Last week, Tablet Magazine published our list of the 100 greatest Jewish films of all time. At the very bottom was Schindler’s List. In a brief blurb, I called it an “astoundingly stupid” movie, which, in turn, inspired some of our readers to call me a “piece of shit” and a “neo-Nazi”—all for casting an aspersion on what, if they are to be believed, is everyone’s favorite Holocaust movie.
Which makes perfect sense: More than just a regrettable film, Schindler’s List neatly reflects the Manichean mindset of many American Jews, for whom mythology trumps memory and nothing lies beyond good and evil. Those who howled at me weren’t expressing a mere aesthetic judgment; they were defending a worldview.
To understand this worldview, we need only look at Schindler’s List. The film’s two main characters are Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler and Ralph Fiennes’ Nazi officer, Amon Goeth. The first is a philandering and greedy German who sees a little girl in a red coat and has a nearly instantaneous epiphany, realizing that life is precious and that Jews should be saved. The other is a monster; it’s no coincidence that the American Film Institute ranked Goeth at number 15 in its list of the 100 greatest villains of all time, just one spot below the slimy creature who terrorized Sigourney Weaver in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Goeth, too, is an otherworldly sort. He is not, like the real-life murderer on whom he is based, merely a hateful, opportunistic, and cruel young man who relished the chance to play god. He is impenetrable, predatory, inhuman. We have little reason to fear him more than we fear, say, the Nazis in Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark or the shark from Jaws; all are terrifying, but all are the sort of baddies we’ll only ever see on-screen, not the kind of ordinary and crooked and all-too-human scum living quietly next door and waiting for a stab at power.
Well, first, I always find these discussions of supposedly the worst film/song/album cover to be odd anyway. It’s more like the worst among the stuff anyone remembers. I am sure there is a more than a few clearly worse “Jewish” movies around somewhere (being a little unclear on how you decide whether a movie is “Jewish” or not). Like maybe a 90 minute film about a guy farting on a yarmulke to the tune of the Dradle Song.
And in the end I guess I just didn’t see the same movie. For one, I never thought that Schindler was okay with Jew-killing in the beginning, just that the enormity of what had been happening had not occurred to him, until that scene where he watches it on horseback. I think humans have a strong capacity for denial and that was what was in play up until that point. He found ways to ignore just how awful it was until that point. We sometimes need something to shock us out of complacency.
As for Goeth, while it might be interesting to show the transformation from an ordinary man into a sadist, I found that as a whole they did an excellent job humanizing him. I did not believe him to be a cartoon villain in the style of the Indiana Jones Nazis.
And all of that ignores the film’s central achievement, which is to show the viewer a depiction of the holocaust that feels authentic. I can’t even fully pin down how Spielberg did it, but it never felt like you were watching actors performing a scene. I have long argued that movies like this, or about war, serve the same function as the funeral oration, a thesis I will probably expand upon in the future. These things are about remembering the fallen and taking something good from their death. “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil,” the Reverend Martin Luther King said when standing besides the graves of three little girls who died in Sunday school when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Where we are talking about people who died fighting for something—either with bullets or with words—the charge is to pick up their fallen flag. “[F]rom these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion,” Lincoln said in his classic funeral oration. And when Scotland campaigned for this strange semi-independent state they are in today, advocates of their cause showed the movie Braveheart to rally for the cause. By contrast when Dr. King spoke in quiet fury at the murder of those little girls he saw it as a reason to renew their opposition to the hate that killed them:
The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man's inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color.
And yes, to a certain extent that is what I was doing yesterday when discussing the murder of Karen Woo. I was trying to bring some meaning to her senseless death. For it was the promise that we would take these lessons from their deaths that insured, in both King and Lincoln’s words, that they did not die in vain. Likewise Schindler’s List can be fairly read as helping us to become solemnly dedicated to two simple words: never again.
In this way, then, Saving Private Ryan failed—or, more precisely, broke these unwritten rules. The two movies are truly linked, at least in our hearts. Before the movie came out Spielberg said that all war movies were anti-war movies. I have never been sure what he meant by that. After all, to an extent we should be anti-war and I think almost all of us are. War is an ugly thing and should only be engaged in reluctantly. But if he meant that the movie would make us hate all war and to believe it should never ever be engaged in, he forgets that Schindler’s List still exists, telling us exactly why it was necessary for our soldiers to endure those hardships. Not that our soldiers yet understood the full enormity of the evil that they were fighting—they were still in denial, much like Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler early in List. But for those of us who know how this will end, who know what they will see when they liberated the death camps, who read The Diary of Anne Frank as a child, we know that you cannot make a truly anti-war film about fighting the Nazis.
So we solemnly filed into the movie theaters when Saving Private Ryan was released and we watched as our way of paying tribute to the fallen. I don’t know many people who would consider the movie entertainment. Instead we felt more like we owed it to them, to bear witness to their suffering, to pay homage to these martyrs. Indeed the very word martyr comes from the greek word for witness. But what is missing is the call for us to dedicate ourselves in response. As Mark Steyn once wrote of the movie:
Endeavouring to justify their mission to his unit, Hanks’s sergeant muses that, in years to come when they look back on the war, they’ll figure that `maybe saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we managed to pull out of this whole godawful mess’. Once upon a time, defeating Hitler and his Axis hordes bent on world domination would have been considered `one decent thing’.
The movie even quotes from Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby and was inspired by it in setting up the movie’s premise, but the filmmakers still did not understand the import of this passage even as they quoted from it:
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
It is not something that bothers me all that much about Spielberg's movie, however, because I think we in the audience readily supply the part that was missing. We know, even if Spielberg doesn’t, is that the dead were correctly seen as dying in a noble cause that we should dedicate ourselves to.
Okay, maybe this was not the most frivolous subject, but there you go.
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