From the armbands to the ghettos, from forced labor to extermination camps and beyond, Schindler’s List covers the successive historical stages of the Final Solution more comprehensively than any other popular film had at the time, or has since. That, in part, is its great achievement — and, for many of its critics, its enduring stigma.
The Holocaust is too immense and inconceivable for any motion picture, or any artistic work, to fully capture or express. For all that Steven Spielberg’s most ambitious and arguably most acclaimed film does right and wrong, the one thing for which some people can’t forgive it is being a motion picture, and a popular one.
“The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed,” Stanley Kubrick reportedly remarked; “Schindler’s List is about six hundred who don’t.” While this observation isn’t explicitly a critique, it’s been taken (or used) as such. What’s more, critics contend, the film tells its story, not from the perspective of the Jewish victims, but from that of a German — from the perspective of a member of the oppressor population.
Adapted by screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Moneyball) from Thomas Keneally’s historical novel, the film is structured around the redemption of Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler: a conflicted Nazi entrepreneur, philanderer, war profiteer and exploiter of Jewish slave labor who nevertheless risks his life and spends a fortune sheltering Jews as protected workers at his factories.
The story thus places Schindler and his Schindlerjuden in the foreground, with the horror of the Holocaust in the background. In this film, though, the background is as important as the foreground, or more so.
Schindler’s redemptive story-arc follows a familiar Hollywood template, and the exceptional survival story of Schindler’s Jews offers a perspective on the inhumanity of the Nazi evil beyond impotent despair. Yet Schindler himself remains an enigma; the film is less interested in him as a character than it is in the episodic sequences depicting the larger historical circumstances to which he reacts — sequences in which the dominant German point of view yields to a Jewish one.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.