Apr 14 2004
With the new DVD out, I think Spielbergs opus is in line for a fresh judgment.
The most stinging criticism levelled against the film is that applying a fictional narrative with all its tricks and devices to the Holocaust is an insult to its memory. I disagree. Narratives condense the incomprehensible into something manageable, and provided the narrative serves its subject instead of exploiting it, I have no problems. Neither do I think the Holocaust is anything unique. (Cards up front here: Im a heterosexual Caucasian. My political views would see me on the list, but I wouldnt be stuck there by an accident of birth. I appreciate the difference, and Im not trying to offend.) Were supposed to think that, but the word unique means literally one of a kind, or tenuously something exceptional, and I find the only thing exceptional about the Holocaust is its scope. The 20th Century is book-ended with two other holocausts the Armenian genocide and Rwanda but with one million victims apiece instead of six (or anything up to 12, depending on your criteria). Setting the Holocaust aside as something sacred and unique has always struck me as a dangerous path, but thats whats happened because emphasising its otherness conveniently absolves us from facing some nasty home truths. So if narrative fiction is appropriate for any sort of human depravity, and I think it is, I find it appropriate for the Holocaust.
Which is a longwinded way of saying Im looking at it as just another film, but thats a trite statement in isolation so above are my reasons.
I felt both views struggling with each other throughout Schindlers List. Oscar Schindler begins as, to quote Yes, Ministers finest episode, a Whiskey Priest: a man with a selective conscience. He arrives in Poland to make a quick buck off the enslaved Jews. He isnt evil; he ignores evil and dehumanises its victims. Theres nothing special there I believe asylum seekers are the current victims of choice and Schindlers List would have been a braver film if it faced up to that truth. Instead, it becomes that hoary Hollywood stock, the Redemptive Tale, with the Jews as the catalyst. It inserts reason and meaning to something defined by their absence.
What saves Schindlers List is the truth of many scenes amidst the artificial narrative. Gother is a caricature from the school of Claudius and Nero, and his presence reinforces a Manichean worldview, but much of the random brutality he inflicts tallies grimly with eyewitness accounts. A telling scene is where he cannot execute a Jew because all the available guns jam. One view is that its gross audience manipulation, but it spoke to me of the utter randomness and absurdity of survival: many survivors recount equally improbable incidents. To quote Maus: Whats special about survivors? Theyre lucky. You want to attribute them some special power because the living side with the living, but they were just lucky. It showed just how powerless people are.
That message contradicts the films modus operandi however, that One Man Can Make A Difference. At times they can, but usually they cannot, and focussing on the exception that proves the rule made for good drama at the expense of the subject, and thats where Schindlers List falls down as any sort of examination of the Holocaust in its wider context. Its nothing but the story of two men set in the Holocaust. And thats fine, and the story is solidly told, but I find it ultimately shallow: far more pertinent than the awakening of one mans conscience is the slumber of millions.
But I dont find this offensive; what I do find offensive are the scenes that play the audience like a fiddle, Auschwitz especially. Using the Holocaust to achieve emotional reaction is crass beyond the telling of it. Thankfully it did not come often. For the most part Schindlers List is commendably dispassionate, letting atrocity speak for itself. Although the ending is irredeemably bad exploitative, mawkish bilge that finishes on a jarring note.
If Schindlers List eschewed its forced-meaning it would be a great film, as it is its a well told but meaningless one.
(Edited by Byron 25/04/2006 21:58)
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