The character of Amon Goeth, the Nazi director of the forced labor camp and the main villain in book and movie alike, is likewise simplified — played by Fiennes as a classically foppish German decadent with Caligula-like flourishes. While Spielberg takes much of this character’s monstrous behavior — such as his shooting of Jews arbitrarily or for minor offenses — straight from the book, he chooses to minimize Goeth’s growing obesity. And while he takes the trouble of flashing forward to show him being hung in 1946, he omits entirely an unforgettable scene from the book in which Goeth, now lean and diabetic, having been imprisoned and then released by the Nazis for his aberrant behavior, visits Schindler’s factory in Moravia a defeated man.
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.
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