A Whole New Language
Chris Wisniewski on Schindler’s List

Part Two: The Man

What makes Schindler’s List different from every other Holocaust picture? One potential answer lies in Spielberg’s unique stature as a commercial force. Though styled to be a kind of cinematic monument, Schindler’s List was also from the beginning a commercial product; unlike, say, Shoah, which in its uncompromising approach to its subject eschews any concessions to its audience, Spielberg’s movie was quite clearly made with the moviegoing public in mind. In fact, Schindler’s List could never have instigated the collective memorialization to which it aspired without having a hook for a mainstream audience. Its status as monument is actually predicated on its commercial appeal.

Without an emotional center to anchor it or a sense of uplift to dilute the bleakness of its vision, Schindler’s List would probably have been too disturbing and unpalatable for its mass audience. The Schindler story itself thus provides the perfect vehicle for Spielberg: set against a backdrop of genocide, it is a tale of survival told as melodrama. A failure as a businessman and as a husband (“Promise me, Oskar, that no door man or maître d’ will ever confuse me for anyone other than Mrs. Schindler,” his wife tells her philandering husband shortly into the movie, “and I’ll stay”—cut to Mrs. Schindler leaving on a train), Neeson’s Oskar proves to be a typical Spielberg hero. From Duel to E.T. to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Hook to Jurassic Park to Minority Report to Catch Me If You Can to The Terminal to War of the Worlds, Spielberg’s oeuvre is littered with absent or inadequate husbands, fathers, and father figures. Like many a Spielberg man, Schindler fails at the basic tests of masculinity, until an external crisis forces him to realize his best possible self, to become the savvy businessman he could never be in peacetime, a father to “his Jews,” and finally even a husband to his wife.

In other words, Spielberg’s Schindler is a real movie hero, and as soon as he is introduced, in a sequence that immediately follows the mass registration at the Krakow train station, Spielberg ditches the documentary-style realism characteristic of the most graphic and disturbing sequences of Schindler’s List. In a series of medium close shots, Schindler pours himself a drink, carefully chooses an outfit and cufflinks, grabs a wad of cash, and applies his Nazi pin to his lapel. It’s an intoxicating montage, and the sexiness of it, down to the close-up of the pin, brings to mind Susan Sontag’s famous essay, “Fascinating Fascism.” Spielberg’s decision to conceal his Nazi hero’s face, after the numerous close-ups of Jews registering with their Nazi persecutors during the previous sequence, marks his protagonist as separate from the people whom he saves. Spielberg cuts to a long take in which Schindler walks into a party, a Carlos Gardel tango playing in the background, with the camera following him from behind as he bribes the host and secures a table, until the camera settles, at last, into a beautifully lit close up of the face concealed from us in the previous shots. This introduction is arresting, chic, and even romantic in a way that immediately disrupts and, to some extent, undermines all that comes before, the first sign of another kind of schizophrenia—not the tension between genocide and survival but instead an incongruity between documentary-style realism and noirish melodrama, between historical reenactment and mythmaking. With their low-angle, high-contrast Wellesian cinematography, which so perfectly accentuates Neeson’s towering frame, the sequences of Schindler’s List most focused on Schindler himself are steeped in movieness.

We are meant to immediately find Schindler appealing and to distrust him as well. When he first meets Stern, Schindler attempts to ply him with a drink (he refuses) and then makes a proposition: Stern secures Jewish financing to buy a metalworks factory and helps him to run it; Schindler provides the “panache...the presentation.” Stern looks shocked, repulsed by the inept fortune-hunter’s attempt at turning a profit off of the war, but the next time we see Stern, he’s coaxing potential investors. As numerous scholars and critics have noted, Schindler’s relationship with Stern resembles something like an arranged marriage. Stern goes along with Schindler’s business plan only reluctantly and resists his employer’s charm—repeatedly refusing the drinks Schindler offers throughout the film as though denying a proper consummation of their relationship. It is only when Schindler fully abandons his self-interested pursuit of profit in favor of his righteous cause that Stern decides to share a drink with Schindler, and at the end of the movie, Stern offers Schindler, rather pointedly, a ring. Their relationship lies at the heart of this characteristically male-centered Spielberg-style melodrama, which dispenses with Frau Schindler within the first hour in order to recast Schindler’s family as “his Jews,” towards whom Schindler and Stern become figurative parents.

This dramatic conceit has become fodder for critics who charge that Spielberg’s Jews in general are portrayed as weak, diminutive, and feminine next to their tall, handsome, and fatherly Gentile savior. Such criticisms cast Stern in the role of the wife, who reluctantly enables and supports the man with whom fate has matched him. Revisiting Schindler’s List recently, though, I was struck by how much of the narrative, at least initially, turns on Stern’s initiative. He is the first to understand the life-saving potential of Schindler’s factory, fabricating papers for a history professor and passing a one-armed senior off as a “skilled laborer” in order to find them jobs. After the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto and the relocation of its inhabitants to the Plaszow labor camp, Stern gives Schindler directions on which officials to bribe and when, and he begins extorting commodities from his employer—a lighter, cigarettes in a case—to add names to the list of approved workers. As the movie is dramatized, Schindler’s literal list is built by Stern, and Stern may be the movie’s moral compass, its audience’s surrogate, and the narrative’s prime mover. He is the person most clearly responsible for rescuing Schindler from himself and is, by proxy, the man who rescues the “Schindler Jews.”

Far more than his relationship to his wife, Schindler’s bond with Stern comes to define the movie’s hero, but Oskar is given another, more disturbing foil: Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the sociopathic or, perhaps, psychopathic S.S. agent who oversees Plaszow. At the movie’s beginning, Schindler is, like Goeth, a Nazi, and one can read the narrative trajectory of the film as one that follows Schindler’s progress from being a person on the model of a Goeth to someone more like Stern. Just prior to the liquidation of the ghetto, the moment at which Schindler appears to have the moral conversion apparently instigated by witnessing the flight of the young girl in the red jacket, and shortly after Goeth’s introduction, Spielberg intercuts Schindler and Goeth shaving, both men looking into a mirror. And we are meant to see them as mirror images, while a speech by Goeth about the events to come plays as an extended sound bridge: “Today is history. Today will be remembered. Years from now, the young will ask with wonder about this day. Today is history, and you are part of it....” Spielberg’s employed this doubling technique before—think of Eliot and E.T. or Indy and his father—but never so effectively or ambiguously. If the doubling recasts Goeth’s speech, making the “history” he discusses not simply about genocide (though it is certainly about genocide) but also about the history made by Schindler’s moral recuperation, it also establishes an unsettling equivalence between Goeth and Schindler.

This equivalence is reiterated and deconstructed over a series of scenes that focus on Goeth’s maid, Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz). In the first, dramatized largely in an extraordinary single take, the camera moving slowly, almost imperceptibly towards Helen, Davidtz delivers a powerhouse monologue to Schindler that recounts Goeth’s abuses. She finally concludes, “[Goeth] has no set rules in which to live by.” In a similarly staged later scene—perhaps the single most erotically charged encounter in the entire Spielberg oeuvre—Goeth makes the case for and then against a romantic encounter with Helen, again in the wine cellar. At the end of the scene, he blames the silent maid for his temptation (“You nearly talked me into it,” he lies). This sequence, like the one that precedes the liquidation of the ghetto, is crosscut with scenes of Schindler, here enjoying the attentions of a nightclub singer. Though the crosscutting suggests a cosmic kinship, at this point, the moral gulf between the two men has already been exposed. If Goeth desires Helen, even as he hates himself for it, Schindler distinguishes himself as the benevolent father figure: he ends his earlier conversation with her by leaning in towards her with the assurance, “It’s not that kind of a kiss,” pecking her on the forehead as she begins to cry.

The parallel editing between Goeth and Schindler exposes the artifice—the constructedness—at the core of Schindler’s List. This tension between its movieness and its obligation to its subject matter comes to the fore most pointedly when a group of the Schindler women are sent mistakenly to Auschwitz in perhaps the most tone deaf and ill-advised scene in the entire Spielberg filmography. Their hair is cut. They are forced to strip. Then they are led, as the camera follows them in a handheld shot, into a shower, where they cower in fear, awaiting near certain death. The lights go out, and they tremble and scream. Then, finally, water pours from the spouts as they yell with relief. Their lives have been spared.

The movie’s most vocal detractors have attempted to construe this detour to Auschwitz as an act of elaborate Holocaust denial, as though the staging of a scene that suggests and then fails to depict extermination in the gas chambers is somehow tantamount to a claim that the gas chambers never existed in the first place. These arguments are a stretch, to say the least. Still, the Auschwitz scenes in Schindler’s List are the film’s most problematic and misguided, for at least two reasons. First, the fear the Schindler women demonstrate depends upon a preexisting knowledge of the gas chambers, one we could not expect for them to have had (at least as a group), but one the scene assumes its audience has and which it exploits accordingly (in this sense, far from denying the reality of the gas chamber, the scene’s effectiveness depends on our prior knowledge). Second, and perhaps more disturbingly, the handheld shot that closes on the circular window into the shower room directly evokes the famous peephole shot of Psycho. As this is a Spielberg film, Schindler’s List is loaded with references like this—just think of the image of a young boy dragging his index finger across his throat, echoing the horrifyingly portentous hand gesture that a witness testified would presage certain death in Shoah—but nowhere is this tendency more troubling than in this ill-conceived Hitchcockian moment, which transmutes the visual language of genocide into a reference to a movie scene that equates violence with sexual titillation. Though Schindler’s List recovers from its Auschwitz detour, it never resolves the tension implicit in this set-piece, which is, like the movie itself, about both murder and survival. As this scene shows, Schindler's List is structured around a series of contradictions, and Schindler himself is a contradiction. At the end of the film, he declares, “I am a member of the Nazi party. I am a munitions manufacturer. I am a profiteer of slave labor. I am a criminal.” All of this—Schindler’s List makes clear—is true, and at the same time, the movie strives to be an elegy for the man as savior.

The movie ends with an unambiguously Zionist coda. A Soviet soldier arrives at the location of Schindler’s factory to “liberate” Schindler’s Jews. They ask him where they should go. He tells them to go neither west nor east, and then wonders, “Isn’t there a town over there?” Spielberg then cuts to the actors marching, and eventually dissolves to the real Schindler Jews circa 1993 in Israel as the song “Jerusalem of Gold” plays in the background. The dissolve recalls the graphic match that opens the film, from prayer candle to locomotive smokestack, but without the elegance. Still, the clumsiness of the conceit is mitigated by the heartfelt earnestness of this color bookend. Each of the surviving Schindler Jews, led by the actor who played the character, lays a rock on Schindler’s grave. This twinning constitutes the film’s final assertion of its authenticity and of its constructedness, drawing attention to the fact that it’s both “real” and “made,” true to life and completely staged for our edification.

Schindler’s List ends with an unseen figure laying a rose on Schindler’s grave (as opposed to the rocks laid by the Schindler Jews). He stands in the distance over the tombstone, as a dedication reads, “in memory of the more than six millions Jews murdered.” We assume that the figure is Neeson himself, his face obscured from our view, just as it was in his first scene. This final image thus remythologizes Schindler and again sets him apart from the people he saves, who, like those first forced to register in Krakow, appear as individual faces amongst the many, a plentitude. The schizophrenia of Schindler’s List may be most pointed in this final shot, which attempts, most affectingly and unsuccessfully, to acknowledge the scale of the genocide while celebrating the legacy of Oskar Schindler. As moving as this big, brilliant, problematic, and challenging movie is, this final dedication, which strives to encapsulate the entirety of the Holocaust, may not be earned. But if movies matter—not just as works of art but also as events, not purely aesthetically but also socially and culturally—then surely, we will be asking whether Schindler’s List earned this ending as long as we are discussing the medium that made it possible.