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Silence and Tears
Schindler's List ten years on
Essay : holocaust, cinema, history, memory, America, war
Tuesday, November 11, 2003 22:25 GMT


This December will mark the tenth anniversary of the release of Schindler’s List, Stephen Spielberg’s three-hour epic about the German industrialist, Oskar Schindler, and his successful bid to rescue thousands of Auschwitz inmates by creating (sometimes superfluous) jobs for them in his steel factory.

A stunning black-and-white recreation of the world of the death camp and of the Nazi elite that ran it, the film inspired passionate responses in the press and academic literature, both from those who saw it as a sublime emotional tribute to the tragedy of the holocaust, and from those who saw it as a vulgar betrayal of an established tradition of highbrow, ascetic holocaust memorialising.

Most academic debate from the 1990s centred around the need to resolve the contradictions between two such positions. The debate was intelligent and self-conscious, but generally found in favour of the highbrow critique: in making his sumptuous Hollywood drama Spielberg had engaged in a kind of pornography of holocaust history whose power was achieved by cheap spectacle and melodrama. It was frequently and unfavourably compared to the nine-hour documentary Shoah by Claude Lanzmann (1985), a collection of interviews with surviving victims and perpetrators of the holocaust, which had eschewed all cinematographic trickery and make-believe, and whose emphasis on lived memory was felt to be a much more serious testament to what had happened.

Ultimately, this academic debate proved to be just that; for Schindler’s List almost immediately acquired a place within American public holocaust discourse that was nothing less than sacred. The film lent a solemn air to the 1994 Oscars, where it was nominated for twelve Academy Awards of which it won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director (Spielberg’s other 1993 blockbuster, Jurassic Park, earned him another three on the same evening). Spielberg was seen suddenly as a serious director, a reputation that he reinforced in the wake of the film’s success by setting up the “Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation”, a vast project aimed at collecting and archiving video recordings of the experiences of holocaust survivors. The film was shown gratis in schools across the United States in order to sensitise children to the enduring relevance of the story (as Spielberg wrote in the study guide, “There are far too many places where hate, intolerance, and genocide still exist”). It even found a place in American international relations: at the 1994 Israeli premiere, Spielberg played the role of grave statesman in his presentation of the film to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Ezer Weizman.

Schindler’s List's exceptional place in the Hollywood canon was secured by 1997 when it became the first film ever to be shown without commercial breaks on NBC. Sponsored for $5 million by Ford (whose founder, Henry Ford, had been notorious before 1941 for the anti-semitic views he expressed in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent) it was screened in a minimally altered version with an introduction by Ford executive Ross Roberts and two minutes of “messages” at beginning and end. Possibly NBC were concerned to avoid a repeat of the grotesquely inappropriate advertisements (e.g. for gas ovens) that featured in the commercial breaks of their 1978 miniseries Holocaust; but it was clear from the tone of this presentation that Schindler’s List had taken on the status, in America at least, of a timeless holocaust memorial.

The period of the early 1990s has been dubbed the “holocaust boom” (1) because of the sudden proliferation that it saw of another kind of holocaust memorial: in stone. Until the 1980s, such memorials had mainly been confined to sites directly connected to the historical events, but during that decade and particularly during the 1990s they began to crop up all across the United States, as if they were a necessary part of the late twentieth-century American cityscape (the most prominent of them, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, was opened on the Washington Mall only a few months before the release of Schindler’s List) (2). It seemed that the sophisticated work carried out by Jewish artists and intellectuals over the preceding decades to develop an aesthetic of political and personal remembrance had come into its own in a paradoxically universal way: it was now being called upon to supply the spiritual core of the American sensibility.

One can imagine a number of reasons why this might have been the case. Until 1989, the United States had defined itself in contradistinction to the Soviet Union, which had fought as its ally against the Nazis and helped to liberate the Eastern European death camps. But by the 1990s things had changed: America was the world’s sole superpower, engaged in battles with a new set of enemies (Muammar Gadafy, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic) and possessed of a more cosmic, less particular, sense of its own significance. The holocaust was apt to acquire a new resonance in this context. Its narrative supplied the eternal image of evil (“Hitler” becoming the monotonously invoked epithet up to the present day for America’s new dictator-enemies) and the imperative of moral urgency (“Lest it happen again”), and cast the American military in the role of inevitable saviours. Not incidentally, it also gave a particularly poignant significance to the state of Israel, whose strategic importance for America was growing with its increasing focus on the Middle East; and it could be used (with some convenient oversights) to emphasise the moral seriousness of America’s (so-called) Judao-Christian culture at a time when “Islam” was being cast as the new enemy.

It is easier to see now, ten years on from the release of Schindler’s List, than in its immediate aftermath how significant the film was in this resignification of the holocaust. Within the tradition of holocaust literature it was certainly radical: it allowed Hollywood to overcome its apprehensions about this subject and created a popular sense of the Holocaust too large to fall victim to the highbrow critique levelled at it. (Though Schindler’s List has seen many, sometimes more controversial, successors – La Vita è Bella (Roberto Benigni, 1997), Jakob The Liar (Peter Kassovitz, 1999), The Grey Zone (Tim Blake Harrison, 2001), The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002), to name a few – they have not in general given rise to the same level of public debate.) More significantly, however, it created a new vocabulary of the holocaust that aligned the historical events much more closely with contemporary reality and, in particular, with the increasingly messianic sense that America had about its role in a post-Cold War world. After all, though Schindler’s List offers itself as a commemoration to the dead, it is not a story about the inmates of the camps but one that celebrates the heroism and moral complexity of someone who, neither perpetrator nor victim, intervened. In this respect it was perhaps more radical with respect to the holocaust tradition than even its critics, in their concern with assessing its fidelity to the past, could see at the time; for it totally abandoned authentic memory as the central feature of holocaust literature and used Auschwitz merely as the cipher of evil in what can be termed its origin myth for contemporary America.

Chaos and intervention

“Time and again - briefly, tellingly and unostentatiously - he singles out a face, a gesture, a fleeting reaction, a few spoken words. Who can forget, for example, the mother desperately whispering to her child (“Look at the snow! Look at the snow!”) while an old man is just about to be shot nearby?” (3)

The popular press was, for the most part, elegiac in its response to Schindler’s List. Newspaper reviews described in detail the highly emotional experience of watching this film, and seemed to find in this intensity of emotion alone the confirmation of the film’s “authenticity” as a commemoration of the holocaust. This raised the question, for some reviewers, of how Spielberg, known for such childish fantasies as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was able to create something so serious. They assumed that Schindler’s List represented his coming-to-terms with his own Jewishness, an impression that Spielberg helped to create. The Newsweek review of the film traced back the genealogy of the film to Spielberg’s “first experience of anti-semitism”:

“It was Spielberg’s senior year in high school, and he encountered kids who would cough the word Jew in their hands when they passed him, beat him up and throw pennies at him in study hall. ‘It was my six months of personal horror. And to this day I haven’t gotten over it nor have I forgiven any of them’” (4).

It was when he went to the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, according to the Newsweek interview, that Spielberg got the idea of making Schindler’s List. He is quoted as saying,

“‘I felt so helpless, that there was nothing I could do about it. And yet I thought, well, there is something I can do about it. I can make Schindler’s List. I mean, it’s not going to bring anybody back alive, but it maybe will remind people that another Holocaust is a sad possibility … A lot of my films have been made for you, just like somebody makes a hamburger just the way you want it. That’s been my modus operandi. Now I go to Poland and I get hit in the face with my personal life. My Jewishness. The stories my grandparents told me about the Shoah. And Jewish life came pouring back into my heart. I cried all the time … I came to realize, the reason I came to make the movie, is that I have never in my life told the truth in a movie’” (5).

As a result, supposedly, of such experiences, Spielberg was able to make a qualitatively different film; as David Ansen comments,

“Spielberg’s very nature has been transformed; he’s reached within himself for a new language ... this time the abundant virtuosity is in the service of a harrowing authenticity” (6).

This story of the “two Spielbergs” has become commonplace in talking about the oeuvre of this director: one fantastical and somewhat juvenile (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark), the other mature and infinitely serious (The Color Purple, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan). It is interesting, however, to note the structural similarities of Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park, two movies from the same year that would seem to come from opposite sides of their director’s creative universe. Both films portray an alienating and terrifying zone overseen by megalomaniacal individuals from which groups of innocent people (among whom children feature prominently) must plot their escape. In both movies it is the force of progressive modernity (personified by good scientists in Jurassic Park, and by a good industrialist in Schindler’s List) that save the day. Such a format is, of course, a cliché of Hollywood. But to apply it to the situation of the holocaust was truly a radical gesture. In doing so, Spielberg broke completely with a long tradition of Jewish intellectuals – of whom Lanzmann was only a recent example – who had insisted on the absolute and unique locatedness of the holocaust, who had eschewed all methods except that of authentic testimony to access the event, and who had drawn from it a fearful cynicism towards the bureaucratic might of the “military-industrial complex” that a state might use to terrorise its people. In Schindler’s List, Spielberg presented a spectacular and totally dehistoricised death camp that could float free from 1940s Europe and become simply a kind of eternal, impenetrable madness to which the forceful intervention of rational outsiders could be the only solution.

Unlike most of his predecessors, Spielberg does not attempt to provide any history of the Nazi era, nor to map the bureaucratic reach of the project of Jewish eradication. The experience of moral repugnance is overwhelmingly generated, not by Nazi systematicity, but rather by its irrational unpredictability, and this on the part of one man, the sick, alcoholic Plaszow camp commander Amon Goeth. The terrors of Goeth’s arbitrary violence are described by his Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch, to Schindler (who says, ‘I know your suffering, Helen’):

“One day he will shoot me.”
“No no no - he won’t shoot you.”
“I know. I see things. We were on the roof on Monday, young Leishek and I, and we saw the Herr Kommandant come out of the front door and down the steps by the patio – right there below us – and there on the steps, he drew his gun and shot a woman who was passing by. A woman, carrying a bundle – through the throat – just – just a woman, on her way somewhere – you know – she was no – no fatter or thinner or slower or faster than anyone else, and I couldn’t guess what had she done. [Silence] The more you see of the Herr Kommandant, the more you see there is no set rules that you can live by. You can’t say to yourself, If I follow these rules then I will be safe.”

Like Helen, many reviewers were most affected by the arbitrariness of the commandant’s cruelty:

“Goeth is a man of cool monstrosity – to start his day, he picks off Jewish workers with a rifle from his balcony” (7).

“In his villa overlooking the labor camp at Plaszow, the fleshy Nazi entertains guests, makes love, and for diversion walks out onto his porch and shoots prisoners with a scope rifle (“You’re such a child,” chides his girlfriend)” (8).

“From his perch, after a restless night, Goeth is free to aim his high-powered rifle and pick off one prisoner after another” (9).

“A man of Schindler’s own age and background, he likes to sit on the balcony of his house idly shooting prisoners who happen to wander into his gunsight. He keeps as his servant a Jewish woman ... whom he constantly beats precisely because against all dictates of ideology, he loves her. The point about this man is that like Nazism itself, his irrationality cannot be contained by any appeal to civility, any system of legal or moral constraint” (10).

“Appalling things happen, just happen, without warning or emotion – a few pistol shots to the head, from point-blank range, and the bodies fall over, two, three, four people” (11).

Oskar Schindler, of course, is the yin to Goeth’s yang. His is the suave, disciplined and predictable energy that can redeem the people from this nightmare; and this energy is that of the industrialist. Schindler’s ability to save the wretched Jews is fully owed to his position: his factory, a systematic and recognisably modern space, is the “haven” into which Jewish prisoners are taken as workers and where they will find immunity from Goeth’s malevolence. In addition to this, however, Schindler is himself a member of the Nazi party; and his combined industrial and political power gives him a mobility that no one else in the film, including Goeth, enjoys. Schindler is the powerful outsider to the death camp who can enter it more or less at well and operate a redemption that no insider could ever work on their own.

Schindler’s List ends with a grateful tribute at the grave of Oskar Schindler by the [real-life] descendants of the “Schindler Jews”. It is the person of Schindler that brings the narrative into the present day, and around which our faith in humankind is reconstructed. In a world of such madness, and such pitifully helpless victims, only the powerful, rational intervener can provide sense.


Schindler’s List opens with a brief sequence, in colour, of a Jewish commemoration service which then fades into memory: Krakow 1942, in the black and white that will remain until the final few minutes of the movie. The perspective of this movie is a “looking back” from a calm and commemorative present to a chaotic past.

At the very end of Schindler’s story, defeat comes to the Nazis. Schindler bids his workers an emotional farewell, and they leave the camp to set off across the Polish horizon into the future. The shot fades slowly into an exactly similar one, this time in colour, with a subtitle saying “The Schindler Jews Today”. We are no longer in Poland, however, but in Israel. The distant line approaches, and we watch them file past Oskar Schindler’s grave, each one placing a commemorative stone on it. The documentary presentation of these real figures provides living evidence of what has gone before, and their slow, repetitive action gives the audience an opportunity to reflect on the contrast between this quiet, sunny scene and the terror of the past. More text adds that “There are only 4000 Jews left in Poland today. Over 6000 descendants of the Schindler Jews survive”.

Even in the context of Spielberg’s melodrama, such a seamless movement from Auschwitz 1945 to Jerusalem circa 1993 is startling. It looks as if the survivors just left Schindler’s factory and kept walking until they found Israel, which, fortunately, happened to be empty – and they are walking there still, just as they did then, in long lines of victims who trudge through the empty landscape thinking only of their gratitude. Israel seems to be fixed eternally as a place of lost, helpless people who will always need the protection of powerful outsiders.

After the defeat of Germany in 1945, the victorious powers presented a carefully edited version of the holocaust to their publics. Theirs was a universal cautionary tale about the perils of fascism, one that made scant reference to the disproportionate burden carried by European Jews in this tragedy. By the time that Schindler’s List came out, however, two generations of Jewish politicians, industrialists, lawyers, philanthropists, historians, philosophers, curators, writers and artists had worked to alter this self-serving story. In that year, Saul Friedländer, in his edited collection, Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe, reflected that this project had been monumentally successful. He felt, however, that this very success had reduced the import of the original message:

“The major increase in references to the Shoah from the late 1960s on, in the Jewish world and elsewhere, is a matter of massive evidence. Yet … this increase in representation has not led to any compelling framework of meaning as far as public consciousness is concerned […] [I]n spite of sometimes simplistic commemorative endeavors, in spite of the functional use of the Shoah for Jewish identity-building, no meaningful interpretation emerges except for the general statement that “what happened once can happen again” [...] Thus, the representation of the events is lacking clear terms of reference once we leave the level of historical reconstruction, which, let me say, is progressing apace” (12).

It is true that there is something slightly inarticulate about the contemporary American fascination with the holocaust. Though memorials to it continue to appear in American cities, and though it has such a sacred aura that people who express the wrong opinion about it can and do receive violent treatment, it is not always easy to say what exactly is the point that holocaust remembrance is supposed to deliver – particularly as we approach the time when no holocaust survivors will remain alive. But this is to miss the point; for the “uses” of the holocaust have changed during the period since Friedländer’s book. The significance of the holocaust is no longer passive – sorrow for those who were lost, and caution about the future. It is now an incentive to action. It has become a much more vague and unspecific story than the ones plotted by the meticulous Jewish historians of the 1950s and 60s; one in which victims are the least important term, and where the true drama occurs in the struggle between various despots – all of whom can be neatly mapped onto Hitler – and the armed forces of progress. It is probable that no ten-year period since 1945 has seen such an incessant and straight-faced invocation of the events of the second world war to “explain” the present moment as the one since Schindler’s List. Now that the original players are mostly departed, the holocaust has a second life as an abstract myth, the foundational legend of America’s place in the international community. In an age with few moral absolutes, Hitler stands as the cipher of an absolute evil that still has the power to infuse almost any contemporary situation of international relations and make everything – ethics and action – suddenly crystal-clear.

It would be difficult to argue that Schindler’s List is responsible for this, even given its unique place in the canon of contemporary Hollywood cinema. But Spielberg’s movie is the cinematic version par excellence of this “new” holocaust, a drama of the end of the twentieth century garbed in the Nazi uniforms and the chic business suits – and the rags – of that primordial battle out of which the modern world was born. It is an account of an eternal political evil that is not constrained by a particular place, history or politics but that amounts merely to an arbitrary, decadent, and ever-present madness. This same madness can be discerned in many other places with different histories and different political systems, and it comes to be an exhaustive account of those places: no knowledge of those histories or systems is required for “us” to know “what to do” in these situations for three things are already quite certain. (1) the madness is equivalent to absolute evil. (2) none of the players caught in its grip, perpetrators or victims, can ever have recourse to the kind of rationality required to resolve it. (3) absolute moral right accrues to the rational intervener as an indisputable consequence of (1) and (2). The drama is eternal, always refreshing itself from the repetition of the Ur-drama.

The three roles of absolute evil, absolute good and absolute victim all have some nobility to them. The very worst role to get saddled with, the small-minded role which has no sense of eternity to it, is that of Chamberlain.


1. Frank Rich, "The Holocaust Boom," New York Times, 7 April 1994, A15
2. In Berlin, the most fervent project of democratic urban design for many decades, it was not just the rehabilitated Reichstag and the spectacular new corporate skyscrapers, but crucially also the Jewish Museum (2001), that placed the city back in the fold of global democratic, capitalist conscience, forever beyond its Nazi and communist pasts. Daniel Libeskind, the architect of the Jewish Museum, is of course currently at work on another more specifically American memorial: the rebuilding of the site of the old World Trader Center in downtown Manhattan.
3. Gross J, ‘Hollywood and the Holocaust’, New York Review of Books, Vol 41 (1994) No 3, 14-6
4. Ansen D, review, Newsweek, Dec 20 1993, p113
5. Ansen D, review, Newsweek, Dec 20 1993, p113
6. Ansen D, review, Newsweek, Dec 20 1993, p113
7. Ansen D, review, Newsweek, Dec 20 1993, p113
8. Doherty T, Cinéaste, Vol 20 No 3 (1994) p49
9. Turan K, review, Los Angeles Times, Dec 15 1993, Calendar p1
10. Schickel R, Time, Dec 13 1993, p75
11. Denby D, New York, Dec 13 1993, p82
12. Friedländer S (ed), Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 43ff