Schindler's List simply rehashes Spielberg's inflatable, one-size-fits-all myth about how a clever, resourceful character can outsmart a system. Is that what the meaning of the Holocaust boils down to–Indiana Schindler versus the Gestapo of Doom? Schindler is a Hollywood producer's self-congratulatory fantasy of how giving people a chance to work for you is doing them a big favor. What real courage did it take to make this movie? What new understanding of the Holocaust did it reveal? Spielberg could have made a really courageous film if he had dared to make a movie sympathetic to the SS, a movie that deeply, compassionately entered into the German point of view in order to reveal how regular people with wives and children could be drawn into committing or silently consenting to such horrors. How about a movie that showed that, at least potentially, we are them? A film that didn't locate the bad guys in an emotional and historical galaxy far away? Of course, Spielberg could never make that film even if he tried to, because it would require too much insight on his part. And if he did make it, it would not get Academy Awards. It would require viewers to think. And thinking, real thinking, is always dangerous. Audiences might be forced to confront truths that they would rather avoid. Instead of affording them another opportunity to revel in their own virtue, they just might be made to squirm a little.
Keeping Goeth slim and glamorous seems central to Spielberg’s overall narrative strategy. The point isn’t merely to make his villain more theatrical (as it is when, in one of the film’s corniest conceits, he has another Nazi officer playing Mozart on a piano in a ghetto flat while his colleagues are busy machine-gunning Jews). The main idea is to assist us in identifying with Nazis — not with their cruelty, which we’re supposed to recoil from, but with their privileged vantage point, their power and preeminence (Goeth is not unlike a studio head). Schindler himself, as Goeth’s friend and confidant, the saintly businessman who even manages to dream up a scheme for curbing Goeth’s murderous impulses, serves as the expedient emissary of this process (not unlike a film director). Thanks to him we have the vicarious thrill of attending Nazi parties and enjoying the lush revelry in Nazi nightclubs (both rendered in some of the film’s silkiest, most gorgeous high-contrast black-and-white images), looking down at the Jewish prisoners from the balcony of Goeth’s chateau (perched on a hill high above the camp), savoring the luxury of Schindler’s new Krakow flat (freshly evacuated by a once-wealthy Jewish family forced to move into a ghetto hovel), and so on.
On a few special occasions, the film also asks us to identify with the Jewish victims — again as gentile viewers, using Schindler’s humane sympathy as our guide. On these occasions the shots generally become newsreel-gray and hand-held, and the language we hear often switches from English to guttural European tongues, increasing our terror with both a sense of actuality and a sense of the unknown. But more often we’re asked to sit with Schindler or Goeth in the catbird seat. That’s why, when Goeth sadistically flirts with, interrogates, and finally beats his abused Jewish maid (Embeth Davidtz) in the wine cellar where she usually hides from him, Spielberg takes care to show us Davidtz’s nipples through the slip she’s wearing — to ask us to share Goeth’s unresolved sexual attraction to her.
It might be inferred from the above that I’m only denouncing Spielberg’s tactics. But the fact remains that if he weren’t this ruthless or this efficient I wouldn’t have wept at the end of Schindler’s List both times I saw it. And as tempting as it is to ridicule Spielberg’s reasons for making it — which probably include a narcissistically far-fetched identification with Schindler, and may even, for all I know, incorporate George Bush’s evocation of a “kinder, gentler” America — it would be stupid to deny that art often grows out of just such contradictions.
It’s virtually axiomatic that to make a big-budget commercial movie with a moral purpose behind it these days, something immoral in the viewer has to be not only assumed but addressed — and maybe even cultivated. The forthcoming Philadelphia, about a gay lawyer, is essentially addressed to homophobes. Likewise, Schindler’s List assumes a desire to identify with the class in power; it can only tell us what it has to say about Schindler by turning us into Schindler — which also means turning us into a Nazi.