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
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
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
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
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
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.