“Schindler’s List” (1993): Corporations Are People

· Films & Video Games

Schindler’s List should be remembered for more than just being a Holocaust movie.

It takes more than simply depicting a violent historical subject to make a film as magnificent as Schindler’s List is. Steven Spielberg may have been personally drawn to the subject, but the story he actually told with his 1993 black & white masterpiece was about the conscience of a corporation. The film is routinely placed in the pantheon of history’s greatest films, yet this quality alone makes it somehow underrated. Describing Schindler’s List as just a Holocaust movie, or, as many today do, “the Holocaust movie” would be like if you described the Holocaust itself as “the pogrom from which Oskar Schindler saved 1200 Jews.”

Anthony Jeselnik once told a joke that strikes the core of this disconnect.

“My mom for most of her life was a Holocaust denier.  And it was terrible for the entire family to have to deal with, until finally a couple of years ago we had an intervention.  We had a rabbi come into the home, had him walk her through the history of the Jewish people, and then he made her watch Schindler’s List.  And after that, my mom did a complete 180.  Now, she can’t believe it only happened once.”

Caligula, 2013

The joke within that joke is the idea that Schindler’s List could be an appropriate movie to convince a Holocaust denier that it really happened.  That goes hand in hand with Stanley Kubrick’s observation about the film: “Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it?  The Holocaust is about 6 million people who got killed.  Schindler’s List is about the 600[sic] who don’t.”   The great Terry Gilliam said something similar.

Indeed, it would seem that if Spielberg’s real goal was to simply document and dramatize that great atrocity of civilization, Schindler’s List was the wrong kind of story to tell.  Some of the films Spielberg made a decade later do a “better” job at showing what that looks like by Kubrick’s and Gilliam’s definition.  The Flesh Fair in A.I. Artificial Intelligence is an obvious example.  The other one is his post-9/11 update of War of the Worlds, which features some of the coldest, most merciless leviathans ever depicted on film terraforming the Earth into their own utopian garden with harvested human blood; where the entire story is not about organizing a brave and mighty resistance like a Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich flick, but an anxious family cowering in silent terror and evading the tripods. Their greatest obstacles are not aliens but the desperation of other human beings, and then the aliens themselves are defeated by something unseen.  Jewish families in Nazi Germany certainly would have understood those feelings.

Or perhaps, if a factual account of the Holocaust is what you’re looking for, you can go directly to the Shoah Foundation, which Spielberg created from the profits of Schindler’s List.  Hear about it from the survivors directly; you don’t need the film.

But we do need this film, don’t we?  We need it because it’s an ethnic and ecumenical expression of how people connect with each other meaningfully when squeezed by an engine of evil.  We need it because it’s a miraculous story about how a Nazi created a Jewish nation.  Nothing else is like this.  The title character was a member of the National Socialist German Workers Party, a war profiteer, and a serial womanizer, and the plot features the friendships, and the business and political relationships he cultivated over six years that drove him to sacrifice his entire fortune and all of his economic ambitions to save his laborers.  You certainly see the greater horrors portrayed so graphically and unsparingly that it makes the stuff of nightmares, and with detail that commands preservation and respect.  But the experience of watching the picture is trivialized if it is only remarked upon for doing that.

Not that the subject matters much to us these days. The Holocaust is something we continuously fail to understand, and whose lessons we willfully ignore.  An ironic example in recent memory of how our modern fixation about race exacerbates our misunderstanding of the Holocaust comes from Whoopi Goldberg’s tirade on The View, where she proclaimed that the Holocaust was “not about race,” and that it merely involved “two white groups of people.”  It’s too easy to simply mock Whoopi for her ignorance.  Her remarks are a product and casualty of today’s fashionable racist pretenses, and (without naming the names of anyone in Congress right now) there is a straight political through-line from the Holocaust denial of Jeselnik’s mother to The View.  Few today are above saying stupid things about Jews and the genocide against them.

Schindler’s List endures today precisely because it is a movie about the connections between people that can only be understood as racial. It has an Economics 101 quality to it despite subjecting the viewer to the punishing terrors of the Nazis at their most ruthless and sadistic.  There is a certain paradox in the exercise of saving people’s lives by employing them in a munitions factory serving the war efforts of the very regime intent on killing them, even if they don’t ever produce a live shell.  There is also a paradox of sorts to Schindler “saving” Jews by bringing them within range of Amon Göth’s rifle.  Even with greedy motivations, Schindler expresses to Göth the truth of his connection to a people in a rebuke of what another officer says earlier.  “THEY’RE MINE!

That theme of belonging is repeated by the Jews mistakenly taken to Auschwitz after Schindler put them on his list.  “We’re Schindler Jews!”  Every name on Schindler’s list, by the end of the film as we come to understand, is not only a life not taken, but also a member of a new sub-race.  A race of Jews bound together by their relationship with the Nazi who bought them, and who affected them so profoundly that they carry his name into eternity as a part of their heritage.  The people are today called the Schindlerjuden.

The title character updates Rick Blaine from Casablanca. There is no singular moment that defines the arc of Schindler’s ethical transformation. The dramatic plotting here is almost entirely in business and bartering terms. He steps towards righteousness even when his heart intends only profit. Conflicts, ambitions, and attitudes of characters are expressed in the language of enterprise, efficiency, and expansion. And Schindler spends recklessly because if at any point he stops to think too hard, his imperative will fail.

A perfect illustration of this, among many, is this scene where Schindler barges into Itzhak Stern’s office and makes excuses for Göth before giving up his watch for the bribe. The aggravated middle manager griping to a loyal subordinate about the reality of the business and bureaucracy; the irony is palpable. Stern does not talk back. He quietly listens and then tells Schindler about Göth’s latest murders. This comes just after the divine intervention that stopped Göth from killing a rabbi in the factory for supposed unproductivity. But god cannot stop the Holocaust; nor can Schindler. Stern has simply brought people within Schindler’s periphery, and given him a kind of moral permission to see investment value in their lives. Schindler’s attitudes cut just enough in both directions to make him receptive to the nudging. Stern is able to redirect Schindler’s raw opportunism first by being a good employee, then by subtly telling him that his gratitude cannot be bought, and then by “just talking.” In their first meeting, Göth compliments Schindler’s suit. Schindler quips, “I’d say I’ll get you one, but the man who made it’s probably dead.” When Stern penetrates that cynicism, Schindler slowly veers in his moral direction and eventually moves so fast that Stern can barely keep up with him.

Spielberg frames Schindler’s actions in economic and spiritual lenses as a way of connecting the two.  When Schindler has established his munitions factory in Czechoslovakia, he explains to the guards in a slave-owner’s lexicon how any violence towards the Jews will make the guards criminals and Schindler richer.  With the freedom he has guaranteed to his workers by buying them (another paradox of sorts), Schindler shifts his focus not just to sabotaging the German war effort but also to keeping the Jews in touch with their culture.  Note his playful chastising of the rabbi for not closing up shop on Friday at sundown and preparing for the Holy Sabbath.  This is another investment – this time into the Jewish identity.  And after the war ends, he initiates the Mourners Kaddish.

The movie is full of scenes like this.  They are together what give his departure scene and the follow-up tribute in color the impact that make them nothing less than the most emotionally overwhelming moments in the history of cinema.  I do not consider this hyperbole, and I have never written these words about any other film.  It is Schindler’s List alone that earns them because of the way it connects and binds people.  Spielberg delved deep into the gulf of evil and – in the most personal, spiritual way he had ever done in his entire filmmaking career – found within it a wondrous source of absolute good.  He expressed artistically the meaning of the engines of death at their most inhumane and the soul of a people trapped within them at its richest.

Schindler’s List deserves no acclaim just for visually recreating a wide-screen, high-definition tragedy.  Lots of films have done that, perhaps none better than Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) or Band of Brothers: Part 9 – Why We Fight.  What it gives to us, as a movie about success, is something far greater.  Thirty years since its release, with so many of us primed to think of the Holocaust the way Whoopi Goldberg did, it’s anyone’s guess if we as an audience are worthy of it.

– Vivek

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