My first semester in graduate school, I took a class on filmic representations of the Holocaust. The course was all-day Friday and was just about the worst start to the weekend that anyone can imagine. It was fascinating, I learned a lot, and I have no regrets taking the course, but it was like reopening a wound on a weekly basis. Doing the reading kept the hurt going a little during the week, but those Fridays, where we talked about it all and watched a dozen different films was a truly painful experience. Good, but painful.
Naturally, one of the movies we watched was the 1993 Steven Spielberg film, Schindler’s List. Winner of seven Academy Awards and nominated for another five, in the course Schindler’s List was seen as something of a necessary evil – there was a predisposition amongst some to dislike any Hollywood representation of anything. Whether it was simply an anti-establishment ideal or a well-considered, thought out view seemed to differ depending on whom it was expressing displeasure at the movie, but it was never a notion to which I subscribed.
I don’t know that Schindler’s List is the single greatest Holocaust film ever made, but I do know that Spielberg’s film, from Steven Zaillian’s screenplay based on Thomas Keneally’s book offers up an unflinching portrayal of the unimaginable. Filmed mainly in black and white, it is the story of Oskar Schindler (played here by Liam Neeson), a Nazi businessman who eventually realizes that the extermination of an entire group of people is wrong and that he, Schindler, has a duty to do whatever he can to save as many people as he can.
Also starring in the film is Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern, a Jewish man who helps Schindler in his scheme to save lives, and Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth, the German SS officer in charge of the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp. As good a character as Stern is, Goeth is evil. Stern takes it upon himself to help where he can despite his status as a prisoner (for much of the movie), while Goeth is in charge of the systematic killing of the Jewish people in his charge.
Spielberg’s movie isn’t the first to dramatize these events and it certainly won’t be the last. As much as the Holocaust may have happened 70 years ago, we are still learning about it to this day. In fact, on March 1st of this year the New York Times published an article saying that Holocaust researchers have only recently added up the total number of Nazi ghettos and camps that existed throughout Europe from 1933 to 1945, and put that number at an unbelievable 42,500.
While my graduate school class may have repeatedly opened a wound for those of us in it, the truth is that both the depth and breadth of the Nazi actions during the Second World War have not yet fully been explored. Schindler’s List doesn’t open any new areas of inquiry, but it does manage to put front and center, in an accessible fashion, one story from the Holocaust. In Schindler’s List we get to see ghettos and concentration camps, and how businessmen like Schindler used the Nazi machinery to their advantage. We get a glimpse of death on a scale that is horrific to contemplate but, while the scale is clear, we never lose the sense of the importance of single individuals. It is easy to say that millions died in the Holocaust and to let one’s mind go off at the notion, wondering at the scale but losing the individual deaths, Schindler’s List doesn’t do that – it, deftly, keeps both present.