Dir. Steven Spielberg. Starring Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes
Helen (Embeth Davidtz) can’t figure it out. Her employer, the Nazi commandant Amon Goeth (Fiennes), beats her. Yet others he kills without compunction; she tells Schindler (Neeson) a story about how he went through a group of his Jewish inmates at the Plaszow camp and shot every other man until twenty-five lay dead. Worse still to her, he kills without reason. She tells another story of a time when she walked outside with him and he saw a woman and shot her dead. Helen has been more or less stoic during this conversation, but she finally breaks down. This one, she says, was no fatter or thinner, faster or slower than any other woman in the camp. She cannot fathom it.
Helen: The more you see of Herr Kommandant, the more you see there are no set rules you can live by. You cannot say to yourself, “If I follow these rules, I will be safe.”
Helen has summarized the Holocaust better than anyone else in the film, although a few other characters manage to scratch the surface of that problem. One night in the barracks, a woman tells her cellmates what she’s heard about concentration camps, down to the detail about being gassed to death en route to “showers.” Many of the women are fearful, but some are more vocally displeased with the illogical aspects of that idea. We’re their workforce, one says. What sense does it makes to kill your own workforce? And yet being the workforce in the midst of the most expansive and mechanized war of all time does not guarantee safety; these women are all inmates at Plaszow, the way Helen would have been if Goeth had not liked the look of her when he was choosing a maid. And it had not been reasonable in the first place, of course, to force the Jews of Poland into ghettos, and then into concentration camps, and then to kill them at random (as the woman with the comment about the workforce surely understands). The Holocaust and the absolute lack of reason which pervaded the entire genocide do not come too close to Schindler’s List. They hang over it, inform it, and terrify us with their specter. But Schindler’s List is not really about the world that Helen sees – and lives in – of unreason, but the world of order restored. Schindler is not omnipotent, and the power that he has to do good comes almost entirely from the money he made when he rather unscrupulously hired Jewish workers for practically nothing. (The force of the goodness in hiring especially vulnerable Jews is not Schindler, but Itzhak Stern, his accountant. Stern seeks out the elderly, families, people who have no real ability to work metal or machinery but can pretend they have.) But between himself and Stern (Kingsley), once Goeth lets Schindler in on the knowledge that the Plaszow prisoers are to be sent to Auschwitz, the two of them formulate a list of Jews that Schindler can essentially buy off Goeth. Upon its completion, Stern holds it up and tells Schindler, “The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.” From that gulf of chaos, where the rules of survival are essentially chance alone, Schindler and Stern can fabricate a way to survive which has a rule: be on the list. It is Schindler’s answer to Helen, who, for the sum of 14,800 marks, is made the last name on that list.
When one asks how the Holocaust happened – how millions of people could have simply stood aside, or have participated directly, in the most organized and processed mass killing the world has ever known – one must confront the liability of normal people. Even today, I think we are far too keen to blame Hitler or Goebbels or Eichmann or the Nazi elite as a whole or even simply the people who compiled the names, drove the trains, released the gas, and guarded the prisoners. The blame is so much more diffused than that. The tagline for this film is “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire,” but if that’s true, it means that whoever allows one life to be lost kills the whole world. Spielberg grasps this; no one has to litigate the question of “Who knew about it?” because in this movie everyone knows what’s happening. “Goodbye, Jews!” a girl screams at the march of people walking in shame to the ghetto. On the train to Auschwitz, a child even smaller than her mimes cutting his throat as the train passes by. Schindler takes longer than them to really understand what’s happening here. At first, the Holocaust is a way for him to make easy money. It takes him more than half the movie (which runs over three hours) or longer to really appreciate what’s going on. The rounding up of Jews into a ghetto doesn’t seem to trouble him much. When he rescues Stern from a train bound for a concentration camp, he is more concerned about what might have happened to him than what might have happened to his “clever accountant.” (Spielberg shoots both men from below, a rarity in this movie. The godlike effect of it works out just fine, but it is not a benevolent god that he makes Schindler in that shot.) The liquidation of the ghetto, which he witnesses from horseback, disturbs him, but even then he persists in making money as best he can. He defends Goeth to Stern at one point, suggesting that war brings out the worst in men and that Goeth would be a finer man if he lived in peacetime. It’s only once he learns that the Plaszow inmates will be sent to Auschwitz that he really springs into action, recognizing for the first time just how all-encompassing the danger is to his employees and, in a few cases, friends. Even the best-informed, Spielberg argues, were slow to action. Even then they could not quite comprehend the savagery which would unfold or, worse, could not bring themselves to forestall its execution upon other people. The question of “How could it happen?” is answered, in some way, in this movie, and in a way which I think is instructive.
Stanley Kubrick is frequently quoted as having said about the film something to the extent of “The Holocaust is about failure, where Schindler’s List is about a success.” Whether or not Kubrick ever actually said that I have no idea, but the grain of truth is in that statement. I’m not sure that there are any fictional films which are “about the Holocaust” which work. Stories about Anne Frank, or stories like Schindler’s List, are narratives with easily plotted beginnings, middles, and ends. Even if that end is tragic, as it was for Anne Frank and the other people from the Secret Annex, there is an arc which we find comforting, which we are able to follow and to recognize as a story, and which we can at least look forward to ending in some way. (Spielberg even gives us an ending which is not happy, precisely, but which is hopeful. Stern’s optimism about the generations who would follow thanks to Schindler’s actions is, in its earnestness, even more buoyant than the sight of seeing those people place stones on Schindler’s tomb.) Documentaries, which are less bound to the form of a narrative story and which can consider the depth and breadth of the murders, seem to be more successful; perhaps that’s why Shoah and Night and Fog both rank in Sight and Sound’s top four documentaries ever made.
Schindler’s List is not a great Holocaust movie, but it is exceedingly powerful. It is a movie which defines indelibility; I’m not sure it’s possible to forget any of it once it’s been seen. Even long gaps between viewings – I’ve seen the film maybe three times in ten years – can’t blur the memory of certain images and scenes. In Schindler’s List, all of Spielberg’s gifts for visual storytelling are on display. Slowly but surely he signifies the difference between Schindler and Goeth by literally putting more space between them as they speak until they are made separate, in their last scene together, by the thick window sash. The dark blood from the head of a recently murdered man melting the snow beneath it as it runs down is unforgettable and chilling, but also seems to grow larger as it goes longer, standing in as a metaphor for the Holocaust’s rising and unchecked death toll. Helen’s wine cellar, where she goes to hide from Goeth, is stark and cold, lit occasionally by a near floodlight effect. For whatever other flaws Spielberg’s movie has, the telling of the story through images is often brilliant.