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Spielberg’s journey of empathy, Part II: “Schindler’s List.”

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This is Part II in my projected four-part series on the cinema of Steven Spielberg, and specifically Spielberg’s journey as a director, an American and a Jew, primarily through the great gift he has to get an audience to empathize with others. The departure point for the journey was his 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark, profiled in Part I. Here we change gears to a much more serious film: the 1993 Holocaust epic Schindler’s List, generally regarded not only as Spielberg’s best film but one of the best motion pictures ever made. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, and will probably remain the first and most prominent credit in Spielberg’s filmography for as long as cinema exists.

I think it’s impossible to understand Schindler’s List without understanding two previous films in Spielberg’s career: The Color Purple (1985), based on the novel by feminist author Alice Walker, and Empire of the Sun (1987), based on a semi-autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard. The Color Purple is about African-American women living in the South in the early 20th century, and Empire of the Sun is about a British child who is separated from his parents in China during World War II. While both films are exceptionally well-made, they’re both deeply flawed. They come off not so much as empathetic as emotionally manipulative. Spielberg was certainly successful at getting us to sympathize with the characters in these movies, but not empathize with them. In both films the viewer gets the impression that Spielberg has nothing personal at stake. Raiders of the Lost Ark worked because it came from Spielberg’s childhood, and it was part of who he is. There’s precious little of Steven Spielberg, the man, in either The Color Purple or Empire of the Sun. They’re good movies, but they could have been made by anyone.

In making Schindler’s List, though, Spielberg finally put himself at stake. The film, based on a true story, is about Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German businessman who goes to newly-occupied Poland in the early days of World War II to profit off the war and the cheap labor it provides. He builds an enamelware factory that gets a lot of German government contracts, but after witnessing the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, Schindler, who is not Jewish, becomes interested in the Jews living around them. He begins to employ Jewish families in his factory, realizing that by doing so he can save them from being transported to Hitler’s death camps. Aided by Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), Schindler uses his complicated friendship with Nazi ghetto commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) to great effect. Ultimately he saves over 1100 people from annihilation–the seed of a new generation of Jews who rebuild their lives and families, especially in Israel, after the war is over. The film’s touching final scene shows many of these real-life survivors and their families placing rocks on the real Oskar Schindler’s grave.

I found the key to understanding Schindler’s List in something my rabbi said to me on the day I converted to Judaism (I was formerly an atheist). He said, “Your story is now part of the story of the Jewish people.” This was profound enough, but what he didn’t say is that the reverse is also true. In making Schindler’s List, Spielberg, the son of American Orthodox Jews, finally came to personal terms with the Shoah (what Jews call the Holocaust). Indeed the film succeeds precisely because the viewer understands that the process of making it was a personal and moral education for Spielberg. He was born in the United States in 1946, after the Shoah was over, but in making this film he made the Shoah and the story of Oskar Schindler very personal for him. Through the lens of empathy, he gave the audience a window into that story as well–and this is why Schindler’s List is so powerful. The film is an exploration not just of a historic event and all of its very deep and disturbing moral dimensions, but also an exploration of who Steven Spielberg is as a person. His Jewishness is a deep and important part of him. The ability to make an audience understand that part of him, even for three hours in a theater, is what makes this such a great film.

The emotional centerpiece of Schindler’s List is this gripping scene where Schindler (Liam Neeson) witnesses the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto–and empathizes with a little girl in a red coat.

It’s also beautifully and almost perfectly made. Shot in black-and-white, like a documentary, Schindler’s List has sort of a timeless quality that will guarantee it will age well. The performances are stunning. Look specifically at the treatment of the chief villain, Goeth, played with terrifying complexity by Ralph Fiennes. The Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark are cartoon comic-book villains, but Goeth is a deep character, sensitive and yet brutal, needy and yet arrogant, attractive yet repulsive. The film explores, very uncomfortably, what makes him tick. I think Goeth is one of the scariest villains in film history, and you know he’s a horrible monster capable of anything because of his human frailties, complexities and insecurities. This is light-years beyond Raiders of the Lost Ark. Totally different pictures made for totally different reasons, but I hope you can see the evidence of Spielberg’s development as a filmmaker.

My thesis here–that the film works because Spielberg finally made the Shoah a personal event–is bolstered if you know the history of how Schindler’s List was made. Although he obtained the rights to the novel the film is based on (by Australian author Thomas Keneally) in 1983, Spielberg spent the next several years trying to interest various others in directing it, including Martin Scorsese (Cape Fear) and Billy Wilder, whose family was killed in the Shoah. All of these fell through. It’s as if he was trying desperately to avoid letting it in and making it personal. When Spielberg finally embraced the project, that’s where the magic began. He was able to bring his own technical and creative talent as a filmmaker to bear on a story in which he finally had a deep personal and moral stake. This is the element that’s missing from both The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun.

One of the wonderful things about Schindler’s List is how it emphasizes the connection to a modern generation–like the thousands who now live because Oskar Schindler saved them and their families.

As an American and a Jew myself, I feel a personal ownership of Schindler’s List. To my knowledge none of my family died in the Shoah, but I still feel that it speaks to me. As sad, wrenching and difficult to watch as it is, I’m grateful that it exists, and I honestly feel a sense of redemption and elation that Spielberg found so much of himself in the process of bringing such an important cultural artifact to life. One way to think about creative inspiration is as of the breath of God. There’s a line in my own novel Beowulf is Boring in which a character, a Christian monk, says, “The furtherance of God’s plan can advance only so far as the free will of Man will allow it.” Touched by God or not, it was up to Steven Spielberg to make Schindler’s List. He did, and we should all be glad that he did.

It would be easy to call an achievement as important as Schindler’s List a pinnacle that could never be matched. In a way it may be so. But amazingly, this was only one important stop on Spielberg’s journey. In the next installment, which probably won’t go up until after the New Year, I’ll profile the next important stop: Amistad.

The header image incorporates a photo of Steven Spielberg by Romain DuBois and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The other element of the header image is a photograph by me; the artwork for Schindler’s List is copyright (C) 1993 by Universal Pictures and fair use is claimed.

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