The DVD version of SCHINDLER’S LIST finally arrives in stores
today (3/9/04). Click here for notes on its special features.


Director Steven Spielberg
on the SCHINDLER set.
© Copyright 1994
Universal City Studios, Inc.
All rights reserved.

in a


10th Anniversary


I was alone the first time I saw SCHINDLER’S LIST. I avoided all the reviews, took a vacation day, and went to the first show by myself the day it opened in Chicago. Determined to seek my own counsel and make up my own mind, I arrived at the theater early and sat down in a middle seat. Little by little, people filled in around me, and by the time the film began, the theater was full.

Approximately three hours later, the credits began to roll. No one said a word. No one moved. When the theater lights finally came back up, people slowly collected their things and filed out in a hush.

It was one week before Christmas, and the theater was located in a mall. Like the actors walking towards Oskar Schindler’s Jerusalem grave at the end of the film, I was suddenly returned to a world exploding with color and light.

Ten years have passed, and I have now seen SCHINDLER’S LIST eight times, including twice the week it opened, and twice last week. And I still believe today what I believed that first day: SCHINDLER’S LIST is the most important artistic statement ever made about the Holocaust.

I know there are many who will disagree. I have read their reviews and articles and books. Nevertheless, I want to use this tenth anniversary milestone for reflection, both about the film itself and the historical meaning of the Shoah it depicts.

I was born in 1951, only a few years after director Steven Spielberg, so the Shoah was an integral part of my own evolution as a Jewish-American intellectual. I was spared the guilt of earlier generations who always had to wonder what they should have known or what they could have done. And I never developed the resistance of younger generations who felt bludgeoned by the painful details contained in the ever-increasing flood of recollections and analyses. For me, the Shoah was always there at the edge of my consciousness, demanding an explanation.

The question that has occupied me is what, if anything, makes the Shoah unique? What distinguishes the Shoah from other instances of genocide or mass suffering? My answer is the same as Spielberg’s: it is the predominance of lists. For all the critics and scholars who have focused, for better or for worse, on Spielberg’s depiction of Schindler the man, I have found very few who acknowledge that “Schindler” functions in the film’s title as a modifier. The subject, the noun is “list.” In other words, “SCHINDLER’S LIST” represents one particular list in a world ruled by listmakers. This, for me, has always been the true horror of the Shoah. Millions of people were reduced to names on lists; an entire ethnic group was transformed into cargo to be transported, units to be processed -- the raw material in a man-made machine.

How can I be sure that dramatizing this was Spielberg’s intention and not my own extrapolation? Because the source material was not called SCHINDLER’S LIST, it was called SCHINDLER’S ARK. In an interview with Thomas Keneally published in January, 1994, the author said: “…when [my book] was published in England, it was called SCHINDLER’S ARK because of the Ark of the Covenant, so I asked Spielberg ‘Why don’t you call it SCHINDLER’S ARK?’ He said he wanted to make a lot about lists. When you think about it, he’s right. This is all about lists and the most horrible kind of bureaucracy. The whole film is full of recurrent lists; there are right lists and wrong lists. And every time you see a folding table and chair and an inkwell on the table in an open-air place, you get the shivers. You know people are going to be divided, and it’s going to be done with that extra bureaucratic correctness that those lists represent.”

What I most admire about the film is the rigorous discipline with which Spielberg depicts this process. What could be more difficult for a humanistic director than to turn his actors into the fodder of listmakers, and yet he does it. If he weren’t so driven to tell this fundamental truth about the Shoah, I don’t think even he would have had the courage to reduce real men and women to such abject and literal nakedness. Why, critics ask, does he force us to follow a group of shorn and shivering women into the absolute belly of the beast? Because he wants to stun his audience with the obstacle Schindler faces when he arrives at Auschwitz to buy them out. “You shouldn’t get stuck on names,” the Auschwitz Commandant tells Schindler. “That’s right. It creates a lot of paperwork.” If there is anything unique about the Shoah it is this, that the lives of millions of specific men, women, and children were coldly reduced to “paperwork.”


Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) and Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley)
create the list Schindler uses to buy his workers from the Nazis.
© Copyright 1994 - Universal City Studios, Inc. - All rights reserved.


Some critics see the whole film as an extended metaphorical fist-fight between a “good guy” (Oskar Schindler) and a “bad guy” (Amon Goeth, the Nazi officer played in the film by Ralph Fiennes). I think this is fundamentally wrong. The film makes it clear that Schinder barely knows most of the people on his list. The author of the list is not Schindler but his accountant, Itzhak Stern (played by Ben Kingsley). Watch the film again and you will see that there are really only two people, besides Stern, personally selected by Schindler. One is Helen Hirsch (Goeth’s maid) and the other is Poldek Pfefferberg (Schindler’s black market runner). To the extent he knows others by name, it is only because Stern has made them part of the factory team. Stern has selected most of the workers at the Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik. In one scene, Schindler even reprimands him. By bringing over workers the Nazis consider less than fit, Stern risks making the entire enterprise even more vulnerable than it already is.

In most cases Stern’s choices are a mystery to us, but his role is clear. Stern is one of the listmakers. Thus Spielberg dramatizes one of the blackest aspects of the Shoah: Jewish complicity. In what Italian survivor Primo Levi labeled “the gray zone,” the Nazis frequently forced Jews to do the worst jobs. One man tells the listmakers that he is a teacher of history and literature, and he is outraged when they rate him “non-essential.” Stern then removes the man’s tie, unbuttons his collar, sticks a cap on his head, and sends him back through the line. “Tell them you are a metal polisher, highly skilled.” How many other teachers went on other lists because Stern didn’t choose them for coaching?

Can the story of one individual, a person or even a family, capture the essence of the Shoah? I don’t think so. In his 2001 book RETHINKING THE HOLOCAUST, Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer says: “I do not think the sadism and the brutality with which the victims were maltreated could offer an explanation, because suffering, agony, and torment cannot be graded… How is it possible to compare the tragedy of a Jew or of a Russian peasant or of a Tutsi or of a Cambodian Khmer? It is, surely, impossible to say that the suffering of one person is greater or less than that of another. Such a statement would be repulsive.”

Bauer’s point becomes particularly relevant when we compare SCHINDLER’S LIST to more intimate films such as last year’s multiple Oscar-winner THE PIANIST. What, after all, does THE PIANIST tell us that is specific to the Shoah? That individuals were treated as second-class citizens, forced from their homes, herded into confined spaces, separated from their family members, gunned down by soldiers in uniform? Isn’t this also the narrative line of films such as DANCES WITH WOLVES (set in the American West) and RABBIT-PROOF FENCE (set in the Australian Outback)?

The ending of THE PIANIST is especially pertinent because it equates Polish suffering with Jewish suffering. The devastated world to which Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) returns is, after all, a Polish world. Roman Polanski, the director of THE PIANIST, doesn’t show Szpilman searching in vain for Jewish relatives and neighbors sent to Treblinka. He doesn’t mention the Jewish survivors driven from Poland in the post-War pogroms. In Polanski’s world, Poles and Jews rebuild Warsaw together. “Don’t shoot,” Szpilman tells the crowd. “I’m Polish!”

Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in THE PIANIST,
an intimate account of one man’s suffering during the Holocaust.
Photo by Guy Ferrandis - © 2002 - Focus Features - All Rights Reserved


The women leaving Auschwitz with Schindler, on the other hand, can see long lines of people walking down into “shower rooms” as huge chimneys belch above them. Forensic anthropologists with DNA kits don’t look for Jewish remains by digging through mass graves like the ones in Bosnia and Iraq. Jewish families (and Holocaust scholars) can find the names they seek in the actual documents that were appropriated by Allied army officers when they liberated Nazi extermination camps. These lists are now preserved at memorials like Yad Yashem. Urban neighborhoods, towns, villages emptied, the fate of their inhabitants methodically and meticulously recorded. “Goodbye Jews!”

We want to honor the victims, to restore their dignity as persons by making them the heroes of their own stories. How could Spielberg dare to cast Jews as “extras in the shadows” (in the eloquent words of prominent NEW YORK TIMES critic Frank Rich)? It is much easier for us to cry for individuals than to embrace statistics, but this is just what Spielberg demands of us.

History records that there was at least one person who recognized the listmakers for what they were and engaged them on their own terms, and for this Spielberg demands that we honor Schindler’s name. In Keneally’s words: “This is the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil, a triumph in eminently measurable, statistical, unsubtle terms.”

© Jan Lisa Huttner (12/1/03)

Click here for Jan’s reflections on the Oscars awarded in 2003 to THE PIANIST and NOWHERE IN AFRICA.

This article was originally published in the December 2003 edition of 
the WORLD JEWISH DIGEST (Volume 1 Number 4) 
& is posted here with their permission.

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Special Features on the DVD

The new DVD version of SCHINDLER’S LIST contains powerful bonus materials that further illuminate the film’s powerful subject matter.

A moving 77 minute documentary produced by the Shoah Foundation entitled VOICES FROM THE LIST offers never-before-seen testimonies from actual Schindler survivors, as they recount their real-life experiences with the man who saved them. Watching these elderly men & women speak directly to the camera, it is clear that working with Spielberg to tell this story has given final meaning to their lives.

Any doubts about the ultimate veracity of their story (nitpicky grousing about “Hollywoodization”) are eliminated once and for all. These women went to Auschwitz, stripped before entering the shower, felt the cool water on their skin. They want us to know every detail. They told their story to Spielberg & he captured the moment for posterity. The only way to honor the dead is to open our hearts to the few who survived.

The DVD also features THE SHOAH FOUNDATION STORY WITH STEVEN SPIELBERG, a behind-the-scenes look at works and accomplishments of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Its mission is to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry, and the suffering they cause, through the educational use of the Foundation’s visual history testimonies.


“Never again!” means no one anywhere should be the victim of such horror in the future. Spielberg has left an enormous legacy. The rest is up to us.