A Whole New Language
Chris Wisniewski on Schindler’s List

Part One: The Masses

If movies matter—not just as works of art but also as events, not purely aesthetically but also socially and culturally—then Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List may be one of the most important American films ever made. Schindler’s List seemed to both catalyze and crystallize an international conversation about genocide and memory, while marking a decisive turn in its director’s career: it debuted just months after the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC and the release of Jurassic Park, which in becoming the most successful motion picture in history cemented Spielberg’s status as our most significant popular filmmaker. He would go on, the following year, to finally win the Academy Awards for best director and best picture that had previously eluded him—and also to found the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a mission of videotaping survivor testimony about the Holocaust.

Spielberg’s movie, meanwhile, became a landmark, so revered that there was a nationwide controversy when twenty Oakland teens laughed during a screening of it; so monumental that the Ford motor company would later sponsor a national television broadcast of the film without commercial interruption; so hallowed that its cultural sanctity would become the butt of a joke on an episode of Seinfeld. How could anyone laugh during . . . How could a corporate sponsor interrupt . . . How could Jerry and his girlfriend make out at a screening of . . . Schindler’s List? From the moment it premiered, Schindler’s List was more than a movie; it was a creative act through which the country’s most influential purveyor of mass entertainment somehow managed to transcend the crassness of the “popular” to make a “work of art.” It is not an overreach to assert that it almost seemed to redefine what a Hollywood movie could be: Schindler’s List instigated a collective memorialization of a historical trauma so large in scale that it had previously been deemed incomprehensible.

How can one memorialize the incomprehensible, though? If this question rarely entered into the mainstream discourse around Schindler’s List, it generated furious academic debates and fueled a staggering volume of essays and articles by scholars, theorists, filmmakers—or at least, Claude Lanzmann—and intellectuals, and even led to a mixed-to-critical anthology entitled Spielberg’s Holocaust interrogating Spielberg’s motives and his movie’s dramaturgy and ethics (note the way the book’s title implies that the movie functions as an assertion of ownership, a kind of co-opting of the Holocaust). The questions Spielberg’s critics raised were many, and for the most part, they were and are worth asking. Among the most common: How does one represent the unrepresentable? Is it acceptable to make a movie about the Holocaust that tells a story of survival? Is it permissible for such a movie to have a Gentile as a protagonist? Is Schindler’s List anti-Semitic in its depiction of Jews as largely undifferentiated (perhaps feminized, maybe greedy) victims? On the other hand, is Schindler’s List offensive in its blatant Zionism? Or most dubiously, in failing to show us the gas chambers—even as it hints at them luridly—is it possible that Schindler’s List is less a great act of memorialization than an elaborate exercise in Holocaust denial?

So much ink has been spilled by intelligent writers on these subjects that it hardly seems worth it, in a few thousand words, to directly tackle all or any of these questions. At this point, the rigorous scrutiny of Schindler’s List that has taken place in the years after its release is perhaps best seen as a reflection of the movie’s singularity and of Spielberg’s unique stature as a popular artist and public figure—it should not be surprising that other recent Holocaust pictures like Roman Polanski’s The Pianist and Roberto Benigni’s deplorable Life Is Beautiful were greeted with neither the same deference nor comparable resistance. Because of its unrivaled stature, though, Schindler’s List, some two decades after it redefined Spielberg as an artist and as a cultural figure, as well as the American public’s relationship to the Holocaust, has become almost unapproachable.

Indeed, Schindler’s List, as a film, has gotten lost somewhere between the reverence characteristic of its popular reception and the highly charged, theoretically driven criticism it received elsewhere. In the years since its release, it has become increasingly easy to simply talk around it, to hurl vapid superlatives or to use a scene or an aspect of the movie to make a theoretical point, rather than to grapple with the messy whole. I’d like to attempt the opposite approach. Instead I’d like to try, to whatever extent possible, to write about Schindler’s List as a movie. Many of the questions already raised by others will almost certainly come up; few of them will be resolved. But if it is worth writing about Schindler’s List in 2012, after the zeitgeist has moved past it and the academic debate has played itself out, the value of such an exercise can only lie in revisiting the film as a film with a new social, cultural, and intellectual context in which to frame it. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I must say at the outset: this is a movie that is too big, too brilliant, too problematic, and too challenging to ever get one’s mind around; one can only hope there is something valuable to be gained, for the writer and reader alike, in the effort.


Schindler’s List opens on a color image. A hand strikes a match and lights the candles of the sabbath. A Jewish family prays around a dining-room table, and then, as Spielberg dissolves from a close-up of a boy to a wider shot of the table, the family vanishes—a rehearsal, perhaps, for the disappearance of an entire people chronicled later in the film. There are many reasons for the candle-lighting tradition of Shabbat. Principally, the candles are meant to prevent those honoring the sabbath from stumbling in the darkness (which would disrupt the calm of the observance). From that perspective, the candle-lighting might be a metaphor for the movie’s project: if we are in danger of stumbling in the darkness of ignorance, denial, or forgetting vis-à-vis the Holocaust, Spielberg is attempting to illuminate a historical trauma we are obliged to remember. In fact, Schindler’s List can be seen as a pedagogical intervention, a movie that instigates a large-scale “teachable moment”—and in that sense, it means to be a figurative light in the darkness.

At the conclusion of the opening scene, as the final candle burns to its end, the camera tilts up, following a trail of smoke rising from the extinguished flame. And then comes the movie’s first hard cut, to billowing smoke in grainy black-and-white as the camera reverses the tilt, now down, to reveal a train. The graphic match eases the transition from the Shabbat sequence, which seems to exist outside of history—there are no props, costumes or other markers to fix the scene definitively in any one moment of Judaism’s multiple millennia—to a narrative world rooted in a specific timeline. The camera pans across the train tracks, and words appear on the screen: “September 1939, the German forces defeated the Polish army in two weeks.” In the narrative context of Poland in 1939, the train and smoke take on a sinister portent, foreshadowing the forced relocations, the death camps, and the crematorium all to come.

The metaphoric relationship between the smoke of the candle and that of the train is less determinate than their visual relationship. It may even be misguided to waste effort attempting to discern the intellectual intent behind the graphic match that ends the bookend and launches the narrative; one gets the sense that unlike a filmmaker in the mold of a Godard (a vocal detractor of Spielberg and of Schindler’s List), Spielberg approaches cinema first cinematically—through image, sound, camera movement, editing—rather than intellectually. What is he getting at here? Perhaps little more than drawing his audience into his movie’s narrative world, rather elegantly, through mise-en-scène and transition. But there is certainly an idea contained in the vignette that precedes that graphic match: in beginning his Holocaust film with a sequence that invokes Jewish tradition, Spielberg roots his exploration of the Shoah explicitly in the Jewish experience. Its opening minutes thus obviate the criticism Spielberg received that his Holocaust movie wasn’t “Jewish enough” because it has a Gentile as its protagonist. He clearly establishes the story he tells as a Jewish one (made, it must also be said, by a Jewish director), and everything that follows should be read and interpreted with this prologue in mind.

The debate about Schindler’s List’s “Jewishness” reflects a commonly expressed anxiety in the humanities about who has the right to speak about and act as witness to the Holocaust. Whether one accepts or rejects Spielberg’s attempts at doing so, he takes great pains in Schindler’s List to legitimize his speaking position by throwing out his recognizable visual style and instead adopting techniques that ape documentary realism (in this regard, Schindler’s List stands in direct opposition to Lanzmann’s Shoah, an actual documentary that rigorously avoids “documentary technique” to instead foreground and problematize the question of “speaking positions” and their legitimacy). In interviews he gave during and after the making of the movie, Spielberg talked repeatedly about the importance of the movie’s stylistic authenticity. He shot it in black-and-white because he had “no color reference” for the period; he dispensed with cranes in favor of a handheld, verité-inspired aesthetic. With his great cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg reinvented his visual sensibility in a manner that may seem less radical twenty years later only because it has proven to be improbably influential. Midway through the film, Spielberg’s titular entrepreneur-cum-savior Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) guarantees his Jewish accountant and business associate Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) “special treatment.” Stern bristles at the term, having come across it in more disturbing contexts while reading Nazi communiqués. “Do I have to invent a whole new language?” Schindler replies. One gets the sense that Spielberg was asking himself the very same question.

Except this reinvention is partial and circumscribed, packaged into a narrative structure that is distinctly Spielbergian, one that contains shots and sequences that look nothing like a documentary but instead have the feel of a slickly produced Hollywood fiction film. The movie is, in fact, visually and narratively schizophrenic, perhaps by design, operating at numerous alternating registers. On one hand, it meticulously reconstructs aspects of the mass extermination of the Jews, with an emphasis on its staggering scale, its physicality, and its materiality, as well as on the bureaucratic institutions and processes that built up around it, with camerawork and lighting that suggest newsreels, cinema verité, and neorealism. On the other, it wraps this brutality in an easy-to-digest melodrama—shot, with Spielberg’s typically knowing referentiality, in a wide-angle, deep-focus chiaroscuro reminiscent of Expressionism, Welles, and film noir. The tension between Schindler’s List as faux document and Schindler’s List as popular entertainment, at the level of pure moviemaking, is clear from the first two sequences that follow the Shabbat prologue: one prefigures the genocide later depicted in the movie, and the other introduces the film’s Gentile savior with, to borrow a word Schindler uses himself, an assured cinematic panache.

In the first, all of the Jews in Krakow are forced to register with their German occupiers. A handheld shot captures a sea of people lining to do so. Following this are abrupt close-ups of faces intercut with names being typed on a typewriter, one after another after another. If the list produced later in the film by Schindler and Stern (and prefigured here) is “an absolute good,” there can be no doubt that this first list serves the purpose of absolute evil. Spielberg doesn’t revisit the people we glimpse in these opening moments. Instead, he establishes a representational strategy he adopts, for better and worse, throughout the rest of Schindler’s List: with the exception of a few of the saved Schindler Jews, the movie’s Jewish victims are each given just a few seconds or minutes of screen time, and Spielberg rarely pauses to psychologize them beyond their basic survival instincts. (Of all the criticisms lobbed at the film, the argument that these victims are somehow portrayed as stereotypically greedy, weak, or feminized seems to me the most specious. Who, upon facing the loss of everything one has would not, for example, wrap one’s diamonds and jewelry in bread and then swallow them, beg for pity, or seek refuge in the basin of a toilet?). From this sequence forward, Schindler’s List posits the Holocaust as an accumulation of millions of individual stories that together constitute a mass trauma of staggering volume, which the film can only hint at. Scale must of necessity be the point.

Nevertheless, Spielberg demonstrates an extraordinary ability to focalize for brief moments on a single character and to pack set-piece sequences like the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto with individual vignettes that elicit empathy and horror. The famous scene in which Schindler watches on horseback from a hill as a girl in a red coat flees the Nazis is, perhaps, the most memorable example of this approach, partly because the pop of color breaks the film’s monochrome palate and partly because her murder marks Schindler’s decisive turning point from self-interested businessman to reluctant hero. Because Spielberg generally emphasizes scale, brief moments of individuation such as these leave him open to charges of superficiality, reductiveness, and manipulation (though, for the record, the scene in question is inspired directly from Thomas Keneally’s book). Yet Schindler’s List seems acutely aware of the impossible calculus on which it is operating, its need to balance scale with emotional engagement and the dramatic imperative to depict genocide while telling a true to life story of survival.

Towards the movie’s end, Stern gives Schindler a ring, inscribed with the words “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” There is false uplift in the gift. Schindler receives it in the midst of a breakdown, realizing that everything he still owns represents an opportunity cost, lives lost that could have been saved. The moral universe of the Holocaust and of Schindler’s List is one in which lives are bartered for, bought, and sold, where murder is certainty, and where each life salvaged is a miracle and also at the same time just one spared from a destructive force so large that it is, in a word, unfathomable. Spielberg has given himself an impossible task, constantly toggling the film’s attention between the 1,200 Schindler Jews who were saved and the over six million who were murdered; his success in doing so, despite a few missteps, is a staggering achievement.

If only that were the extent of Spielberg’s ambition. In addition to telling the story of the six million who were murdered through the story of the 1200 who were saved, Schindler’s List gives itself the task of telling the story of the 1200 who were saved through that of the one seemingly irredeemable man who saved them and, in the process, redeemed himself. His moral and psychological journey feels as though it could occupy another movie altogether—one that deserves and, indeed, requires an essay of its own.

Read part two.