Criticism of Schindler’s List: Holocaust in Film

Bradley FarlessCollege Papers, Religion, Undergraduate Work0 Comments

Oskar Schindler from Schindler's List

Oskar Schindler from Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List, a movie directed by Steven Spielberg, was released in 1993 in the United States. The movie is loosely based on a book of the same title by Thomas Keneally, which in turn is based on the testimony of the true events surrounding Oskar Schindler. In Schindler’s List, Schindler is a German industrialist who uses World War II as an opportunity to reap massive profits. To accomplish this, he develops relationships with German military officers that he later exploits to secure a cheap Jewish labor force from the nearby Kraków ghetto, and later, when they are moved, from the Płaszów labor/concentration camp. About halfway through the movie, Schindler begins to care about the lives of Jews, especially those that work at his factory, so he uses his status as a Nazi industrialist to turn his factory into a refuge for Jews, eventually bankrupting himself to save the lives of approximately 1,100 Jewish people.[1]

Schindler’s List is number eight of the top two hundred and fifty movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database. In 1994, Schindler’s List won seven Oscar’s, including Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Cinematography; Best Director; Best Film Editing; Best Music, Original Score; Best Picture; and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published. The film won seventy other awards and was nominated for an additional twenty-four.[2] The film has been heaped with praise and positive reviews, but not everyone is pleased with the movie. It has also received a fair share of criticism and having researched negative reviews for recurring themes and patterns, this paper will present and explore the most commonly cited reasons why people did not enjoy the movie. Complaints about Schindler’s List are not as varied as those for Life is Beautiful. People are primarily disappointed by the directorial style, bad acting and the way characters and groups of people are portrayed in the movie. All of these issues are interconnected and perhaps the real issue behind all of the complaints is that this movie is presented in a way that pretends to be historically accurate instead of entertainment, which is misleading and manipulative.[3]

The most common refrain among negative reviews is that Steven Spielberg, director of popular entertainment flicks like Jurassic Park, The Goonies and Back to the Future, should have stuck to directing “kid’s movies”, because he was out of his depth when it came to creating a proper film about the Holocaust.[4] Many reviewers did not elaborate, simply calling the movie shallow, simple and predictable, but others cited specific complaints regarding Spielberg’s style.

The girl in the red dress from Schindler's List

The girl in the red dress from Schindler’s List

The first complaint was that Spielberg’s use of black and white to mimic historical footage is problematic in two ways: first, it creates an association in the viewer’s mind with historical documentary footage, in an attempt to more easily elicit emotional responses to violence portrayed in the movie; and second, it gives the viewer the impression that what they’re watching is historically accurate, which isn’t necessarily the case. Also regarding color choice, Spielberg was criticized for what is one of the most memorable scenes in the film: the girl with the red dress. Some reviewers found this use of color as symbolism to be too heavy handed an approach and wondered why Spielberg couldn’t be more subtle and allow the viewer to make these connections in a different way, instead of “bludgeoning” the audience into getting his message.[5]

Other aspects of the movie were also considered to be manipulative and contrived. For example, in the scene where Stern is mistakenly put on the train, what was the point of the train starting to move out of the station while they were still searching? In a realistic situation, wouldn’t the Nazi military official run directly to the front of the train and tell the conductor to wait while they find Stern? Instead, the train is stopped at the last moment, after they find Stern, artificially building suspense to get a quick reaction from the audience, rather than to progress the storyline. Other reviewers complained that the music is used in a manipulative way as well, starting before the action, to let you know how you should feel about what is about to happen. Essentially, Spielberg presents his material in a highly dramatized way that is intended to take the audience for an emotional journey, rather than an intellectual one, and tricks the viewer into thinking they’ve learned something historical, when in reality they’ve simply watched a fictional recreation of a fictional recreation of historical events.[6]

Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth from Schindler's List

Left: Evil (aka Amon Goeth); Right: Good (aka Oskar Schindler).

Also problematic is the way the characters are depicted in the film, which ties in with complaints about Spielberg oversimplifying a complicated topic and manipulating his audience. In his presentation of the story, Spielberg takes a complex, morally ambiguous Schindler and turns him into an absolute hero. He then props up Goeth as an ultimate evil, giving the audience an easy good-guy/bad-guy dichotomy so they can enjoy the movie without having to strain themselves intellectually and ponder the deeper questions that a story like Schindler’s poses. For example, how is it that a man many would call morally bankrupt was able to pull off something as grand as saving the lives of over one-thousand people while other people one would label “good” sat back and did nothing? Or worse, contributed to the Nazi extermination effort? What causes a man like Goeth to be compassionate to his friends and perhaps his family, while being casually violent and indifferent to the suffering of the Jews? What causes that sort of emotional and mental disconnect? None of these questions are adequately addressed. There is no gray area in this movie, just black and white, like the choice of filming color.[7]

By presenting Schindler as an absolute saint and Goeth as an absolute evil, Spielberg deprives the audience of the ability to understand the Holocaust. Goeth was a bad guy, but he wasn’t the ultimate evil, and he wasn’t the only evil. He didn’t do bad things because that’s what Nazis do and the Holocaust wasn’t caused by someone who, as Goeth is depicted in this film, went mad. It was a bureaucratized, systematized, planned and scheduled genocidal extermination of an entire population of people, characterized by dehumanization and casual violence. At the outbreak of World War II, Germany was the most educated and cultured country in Europe, so what is it about Jews that makes Goeth so angry he discharges his weapon into a pile of dead bodies? Why does he casually shoot at Jews from his balcony in Plaszow? These are issues that should have been addressed in a movie that Spielberg presents as epitomizing the Holocaust by sending the movie to schools around the country, as if it were documentary and instructional rather than entertainment.[8]

Also, why does Schindler’s List have so little to say about the Jews themselves? Isn’t this movie about the Holocaust and the destruction of 6 million Jews? Why are the roles afforded to Jews in the movie so passive and two-dimensional? The only significantly complex Jewish character in the film is Stern, and he serves only a supporting role to Schindler’s character development. By denying the Jewish victims of the Holocaust an active role in their own survival, it instead becomes a story about Schindler’s redemption, a sort of good guy vs. bad guy fairy tale.[9]

The last major complaint about the movie ties into the simplified portrayal of Schindler and Goeth: it just wasn’t historically accurate. All of the other problems are tied to this complaint about historical accuracy, and that’s probably because the Holocaust was such a defining moment in history, especially for the Jewish people. It should be translated into film in a way that respects the actual events, and like I previously mentioned, the conversion of Schindler into a savior figure and the role of Goeth as the evil arch-nemesis reduces this complicated event into a fable. Schindler was a much more ambiguous person and he wasn’t exactly a saint. When asked why he felt the need to help the Jewish people, he didn’t say it was because he suddenly realized that all people are equal, he said that if you see a dog that is going to be crushed by a car, wouldn’t you help it?[10] Schindler still considered the Jews to be something less than human.

Schindler’s List is certainly an outstanding achievement that is not without value as an entertaining film that can potentially introduce people to the subject of the Holocaust that otherwise would never have known anything about it, but it has deep flaws. What some people consider to be the greatest Holocaust movie of all time, others feel is a shallow movie that turns a real tragedy into a fairy tale between good and evil, black and white. But perhaps the most serious problem with this film is that it poses as a historically accurate educational tool, making the defining movie about the Holocaust a Hero story about a Nazi instead of a film depicting the dehumanization, suffering and death of millions of Jews. And that’s not even counting the disservice it does to the millions of non-Jews who died in the Holocaust that it doesn’t even mention.

 


[1] IMDb, “Schindler’s List (1993),” 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] IMDb, “Reviews & Ratings for Schindler’s List,” 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, “Oskar Schindler (1908-1974),” 2013.

 

References

Flixster, Inc. 2013. “Schindler’s List Reviews.” Rotten Tomatoes by Flixster. May 6. Accessed June 16, 2013. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/schindlers_list/reviews/#.

IMDb. 2013. “Reviews & Ratings for Schindler’s List.” Internet Movie Database. June 15. Accessed June 16, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108052/reviews?filter=chrono.

—. 2013. “Schindler’s List (1993).” Internet Movie Database. June 16. Accessed June 16, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108052/?ref_=sr_1.

The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. 2013. “Oskar Schindler (1908-1974).” Jewish Virtual Library. June 18. Accessed June 18, 2013. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/schindler.html.