Critically carping about a big, successful film that takes on the most significant event of twentieth century history can seem like an unbelievably mean-spirited, arrogant gesture.
Yet Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List irritated and angered me more than just about any film of the preceding five years. Let me first make clear what I am not objecting to in Spielberg's film. I am not criticising the director for making a film that tries to wring our tears over the Holocaust. I am not bothered that he chooses to tell first and foremost a human story celebrating courage and survival, and that he consequently simplifies some of the facts of political history into a melodrama. There are many great films that have treated the crises and changes in history in just this way, like Visconti's The Leopard (1963), and they are no less intelligent for it. Nor am I fussed (for the sake of this argument) that it is a mainstream, classical narrative rather than a form-breaking modernist essay.
My problems with Schindler's List lie elsewhere, and they started with the first immaculate, black and white frame. Why black and white? This is not an idle or arbitrary question. Spielberg has said that the Holocaust, for him, has mainly existed in the form of stark black and white images in documentaries and books. Lurking also in his mind, I'm sure, is some spurious equation of black and white with artistic seriousness, grim tragedy, authenticity and integrity. So one must wonder about a filmmaker whose primary approach to the Holocaust is not as a historic human reality but as something fixed in a media archive of recorded images and sounds.
Spielberg is a member of a generation of American filmmakers known as the movie brats, youngsters who were more familiar with movies than with life, and who interpreted and rendered life accordingly, through the obedient quotation of a hundred beloved movies. Martin Scorsese is the most judicious filmmaker of this generation because, at least when he gets to the life of Christ, he can leave behind his mania for pastiche, for movie-filtered emotion.
But Spielberg has never gotten beyond this adolescent reflex. The character of Oskar Schindler, a fascinating case from real life, becomes in Spielberg's hands a true movie hero, cut from the cloth of a long line of such heroes. As Liam Neeson dances in deep focus at the start of the film, he is Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941); as he becomes a visionary entrepreneur later in the movie, he is Francis Coppola's Tucker (1988), "the man and his dream". When we see the atrocities in the Krakow ghetto, they are filmed like pristine quotations from Rossellini's post-war neo-realist classics like Rome Open City (1945).
For me, the central question to be asked of Schindler's List is: what really drove Spielberg to make this film, what is his true investment in telling this story? Critics have perhaps been over eager, down the years, to suspect the worst of Spielberg and his unconscious, driving motivations. Yet I believe these suspicions are well founded. Spielberg's entire cinema reeks of bad faith. He makes ickily sentimental films like E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982) and Always (1989) that celebrate family life, marital monogamy, the sanctity of innocent children, the American dream and so on; and in between he makes films like Poltergeist (1982, produced by Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper) and the Indiana Jones series which are full of unambiguously gleeful, anti-social destructiveness directed at these very same cherished ideals.
Sometimes this hysterical oscillation between love and hate reveals itself in the one film, as in Jurassic Park (1993), where icky sermons about the need for a man to be a good Dad are interrupted by blatantly sadistic scenes where children are subjected to prolonged torture. I do not believe that Spielberg is in control of, or even aware of, this contradiction. It is only in Empire of the Sun (1987), a film I greatly admire, that Spielberg forgets to project either excessive sentiment or excessive terror onto his characters, and for once presents a truthful self-portrait: his hero in that film is a frightened, unaware little boy riddled with the angst of self-doubt.
I have suggested that Schindler, for Spielberg, is a classic movie hero in the mould of Citizen Kane. Such heroes appeal to him for an obvious reason: they are surrogate figures standing in for the director himself, a projection of ideal qualities. It is hard not to watch the story of Schindler – a millionaire operator who atones for his many sins by a monumental good deed – and not see Spielberg's furious, wishful self-projection. The public redemption that Schindler achieved through his act is the same redemption that Spielberg hopes to achieve by making this film.
Both men are motivated by a righteous anger at the foul crimes of history, but both are also motivated by a deep guilt, and a deep desire to be absolved, above all a need to be recognised in that moment of absolution. Both men get to play God – Schindler selects those Jews who will live, and Spielberg is even more selective in focusing on and telling the individual stories of a number of Jewish characters. And both men experience angst because they have played God, a self-doubt which leads to the most authentic moment of emotion in the whole film.
It is always possible to take historical recreation films to task for what they do not show. Why does Spielberg, for instance, take us all the way to Auschwitz and then not show the atrocities there, when he has already shown us much else that is painful and hideous? But a more useful line of inquiry is to ask about the balance, the weighting of elements that are already there in the film. I accuse Spielberg and his scriptwriter Steven Zaillian (Awakenings, 1990) of being more interested in the angst of Schindler than in the suffering of the Jews who appear on screen, in the details of their lives in the ghetto and the camp.
Far too much of the film, for me, is taken up with the ponderous melodrama of Schindler and his evil alter ego, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). Here the film feigns a modicum of moral ambiguity: Schindler is constantly put into a mirror relationship with Goeth, until the big dramatic turning point where he breaks away and decides to bring about what Ben Kingsley refers to in the film as "an absolute good".
I worry about films on big issues that lean upon the melodramatic certainties of absolute good and absolute evil. On so many levels, Schindler's List is like a bad Oliver Stone film – in its overworked visual splendour, its psycho-sexual hysteria, its bad faith in the face of the crimes of history. I am not willing to excuse Spielberg's errors of artistic judgement by arguing that he has done absolute good in making this perennially difficult and important subject matter palatable to a mass audience.
The French critic Serge Daney once wrote that "there are experiences which cinema sometimes finds it hard to approach – yet its dignity lies in the attempt". But there is no dignity in Spielberg's attempt to approach the Holocaust; only a particularly distasteful form of self-aggrandisement.
© Adrian Martin January 1994