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]