Berlin, or the 50 who escaped, or the two—count ‘em, 2—that made it out of Chelmno. We would overwhelmingly have been faceless victims, bones and ashes, with no one alive to even remember we existed at all.

Liel takes particular offense at the abstraction of the Jewish characters in Spielberg’s film, stating: “Schindler’s Jews don’t matter.” This, I would argue, is precisely the point. Of all the psychic horror of the Holocaust and its aftermath, the brutality of its depersonalization is perhaps still the hardest for Jews, particularly American Jews, a group who is, shall we say, not exactly Buddhist in their lack of self-regard. (I’ve always thought the post-war Jewish obsession with professional achievement had to do with needing to maintain a psychic sense of indispensibility; we needed, and in many ways succeeded, to make ourselves “too big to fail.”) Where Liel sees a reductive sense of good versus evil, with us or against us, good for the Jews or bad for the Jews, I see the still-painful scars of the greatest narcissistic injury ever suffered by a single group: not so much “how could they do this?” as “how could they do this to us?”

It’s certainly possible to see Schindler’s List as a symptom of this underlying illness, a gorgeously shot, deeply sentimental bit of cathartic kitsch intended for a people in love with their own pain to the point of being unable to sympathize with anyone else’s. But it’s just as possible to see its ultimate message of survival and hope as a tentative first step on the way back, and down, to the rest of humanity.

Related: Listless [Tablet Magazine]

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Good post, but you’re engaging in honest debate with a disingenuous Slate/Huffington Post/Henry Blodget linkbaiting contrarian post that loses all its steam once your reflex to click through is over and your shame impulse has kicked in at having done so.

I bet I could come up with 5 or 10 headlines that would get just as many links and be just as vapid. How about one for starters, straight from the Slate playbook: Why Bibi Is The Most Liberal PM of Israel Ever and Democrats Should Love Him.

Bravo; more Rebutter vs. The Arbeiter

anthak says:

I am not Jewish, although am married to a Jewish woman, and our daughter is therefore Jewish as well.
I have not watched the movie for about 15 years and I was only a teenager at the time; however there are a couple of things that still stick in my memory.
I loved the bit where the Jewish boy (pretending not to be) was measured in front of his class to demonstrate the differences between Jewish and non-Jewish people. he was very nervous; however they believed him not to be Jewish and showed how the measurements demonstrated this! haha.
And also the little girl with the red dress… everything else is black and white, but this red dress adds that personal element as you discuss in relation to Anne Frank. seeing her throughout the film at different points, and finally in a horrific scene.

In saying all that, it would be interesting to watch the film again as an adult. But I dont think I could bring myself to watch it again, as it would be too sad for me now i think.

… interesting

Ilana Lapides says:

I’m a Holocaust Educator and the grandchild of Auschwitz survivors and I still haven’t been able to sit through the whole movie. I was channel surfing once and got to the scene where the women were pricking their fingers to draw blood and smear it on their cheeks so they would look healthy while they paraded around in front of the sadistic and sick Nazis, children were loaded onto a truck and taken away, people on a train for 3 or 4 days begging for the hose to shoot water into the car, the boy in the sewar. These glimpses were all I could watch and I still can’t shake the images I saw in that short time. They affected me more then “Shoah”, more then “Genocide” more then a dozen other documentary movies I’ve viewed on the subject. Why? Was it such a great film? I don’t know. I do know that watching these contrived and well-acted scenes felt more real to me then any grainy, slow-voiced actual film from that era. I also know that this film isn’t necessarily for me -it’s for people whose knowledge of that time is more limited than mine (lucky for them). If it takes a Spielbeg to ‘Hollywood’ up a movie that tells even some of the truth then that’s more truth then those people might have seen otherwise. And that’s enough for me.

This movie is on of the best movie about the time. It´s remebers me how my Parents told me that the playing as child in this time outsite and the Nazi came to there parents and ask for the worker list of her Fabrik.

After that the familie moved fast to amerika and try to hide for the nazi.

JCarpenter says:

Whether it fails or succeeds as a movie about the Holocaust is obviously debatable; perhaps it is meant to be just as much about the moral struggle of a righteous gentile. “The Pianist” does as much.

“Liel thus one again displays a maddening rhetorical tendency to critique a work of art for what it isn’t rather than for what it is.”

Game over, Liel.

Brava to Rachel Shukert’s even-handed analysis and insights and a big Boo to Leibovitz’s shameful biases in the name of controversy. Give me more of the former and no more of the latter.

This was a wonderful piece until the last two paragraphs subverted and ruined it all.
You write: “people in love with their own pain to the point of being unable to sympathize with anyone else’s” What the hell does that mean? Are you actually generalizing that an entire national culture of millions of people is exceptionally narcissistic? Compared to whom? The English? The Hmongs? The Assyrians? Every single nation has a superiority myth – why else belong? The Jews were pioneering in recognizing salvation for non-belongers. Is there a sub-culture in America more charitable and concerned about the rights of others than Jews (ok, I’ll except Haredim from this)?

Where does this shallow pop-anthropology nonsense come from? I hope I’m misunderstanding you, but I think you and Liel are well-suited for each other.

I agree with the last posting. the Arbiter’s piece was a nasty bit of shtick, pompous, ignorant, and smug. But to call Schindler’s List a bit of sentimental kitsch, as Rachel does, is also unfair. I challenge anyone to watch the 15 minutes of the Aktion in the Krakow ghetto and come away unscathed: no other film, by the way, comes close to SL in conveying what terror and fear do to human beings.

Froma, I think you’ll find that’s exactly is NOT doing…she’s referencing Liel’s assertion of Schindler’s List as kitsch, not her own. Ironically, I find Shukert (who should really have her own column BTW) to be precisely the kind of subtle, nuanced Jewish voice that Liel is calling for…a standard to which he consistently falls short.

Beatrix says:

Ridiculous. She buys into the myth that the Jews are the rich white guys which is why the left sympathizes with their poor little brown brothers, the Palestinians (the ones that get billions every year from America, Europe, the UN and the other Arab countries many of whom are oil rich).

Jews aren’t members of a private country club. We’re a people who belong to unions, worry about the mortgage (if we’re lucky enough to have one), work as bartenders, cab drivers and own small mom and pop grocery stores,. We’re in school, saddled with loans that may take years to repay, or we couldn’t afford college or even qualify for one, and are working on an assembly line.

We finished night school and became Social Workers, working for the state, or we finished a two year college or got on the job training and are working as secretaries, bookkeepers and file clerks.

Whatever we do, we work hard and we’re proud of doing good work. Or we’re unemployed and worried about an extension of our benefits.

We’re in prison, or working on a farm, or saving the lives of homeless people or homeless animals.

I’ve lived a long time and have met all these types of Jews. I’ve even met some rich ones.

We’re lucky enough to be in America, but if we were in Germany during the Holocaust and some compassionate Christian offered us our lives, we’d have grabbed at the chance, not because we feel superior but because like most human beings on this planet, we have a deep seated desire for survival.

neil baker says:

When the flic was new, a reviewer from a Florida newspaper commented that the sad thing about Shindler’s is that because it was from Speilberg, it would be seen as the definitive Holocaust story, while in reality it only scratched the surface. I tend to agree with Liel Leibovitz as well as that other reviewer from Florida

Obviously a no win situation.

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What ‘Schindler’s List’ Is Hopeful About

The Rebutter

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