Roberto Viano has noted that the tendentially cold highbrow reception of blockbuster films frequently has less to do with the substance of the films themselves than the psychological need of the intellectual to place himself a cut above the vulgar fray of the demos. Their cultural capital predicated upon a more refined and discerning understanding the cultural herearound, there is incentive to reject aprioristically whatever is held in high regard by the masses.
The highbrow response to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Holocaust epic Schindler’s List invites consideration of such an idea. Many intellectual responses to the Academy Award-winning film are, in my view, excessively virulent and at times vainglorious. To dismiss the film as a moral outrage, aesthetic fetishism, or a macabre emotional roller coaster à la Jurassic Park is to minimize the unprecedented levels of public interest the film generated in the Holocaust; the state-sanctioned anti-racism initiatives that sprung up all over the United States and Europe in its wake; the numerous survivors who have affirmed the film’s narratological success and uncanny verisimilitude. In sum, as a committed anti-fascist I feel compelled to state that I am glad for the existence of Schindler’s List, and I find it ethically reckless to say otherwise.
This I write as a preamble to a brief consideration of a curious discrepancy between Spielberg’s film and the 1982 Thomas Keneally novel upon which it was based, Schindler’s Ark. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising is a featured episode in the novel, but it is omitted from the film. This is a strategically important modification, as it allows Spielberg to homogenize his representation of the Jews as small, weak, fragile, and helpless.
The only Jewish characters significantly developed in the film are Yitzhak Stern and Helen Hirsch. Stern is effeminate and nagging. Spielberg’s camerawork makes him appear minute next to the towering, larger-than-life Schindler. Much in line with the misogynist proverb about there being a woman behind every great man, there is always the well-organized, put-upon little Stern blowing administrative and moral winds into the sails of the protagonist. Indeed, Stern’s only power is his ability to empower Schindler. His administrative and logistical assistance enables Schindler’s meteoric rise as a wartime crockery manufacturer, and his subtle but persistent appeals to Schindler’s conscience engender the hero’s embrace of the righteous task before him.
Helen Hirsch, the Jewish inmate chosen by Schindler’s sociopathic foil Amon Goeth, is similarly distinguished by her vulnerability. It is precisely the Jewess’ frailty — her delicate, trembling hands in the cold of the Plaszow concentration camp; the averted gaze of her long, Semitic eyes; the panicked convulsions of her soaked breast in hauptsturmfuher’s basement — that make her so alluring to her Goeth (and to the viewer).
The remaining Jews in the film amalgamate to a more or less monolithic chorus. The rich, fragile humanity of this chorus is overpowering and inescapable, but the pathos they generate comes at the price of a hyperbolic Jewish weakness. The mass trembles at the feet of Goeth and Schindler alike. They cower in barracks and stalls, wishing, waiting, hoping the dance between the German antagonists will resolve in their favor.
I do not mean to suggest that such a depiction of Jewish smallness does not correlate to the reality of those times, but it is also true that numerous episodes of Jewish defiance, rebellion, and resistance belong to the historical record. Why this decision to strip away an important dimension of the story? Why was a hyperbolically fragile Jewry necessary for the transformation of this film into a cultural event, which perhaps more than any other has brought the Holocaust into collective Western consciousness? Is Christian society more likely to embrace Jewish life when it is packaged as a catalyst for Christian charity and Christian salvation? Is the symbiosis of Jewish vulnerability and Christian charity a means by which Christianity can quiet its conscience, given that the Shoah sprung from the heartland of Christian society in the first place? Would such a film have had equal resonance if executed with equal mastery but a reduced emphasis on Christian absolution?
My instinct whispers that the answer to this last question is ‘no.’ The narratological framework through which this incredible story was presented was needed to lure a defensive and guilt-ridden civilization into the dark garden of historical memory. I, for one, am glad for this timid first step, my hope being that it should function as a primer for more difficult and critical discussions.
David N Winkler, PhD
David Winkler holds a PhD in World Literature (Italian) from Indiana University, an MA in Italian from Middlebury College, and a BS in Business Administration from Ithaca College. His research examines the shape, trajectory, ethics, and aesthetics of collective Holocaust memory, with a particular emphasis on the Italian context. He currently serves on the English and Foreign Language faculties at The Frisch School and has previously held faculty positions at the University of Delaware, Middlebury College, and Indiana University. Dr. Winkler's work has been published in peer-reviewed journals and his interdisciplinary profile has enabled him to teach coursework across multiple departments and curricula. He has been invited to present his research at several venues beyond the academy, including the Delaware Contemporary Museum and the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester.