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Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is both a moral and an aesthetic disaster, an embodiment of much that is wrong with American-Jewish life

Liel Leibovitz
December 13, 2011
Schindler’s List.(Universal)
Schindler’s List.(Universal)

Last week, Tablet Magazine published our list of the 100 greatest Jewish films of all time. At the very bottom was Schindler’s List. In a brief blurb, I called it an “astoundingly stupid” movie, which, in turn, inspired some of our readers to call me a “piece of shit” and a “neo-Nazi”—all for casting an aspersion on what, if they are to be believed, is everyone’s favorite Holocaust movie.

Which makes perfect sense: More than just a regrettable film, Schindler’s List neatly reflects the Manichean mindset of many American Jews, for whom mythology trumps memory and nothing lies beyond good and evil. Those who howled at me weren’t expressing a mere aesthetic judgment; they were defending a worldview.

To understand this worldview, we need only look at Schindler’s List. The film’s two main characters are Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler and Ralph Fiennes’ Nazi officer, Amon Goeth. The first is a philandering and greedy German who sees a little girl in a red coat and has a nearly instantaneous epiphany, realizing that life is precious and that Jews should be saved. The other is a monster; it’s no coincidence that the American Film Institute ranked Goeth at number 15 in its list of the 100 greatest villains of all time, just one spot below the slimy creature who terrorized Sigourney Weaver in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Goeth, too, is an otherworldly sort. He is not, like the real-life murderer on whom he is based, merely a hateful, opportunistic, and cruel young man who relished the chance to play god. He is impenetrable, predatory, inhuman. We have little reason to fear him more than we fear, say, the Nazis in Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark or the shark from Jaws; all are terrifying, but all are the sort of baddies we’ll only ever see on-screen, not the kind of ordinary and crooked and all-too-human scum living quietly next door and waiting for a stab at power.

Intelligent filmmakers, like Marcel Ophüls or Claude Lanzmann, long ago forged a cinematic language with which to talk about evil. Its two great grammatical principles are the context and the close-up: Cobble together as many sources as is possible to make a mosaic of meaning, then train the camera on one specific detail and demand an explanation. When it works well, we get moments like Lanzmann’s interview in Shoah with Franz Schalling, the Chelmno guard, whose matter-of-factness about the killing process is more terrifying than any imperious expression Fiennes can conjure, particularly as it appears alongside testimonies by victims and bystanders who had lived through radically divergent versions of the same horror. This approach is superior from both ethical and artistic perspectives, giving every player in this brutal human drama a claim to agency and dignity.

Spielberg’s approach, on the other hand, does not. Schindler’s Jews do not matter. They’re abstractions, spiritual currency so that our “hero” can pay his way toward salvation. Like Goeth, Schindler, too, is busy scrubbing away everything that makes him human.

The film’s blunt simplification enraged the Hungarian-Jewish Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, himself a survivor. Schindler’s List, he argued, was kitsch. “I regard as kitsch any representation of the Holocaust that is incapable of understanding or unwilling to understand the organic connection between our own deformed mode of life (whether in the private sphere or on the level of ‘civilization’ as such) and the very possibility of the Holocaust,” he wrote in his 2001 essay, “Who Owns Auschwitz?” “Here I have in mind those representations that seek to establish the Holocaust once and for all as something foreign to human nature; that seek to drive the Holocaust out of the realm of human experience.”

Stanley Kubrick felt the same way. Abandoning his own Holocaust-themed project after Spielberg’s movie became instantly iconic, Kubrick complained that the prince of Hollywood forever simplified one of the most complex occurrences in human history by crafting, in essence, a competing narrative. “Think [Schindler’s List] is about the Holocaust?” he asked the screenwriter Frederic Raphael, a friend. “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.”

One can argue, of course, that there are many Holocaust stories to be told, and that Spielberg merely chose to tell his (adapted, as it was, from Thomas Keneally’s book), and that his merely happened to have a hopeful ending. But that doesn’t absolve him of responsibility. Writing of the moral and aesthetic problems art runs into when it attempts to represent pain and suffering, the 18th-century German philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing theorized that visual artists follow a two-step process when creating their work: First they choose one moment out of an endless sequence of possible moments for visual representation, and then they submit that moment to the strictures of the artistic process. If the choices they make fit together nicely—the perfect moment represented the perfect way—the result is pleasing. If not, it terrifies. In choosing Schindler’s story, and in representing it as a collection of kinetic symbols swirling in succession on-screen, Spielberg turned an infinitely complex reality into something even worse than kitsch: a spectacle. It’s of little wonder that one of Seinfeld’s funniest plots involved Jerry making out with a woman in a screening of Schindler’s List; a similar joke involving Shoah would have come off as intolerably insensitive, but necking as Neeson and Fiennes duke it out is hilarious because it concedes, however implicitly, that Schindler’s List is just a flick, overrated and overblown, best viewed while heavily petting.

But the real problem isn’t Spielberg. He is an endlessly talented filmmaker who has directed a few of the works—from A.I.—that I consider to be among the finest ever produced. The real problem is the culture that spawned Spielberg, the culture of so many of us in the American Jewish community.

There’s no way to quantify what I’m about to say next and many ways to dismiss it as inaccurate or subjective or untrue. But consider this: From a community that was, until three or four decades ago, not only emotionally equipped but also eager to hold difficult internal debates, we’ve allowed so many of our communal vistas to become splintered terrains of intolerance and mutual suspicion. Try talking about Israel to someone who sees the country in a very different light. Try bringing up conversion next time you run into someone from a different denomination. Chances are the conversation will soon descend into chaos, with each side claiming absolute moral validity for itself and casting calumnies at the other. Put differently, we used to see the world like Lanzmann, as a nuanced and complex place where even the greatest villains deserved a few quiet moments on camera to speak their mind. We now see it like Spielberg saw the Holocaust, in black and white, all feeling and movement.

It’s an attitude we must do everything in our power to resist in every way, from commemorating the past to debating the future. Our tradition is nothing if not a yarn of complications; as appealing as simple images of victimhood (the little boy in the sewer in Spielberg’s film) and redemption (the Israeli paratroopers at the Western Wall in the iconic photograph from the Six Day War) might be, it’s our moral, aesthetic, and historical obligation to choose the difficult, the subtle, and the obscure. This, if anything, is the life for which we’ve been chosen.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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