Less film than event, Schindler’s List is notable for its subject matter and the scope of its promotion. Many reviewers, because partial to his work in the first place, have disingenuously pronounced Steven Spielberg “vindicated” by this film, and Spielberg himself has proclaimed it the work he is most proud of. Schindler’s List swept its year’s U.S. prizes, including the Oscar. It’s that sort of grandiose picture.
The subject matter is the Holocaust. Based on Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel, the film depicts the rounding up of Polish Jews during the Second World War. A Catholic businessman and Nazi Party member, Oskar Schindler manages to spare more than a thousand persons the fate of six million other European Jews by gaining them official exemptions based on their war-vital production work at a factory that he has taken over. Schindler’s “list,” then, consists of the names of these fortunate few. Spielberg is here renewing Keneally’s fictional license. For the real Schindler was a self-serving bottom-liner who, far from manipulating Nazi policy, periodically selected for extermination members of his in fact changing, not growing, list. (At war’s end, fewer than three dozen of the original persons listed were among those rescued.) This revisionist whitewash, though, serves Spielberg’s purpose. For out of the overwhelmingly somber event of the Holocaust Spielberg has been able to extract material suitable for his brand of sentimental uplift, although a few unnerving sequences suggest a loftier intent: an ironic use of the lucky few to evoke the terrible fate of the unlucky many. In one of these passages, female prisoners, their names on Schindler’s list, are mistakenly transported to a death camp where the mass shower they are herded in to take, amidst their frantic fear of imminent gassing, turns out to be just a shower after all. Coldly manipulative, scenes like this end up seeming lurid and cruel, effectively undoing any ironic strategy Spielberg may have had in mind. In all, his film fails its subject matter by grossly sensationalizing it.
Nor does the film investigate character. What motivates Spielberg’s Schindler? At first he is shown merely courting Nazi favor while chasing a deutsche mark; the notion of saving lives comes later. But we never learn how or why—only when: after a recreational horseback ride affords him a panoramic view of Jews being routed below. The lofty vantage facilely implies God’s hand in Schindler’s shifting sense of purpose; and, true enough, caring non-Jews did risk their own safety hiding Jews and working underground against the Nazis—people, by the way, this film makes invisible the better to mythologize its Schindler. But many more saw what Schindler saw and cared little or nothing about it. So why was he different? What got him onto such a righteous road? Are his rescue efforts a guilty reaction to his earlier indifference to Nazi ideology and practice? Is his game-playing with Nazis a mischievous extension of his entrepreneurial bent? What gives with him?
This failure to consider motive has led some to babble on about the inexplicable nature of goodness. Inexplicable to whom? No one forced Spielberg to make this film; if he wasn’t interested in the whys or wherefores, or couldn’t fathom them, he should have turned over Steven Zaillian’s script to someone else to direct. For what we do always derives from who or what we are. We don’t see this in Spielberg’s Schindler only because the character isn’t searched, or shown in sufficient detail. (Given his goonish Nazis, one can assume that Spielberg also finds evil inexplicable.) As it happens, Spielberg may have been on to something without even knowing it. It’s potentially interesting that Schindler hardly seems to change at all; for, had he been more perspicacious, Spielberg might have built upon this apparent constancy of Schindler’s in order to suggest that our very best behavior sometimes originates in the same complex of attitudes and impulses as our very worst. Good deeds can proceed from other than noble minds and bleeding hearts. But Spielberg, a melodramatist, evinces here no such basic grasp of human complexity.
Nor does he fare better with his Jewish characters. They also lack depth. For the most part, they are curiously will-less victims tossed either to their fate by history’s winds or to their rescue by Oskar Schindler. None seem at all interested in what’s happening around them or even to them, and their only resistance—contrary to fact but in accord with anti-Semitic myth Spielberg presumably would wish to debunk—consists of cowering and occasional hiding. Certainly the accountant managing Schindler’s factory (Ben Kingsley, as usual, dreadful) bears little resemblance to the actual Itzhak Stern who was a member of the Zionist Central Committee and vice-president of the Jewish Agency for Western Poland. In reality, both in the factory office and on the factory floor, others also were activists, among them resistance fighters in the Polish underground. Spielberg, as artist, is entitled to his revisionism; but what grates is his motive. Jews in this film are presented as passive and hapless only to show the Nazi Schindler as their shining savior—this, a man who in reality sent Jews to their death and only appeared to have “saved” any because the war’s end kept him from sending them all to their death.
What odious calculation must have begun the instant Spielberg optioned Keneally’s book; for the commercial hook is that it’s a gentile—a non-Jew—who rescues Jews. (Keneally’s book, after all, is a Catholic’s revisionism in the service of hiding or denying Catholic responsibility for Jewish deaths.) Yet more dispiriting is the fact that Schindler draws nothing from the Schindlerjüden, the Jews he rescues. Is this possible? Even Itard, the self-certain rationalist battling the beast out of the wild boy of Aveyron in François Truffaut’s magnificent L’enfant sauvage (1969), absorbs some of his young charge’s behaviors; but, like the white teacher in Martin Ritt’s sickening Conrack (1974), who takes nothing (except, like Schindler, fawning gratitude) from the blacks he lives among, Schindler proves impervious to the richness of Jewish manner and sensibility—not that Spielberg’s strategically diluted Jews show all that much of it themselves.
The greatest failure of the film, though, is its lack of an overarching theme or idea. This is one film about the Holocaust that has nothing to say about the Holocaust. A structural mess, it sprawls without ever advancing toward any kind of unity of purpose or effect. And its coherence is just as sloppy. Instead of developing a double focus on Schindler and the Jewish characters, the film arbitrarily moves back and forth between them with no transitioning, with no connective theme or imagery, and at such unwieldy stretches besides that the whole is lumpish. Indeed, watching this film is rather like watching two different films in rotation. (Compare another Best Picture Oscar-winner, William Dieterle’s 1937 The Life of Emile Zola, which skillfully develops and maintains its double focus on Zola and Dreyfus.)
Typically, Spielberg is ever mindful of the audience rather than focusing his attention where it belongs: on his material. He lets pass no opportunity to manipulate us. Consider the final fictional scene, just prior to the film’s documentary coda showing actual survivors honoring Schindler’s memory—a crude, stilted sequence kidnapped from Agnieszka Holland’s fine Europa, Europa (1991), whose comparable coda is powerful, precise. The scene is potentially electric; Schindler and the Schindlerjüden are all together as they hear the announcement of Germany’s surrender. The film cuts back and forth between Schindler’s abject apology for not having saved more Jewish lives—excrutiatingly mawkish, it’s the low point of Liam Neeson’s doughy, indefinite performance—and the tearfully half-smiling faces of those he has rescued. (This scene is the film’s invention; it never happened, nor does it appear in the book.) Had Spielberg, instead, held our gaze on Schindler by not permitting these reaction shots to interrupt, the camera’s eye might have fused us the audience with those in the film who are watching Schindler and, by extension, with the actual souls these characters represent, thus creating in us, however briefly, a sensation of spiritual communion across time and space. But Spielberg and his cutter, Michael Kahn, by yoyoing between the self-effacing Schindler and the indulgent faces surrounding him blithely cancel this possibility, opting instead to telegraph us what we’re supposed to feel—the one meager purpose the reaction shots serve. What rhetorical filmmaking!
As this analysis of the final scene suggests, the film’s visual aspect is horrendous. Correctly, the film was shot in black and white except for the coda, whose tacky color announces the shift to documentary and to the present, and a brief introduction, whose color is blended out (the reverse of a technique used more gracefully in Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns (1988)). Dark and gloomy, some of Janusz Kaminski’s lensing is evocative; but Spielberg leads his cinematographer astray. For some of the film’s black-and-white imagery is tastelessly gorgeous, garish. At a death camp, for instance, billows of black smoke emerge from chimneys in the distant background, conjuring sumptuous and majestic beauty—a thoughtless, disturbing case of visual form mangling meaning, for the image’s gaudy grandeur cancels all sense of the tragedy involved, the loss of precious human life. Spielberg elsewhere debases the black and white in other ways. For one, he resorts to a crass advertising ploy: the rendering in color of a single object—here, instead of a car or a soft drink container, the coat of a doomed child. (Earlier instances of this technique appear in Jean Cocteau’s Testament of Orpheus (1959), Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish (1983).) Thus from a mass of victims Spielberg particularizes one elusive soul whose intermittent reappearances provide an index of the crisis befalling Jews and of Schindler’s enhanced awareness of it (the child’s last appearance is as a corpse being carted away)—an intended union of objective history, eyewitness Schindler’s moral growth, and symbolism evoking the spirit and the plight of European Jewry. Periodically, along with Schindler, we are meant to think, “I have seen this child before,” while Spielberg congratulates himself for putting a human face—at least a cloth coat—on a mass of people headed for execution. The mind boggles. Spielberg has said he wept throughout the shooting of this film; but the recurrent dab of color shows that, while he may have had tears in his eyes, he had ice water in his veins. How can one be cute about the Holocaust?—or about the death of a child?
That Spielberg would so insensitively solve a problem related to the visualization of his main character’s state of mind suggests how poorly he grasps the expressive possibilities of film. This fact is also borne out by his overreliance, purely for effect, on out-of-focus backgrounds; in too many frames depicting night, blurry lights distract and dizzy our sight. Worse yet, Spielberg directs hand-held camera usage in scenes of frantic mass movement, compounding the agitation to the point of optical torture. This destabilizing of both camera and mise-en-scène achieves the opposite of what I presume was the aim; rather than making the panic, the commotion, urgent and “real,” the excessive wobble underscores the visual contrivance, making the spectacle seem excessively mannered, stage-managed. With his palsied camera, Spielberg has explained, he wanted a “newsreel” effect—a queer remark, surely, given that those shooting newsreels struggled in fact to steady their camera in order to make the action they were recording comprehensible. To be sure, because they shot on the run or amidst crowds, they couldn’t always avoid some unsteadiness; but their valiant photojournalistic efforts bore little visual relation to Spielberg’s camera’s induced seizures and gyrations. After a while, though, all Spielberg’s “explanations” come across as rationalizations for rank incompetence.
Some good has come out of this rotten film. Inspired by the experience of making it, Spielberg launched the Shoah Project, which is committing to videotape thousands of interviews of Holocaust survivors. Having publicly confessed past discomfort with his being Jewish, Spielberg may finally have found a way to make peace with himself. Indeed, he has even dedicated Schindler’s List to his mother—a stirring gesture. Unfortunately, his self-promotional spree following the film’s release invites skepticism as to his motives. Moreover, what are we to make of his bizarre claim that he cried while making this film? (Did he self-importantly confuse his film about the Holocaust with the Holocaust?) Ask yourself: Can disciplined, purposeful art ever result when the artist is in a constant state of tearing up? Can we imagine, say, Michelangelo on his back weeping his way through the painting of his masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Or Milton’s sightless eyes running like rivers as he composed the greatest poem in the Western canon, Paradise Lost? In truth, whether Spielberg’s creative crying jag was self-induced hysteria during the shoot or mere self-aggrandizing publicity later on, may we not infer from it his defensive desire to draw attention to how feeling and committed a Jew he is? Whom is he trying to convince? And why? And how can this self-involvement benefit the film?
If Spielberg’s use of the Holocaust is his means of adjusting an uneasy or uncertain sense of Jewish identity, then his professed tearful kinship with Jews past and present may be an artful dodge to renegotiate his ambivalence. It demeans the event of the Holocaust to make this interior psychodrama of his the basis for a film about the Holocaust. Besides, Spielberg’s claim of being, past childhood, commitedly Jewish all but evaporates when one recalls Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), where to make a fast buck Spielberg transgressed in a heartbeat. Keep in mind that the language of film is visual; therefore, by quantifying Yahweh in Raiders in a special-effects blitz, Spielberg presumed to make the Unnameable nameable. Is this the soul to direct Schindler’s List?
Probably Spielberg could never have made a Schindler’s List that’s anything other than the flimsy melodrama he did make. His inflated escapist fantasies (one of which, E.T. (1982), bears a fascistic impress of its own) cast doubt on his qualifications to do so—doubt which Schindler’s List may not be able to budge. Like any serious subject matter, the Holocaust is too far beyond Spielberg’s range. In his one earlier like-minded film, Empire of the Sun (1987), from J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel, an English child’s Japanese internment during World War II blissfully melts from memory, pronto, once he is restored to Mum’s embrace—the very sort of fuzzy uplift Spielberg dotes on even when, as here, it defies belief. Coincidentally, the long-term damage such an ordeal incurs we largely know about from tracking the lives of Holocaust survivors—which begs the same question: Is this the soul to direct Schindler’s List?
Without the sentimental angle on the Holocaust that the Keneally book provided, perhaps Spielberg would have passed over the subject. Then again, he may have found himself unable to resist taking a crack at it. After all, didn’t he find in the Holocaust a mercenary means to a professional end? Spielberg’s Nixonian quest for respectability: isn’t this what drew him to the material despite his unsuitability for it? Spielberg knew he could bank on acclaim (not from film critics, who provide context, insight or formal analysis and who have roundly rejected his film, but from reviewers—consumerists who express popular likes and dislikes); so why even bother shaping the material, giving it unity or developing a theme when by simply making any movie, even the mess he did make, on so solemn a subject as the Holocaust he almost certainly would impress reviewers and industry peers (including A.M.P.A.S. members) who—egregiously, he no doubt felt!—had condescended to his past popular successes?
Spielberg’s mission: possible seems to have worked; but at what cost? Jerking childish tears over adorable E.T. may be “seizing opportunity”; but exploiting the Holocaust for the sake of one’s reputation is opportunistic—and shameful. As self-serving as his motives may have been, however, a better result—a decent film—would have reduced such complaints to a carping footnote. At least the film has drawn renewed attention to the Holocaust (which the Shoah Project continues to do)—something only so popular a film as the one Spielberg made probably could have done; but this salutary outcome is irrelevant to the issue of the film’s artistic merit. Only a scant scattering of fine images (such as the one of a small boy looking up from his found-out hiding place) commends this long, boring, bug-eyed film. To be fair, this isn’t Spielberg’s most disgraceful film; with its Gone with the Windery and grotesque racial and gender stereotypes, The Color Purple (1985) earns with ease that dubious distinction. (See Postscript #1.) Still, Schindler’s List is one of the worst films ever made about the Holocaust. (See Postscript #2.)
Hardly any other filmmaker could have done a worse job. But could anyone else have made of the same material anything approaching the popularity of Spielberg’s sensationalized treatment? I offer a perhaps. I have in mind one who in fact has made Hollywood films, a couple of them certified “hits,” and who therefore grasps the industry imperative of compromising authentic material and manipulating the audience. His best work, moreover, bears an impress of the Holocaust. And no wonder. Both his parents, Polish Jews, were held in a concentration camp where one of them, his mother, perished. This soul, a Catholic convert, would have found in Schindler’s List something more compelling and vital than the chance to make a cynical-sentimental career move. With his deeper mind and defter craft, Roman Polanski* might have made something searching and stinging out of material Spielberg has turned into a simplistic, formless piece of “pop art”—a Coca Cola billboard; a Disney theme park; a silly, hollow thing as much a cartoon as its 1940s-Hollywood Nazis in whom not once are we invited to glimpse, as in an abyss, the vicious possibilities that lurk in our convoluted human souls.
* I had no idea at the time that I wrote this that Polanski was indeed approached before Spielberg to direct Schindler’s List but turned down the offer because he found the subject matter, given his history, as yet too painful for him to address. Eventually he did make The Pianist (2002).
Postscript #1. Since Schindler’s List, Spielberg has tackled World War II from another perspective, in Saving Private Ryan—a film I have discussed elsewhere.
To an extent by no means unique in commercial cinema, Spielberg’s films raise troubling questions about a filmmaker’s avarice, neuroticism and morality. Spielberg does things in his films seemingly against all considerations of sense, decency and taste. One wonders, for example: Even given his grubby careerism, how could Spielberg so cold-bloodedly portray “the girl in red”—somebody’s daughter!—as he does in Schindler’s List? One wants to believe that he blindly backs into doing such things, that his judgment is impaired not depraved, that he simply wants the necessary skill as a craftsperson, or talent as an artist, to keep himself from falling into such appalling blunders. One hopes, that is, that he is an irresponsible child, not a monster—although at his chronologically mature age, the distinction itself disconcertingly blurs. Spielberg’s persistent failure to grasp the consequences of his filmmaking decisions may indeed lead him into the commission of errors, including moral errors, that imply a vileness from which charge he merits exoneration. In his defense I wish to explore this possibility.
Spielberg’s most grievous film to date remains, from Alice Walker, The Color Purple. The film appears to be racist. Is it? Is Spielberg? To begin answering this, we must define racism, which at least I do not necessarily see wedded to hate. Rather, I define the term as a complex of feelings of racial superiority—in Spielberg’s case, white superiority. For Jews, who in many contexts are themselves considered non-white, this is an enormously delicate issue; at what point does insisting on one’s whiteness in an anti-black racist society cause the moral ground to crumble under one’s feet? While one is fighting this (mostly interior) battle, is it possible to keep its core implication—that whiteness holds some special value—from tainting interracial considerations? The issue is more clouded than even this suggests; for although whiteness holds no intrinsic higher value, it holds in the United States, as well as other places, a vaunted political and even legal value whose exclusivity, in the case of Jews, could only serve to revive memories of their own ethnic history of vulnerability throughout time and throughout the world. (Jewish history has also included enslavement.) In the main, American Jews have responded with great sympathy for the plight of African Americans, to which they have long added their political activism. I have no doubt that Spielberg himself identifies with the African-American cause; his liberal credentials aren’t in dispute. But what about the way he privately, perhaps unconsciously, feels? Is his soul tainted with feelings of white superiority, and does his film The Color Purple manifest these?
More specifically: Does Spielberg possess feelings of white superiority towards the black male characters he stereotypes so brutally in this dreary film? If not, what else could explain the stereotyping? To answer this, I propose addressing the style of the film, which I believe holds the key to understanding how stunted, not depraved, Spielberg is as an artist.
The style of The Color Purple is easy to characterize; it is grand, airy, flowery, sentimental and “folk.” It is also, for moviegoers, familiar. This style derives, of course, from Gone with the Wind (George Cukor, Victor Fleming et al., 1939). More than likely without Spielberg’s intending it to do so, however, the application of such a style to the material of The Color Purple could not help but abstract its black male characters into overgeneralizations, robbing them of particularity and therefore generating, intentionally or not, categorical slanders. That is how the style works. (Recall? Scarlett O’Hara wasn’t just a southern belle; she was southern belledom—and more, the very spunk that would cause the South to rise from the ashes; similarly, Ashley wasn’t a defeated character but the very southern defeatism that Scarlett’s spunk had to counteract.) The deleterious effect of this style in Spielberg’s film, moreover, extends beyond the male characters; its mirror-image upshot is the stereotypical reduction of black females into abused victims who merit our pity and sympathy in equal measure to the loathing and derision their menfolk merit. As awful as all this is, and as seemingly racist, could this all nevertheless be the unintended outcome of a racially neutral filmmaking decision—the choice of style—whose combination or collision with the characters couldn’t help but generate such odious abstractions and overgeneralizations but which, simply too limited in his vision, Spielberg didn’t foresee and thus couldn’t anticipate?
However, even if we answer affirmatively, thereby concluding that Spielberg is not a racist, and by analogy also conclude that he is no longer the anti-Semitic Jew of his boyhood who felt “uncomfortable” with being Jewish, whatever evidence to the contrary Schindler’s List seems to provide, at some level an artist’s work must speak for the artist, whatever his or her intentions. The Color Purple and Schindler’s List remain, after all, two morally reprehensible films. Whatever the cause, Color permits, even seems to encourage, the identification of African-American males with the kind of abusive behavior the film relentlessly demonstrates, thus implying that this behavior is natural to them; and by the same token the presentation of “the girl in red,” along with other of the film’s elements, thoroughly demeans and diminishes the Holocaust in List.
Indeed, stripping context always does a disservice to complex material. Instead of applying to his representative and symbolical girl a TV/gloss-mag advertising gimmick, Spielberg might have more fruitfully employed flashbacks in Schindler’s List to establish the girl’s ordinariness in her normal, previously unthreatened life (since, in effect, it is this ordinariness which is paradoxically supposed to make her so special). And, having done this, he also could have retained the red color; for then, when the child appeared in her signature red coat, it is the Nazis, not Spielberg, who would have “owned” this reduction of her. In turn, this would have freed us the audience to associate the image of this child with one of our most cherished archetypes of the child-as-victim, Little Red Riding Hood. What resonance Spielberg misses by allowing questions of his own cruelty and commercialism to intrude.
Why would an artist not want to provide context that might make his or her images shimmer with greater feeling and achieve deeper meaning? When any is offered, the specious response is always the same: the audience already knows that; they bring that to the film. (Variation on the same argument: the audience can get that from the book—as though a film based on a book were an extension of the book.) But it’s wrong of filmmakers to pass on to an audience responsibility for their own work. Moreover, in the past, divesting material of some social, political, psychological or historical context has been mere cover for the most odious kind of calculation. In the movie (as in the book) Gone with the Wind, for example, freed slaves plead to stay on at southern plantations. Did any such thing ever happen? Certainly. But absent the context of the dependency of slaves on their owners that the slave system itself fostered, the film event conveys a false and sentimental meaning; and surely its heart-tugging effect was calculated with an eye on southern box-office. Spielberg does the same sort of thing in The Color Purple. Were black men, or are they now, ever abusive to black women? Certainly—as are white men to white women. But stripping such behavior of its social context, to wit, the white emasculation of black men that provoke(d) instances of black male violence against black females as a reliable, if temporary, ego restorative is to convey a false and sentimental meaning, in this case, that black men are innately this way, in effect, no better than savage beasts. (Can you imagine Spielberg, or someone else in America, allowing the impression to stand that white men by nature are thugs vis-à-vis white women?) Artistic choices have consequences for which artists, if they wish to control the implications of their work, must take responsibility.
Instead, filmmakers like Spielberg prefer to ignore what their work ends up saying or meaning; often they even deny it. Consider Robert Zemeckis. (Like mentor, like protégé.) Ersatzspielberg—Zemeckis—on Charlie Rose’s PBS program defended a popular film of his, Forrest Gump (1994), against negative reactions from reviewers and critics. His defense, breathtaking, exemplifies the tendency of current big-time Hollywood directors to rationalize away their own irresponsibility; for with utmost seriousness Zemeckis explained that those who point to questionable ideas that arise from Gump fail to appreciate that, rather than intending the meaning(s) they (the detractors) infer, he is only solving narrative problems, that is, finding ways to move “the story” along from one point to the next. On national television, then, Zemeckis-cum-God was granting himself at least partial immunity; he was willing to accept responsibility for his work only on the basis of his intentions—and, presumably, on the basis of his success or failure at realizing those intentions (athough he didn’t even concede that much). In other words, Zemeckis takes no responsibility whatsoever for the unintended consequences proceeding from the execution of his own intentions. It isn’t what he creates that counts; it’s what he means to create. His arrogance in this regard bounded even further, for he was additionally implying that only what he intends even exists in any film of his. This is scary, especially since Zemeckis as a narrative “problem-solver”—a connect-the-dotser—must define his role as filmmaker as utterly divorced from any and all consideration of ideas. (No wonder Forrest Gump is such an empty, lethargic experience.) In part, this nonsense is the inevitable result of the current ludicrous Hollywood fad to regard filmmaking as “visual storytelling”—a phrase that pops up on Rose’s show with alarming and depressing frequency. Is this what Spielberg also is about? Is it possible he is as intellectually barren as his dull disciple?
If so, they and heaven-knows-how-many-other Spielberg wannabes are in accord with a current trend in American society that holds that people aren’t responsible for what they do, much less responsible for some distant consequence of what they do. The fact that they didn’t mean for something to happen, they feel, exonerates them. (Bill Clinton is often blamed for this trend; but by my reckoning it goes back to the me-ness of the ’70s.) Art cannot prevail in such an environment. The artist doesn’t speak for the work of art; the work of art speaks for the artist. The artist’s intentions are not irrelevant, but the finished work is always more than the sum of these. The artist is responsible for this sum, not just for whatever fraction he or she intended. That an artist, of all people, might think otherwise is too depressing for words. It is all part of a tragedy of degeneration and moral aimlessness that has come to be called, in honor of its indefatigable guru, “the Oprahization of America.”
Postscript #2. The subject of the Holocaust has formed the basis for numerous outstanding films. A list of twenty of these follows shortly.
Needless to say, any one of the films listed, in addition to many others, is far superior to Schindler’s List, which in fact is one of the worst films ever made on the subject. Could there be a worse one? Well, yes. Perhaps the most confounding one of all is Peter Cohen’s hysterical documentary The Architecture of Doom (1995), which relates the Final Solution to ideas of purification in German art and aesthetics—a tack so farfetched the film could be a put-on. James Moll’s documentary The Last Days (1996), the first feature film to come out of the Shoah Project, is painfully mediocre; but it isn’t insane, as indeed Cohen’s film may be.
There are certain works I haven’t included that I wish to note now separately. Three of these are works that, rather than dealing with the Holocaust directly, evoke the event symbolically or metaphorically. One of these is, in my opinion, nothing less than the most brilliant film ever made in the English language: from France and West Germany, Orson Welles’s haunting, tremendous The Trial (1962), from Kafka. No film in creation more fully or more movingly conveys sorrow over the Holocaust. Similarly, I have exempted two of the best American films of the 1990s that, again, deal with the Holocaust by symbol or metaphor: Woody Allen’s terrifying and hilarious Shadows and Fog, his Kafka film, and Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (both 1991). How interesting that Franz Kafka has become such a touchstone for feelings relating to an historical event that his own life predated.
I have also exempted two other major works on separate and distinct grounds: Charles Chaplin’s brilliant anti-Hitler satire, The Great Dictator (1940), that, coming early, proves forgivably naive about the nature of the death camps; and Claude Lanzmann’s titanic Shoah (1985), which, rather than a film, a shaped, structured work of art, is a filmed series of indispensable eyewitness testimonies relating to the camps—and an inspiration, perhaps, for Spielberg’s Shoah Project.
As for the immensely popular Life Is Beautiful (1998), Roberto Benigni’s Life, for me, is less than beautiful—although not the moral outrage that Schindler’s List is.
The twenty films on the alphabetical list all touch upon the Holocaust or its aftermath. They come from more than a half-dozen countries, including Poland, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Italy, France and Israel. An “x” indicates that the film is a documentary.
ANNE FRANK REMEMBERED. Jon Blair, x, 1995
THE BLACK FOX. Louis Clyde Stoumen, x, 1962
BORDER STREET. Aleksandr Ford, 1948
CHILDREN REMEMBER THE HOLOCAUST. Mark Gordon, x, 1996
DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT. Jan Nemec, 1964
EUROPA, EUROPA. Agnieszka Holland, 1991
FATELESS. Lajos Koltai, 2005
THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS. Vittorio De Sica, 1971
IMAGES OF THE WORLD & THE INSCRIPTION OF WAR. Harun Farocki, x, 1989
KORCZAK. Andrzej Wajda, 1990
THE LAST STOP. Wanda Jakubowska, 1948
LODZ GHETTO. Kathryn Taverna, Alan Adelson, x, 1989
MEMORY OF WATER. Hector Faver, x, 1993.
THE NEW LAND. Orna Ben-Dor Niv, 1994
NIGHT AND FOG. Alain Resnais, x, 1955
PARTISANS OF VILNA. Josh Waletzky, x, 1986
PASSENGER. Andrzej Munk, Witold Lesiewicz, 1963
PHOTOGRAPHER. Dariusz Jablonski, x, 1998
THE PIANIST. Roman Polanski, 2002
THE WANNSEE CONFERENCE. Heinz Schirk, 1984