| || || || Spielberg Symposium |
by Jeff Reichert
The last time I saw Schindler's List (before sitting down to compose this piece) was back in the winter of 1994, shortly after the film’s release. I was working as an usher at the local multiplex where it was occupying two of our six screens (at that time a rarity for films outside of the summer months, and of the non-animated variety), and was treated several times daily to streams of audience members pouring from the theater backed by the strains of Itzhak Perlman’s violin, overcome with emotion, perhaps having experienced the same kind of turning point that Spielberg claims he had while making the film. I imagine that most of those many, many people had never seen a film that dealt in such weighty matters, and certainly not in such a direct fashion. I had read the reviews, and was well aware of the frenzy that drove audiences to purchase a ticket for a film that was mostly considered something that "should" be seen rather than something desirable to see-the type of acclaim Schindler received can conflate desires and needs, no matter what the film is ostensibly "about." Working at the theater provided a vast potential to gather first-hand evidence to corroborate the kind of emotional catharsis critics across the country were experiencing and subsequently working through in the process of writing about this— “the film,” the cinematic event of the year, a film which only looms larger over American cinema of the Nineties with each passing year.
I can’t claim to have avoided emotional reactions similar to those of the critics and audiences during and after viewing. Prior to this, my only “experience” with the Holocaust came from a crudely made 30-minute documentary an 8th grade teacher showed us after school, and only after receiving a signed note granting parental permission. It was filled with images of emaciated corpses, frightened survivors, and liberated camps—traces only of the violence that the cameras arrived too late to capture and in which Schindler’s List traffics. The documentary made an impression, but for the young teenager I was, the vaguely queasy images of the aftermath were easily eclipsed by the shock and violent immediacy of Schindler’s List. In the years following, schooling taught me to question this physical response to visceral imagery, wariness ensued, greatly enhanced by distance from the source, and disappointment in Spielberg’s subsequent films. Huge admiration for his triumphant triumvirate, A.I., Minority Report, and Catch Me If You Can (though skeptics might argue the degree to which Spielberg is aware of how good any of these films are) leads me back to Schindler, the film many mark as the milestone in his career which “allowed” for the creation of these later “mature” works. This preamble is necessary as it is exceedingly difficult to talk about his films without framing the personal context of viewing, as so many have ensconced themselves at the level of pop mythology that the personal/historical and critical responses become inextricable. What follows is something of a salvage mission, going back to it, would I find what had affected me there before, or would the years between preclude that possibility?
While re-viewing Schindler I was first struck by how similarly the concentration camp sequences affected me while watching, and then after by the complete difference in intellectual fallout. In ‘94, I was stunned by the sheer force and brutality of the images—the stylistic employed allowed an access to the material that I was unaccustomed to. Blood, drained of color, dribbling out of innocent bodies seemed a far cry from the relatively clean (perhaps even enjoyable?) violence perpetrated in Jaws, the Indiana Jones films, and Jurassic Park. In retrospect, they feel like nothing more than flip sides of the same coin. Going after the Holocaust in the “documentary” fashion employed circumvents many of the kinds of images one might have reasonably expected, and creates room for the shock effects of the violence that left many viewers in tears, but still undercuts his aims. Spielberg merely traded in one set of narrative codes for another, albeit one which exists in a register most viewers closely align with “truth” and the “real” —there’s not a point in the film that moves beyond the effable to the abject (except perhaps a fleeting moment towards the beginning of the film as a group of jeering Nazi soldiers cut off a Jew’s payess). Spielberg’s referencing strategies don’t get him anywhere either—nods to filmmakers he admires are peppered about all his films (here he cribs Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Elem Klimov’s Come and See, and Andrzej Munk’s Passenger, among others I’m sure) which in lighter times served as nothing more than cinematic signposts for the elect. Here, they force a reading of Schindler as not just a film of the Holocaust, but as an unconscious attempt at the end film of Holocaust narrative representation—grandiose aims and perhaps part of the film’s ultimate undoing.
Though there may not seem to be room for more scholarship on Schindler’s List (it received a full working-over by several Israeli scholars in the Yosefa Lashitzky-edited essay collection Spielberg’s Holocaust, in addition to the pages of accolades, anti-accolades, post-accolades, etc.), two major presuppositions circulate in Schindler scholarship, both of which are worthy of serious questioning: (a) a tragedy on the order of the Holocaust is impossible to represent and (b) a Holocaust film made within the Hollywood system is doubly damned due to reliance on certain conventions and codes, and thus always-already beyond any possibility of approaching this tragedy. The latter seems specious as labeling Schindler’s List a Hollywood product and moving on ignores Spielberg’s complicated relationship with the industry; he’s set, broken, subverted, and generally mucked around with the rules of engagement for Hollywood film for the past 20-odd years, creating a highly personal body of work too complicated to describe as the mere channeling of ideology and its attendant codes. I think most scholars who base their arguments around the former point are actually questioning the degree to which it is possible to depict the Holocaust (as an uttered act), and not taking into account the slippery possibilities of representation, especially in the cinematic medium. For them, depicting the sheer enormity of the Holocaust is an act akin to physicists trying to imagine the outside of the Universe or the time-before-time—impossible. But that doesn’t mean that a representation that functions like the space occupied by such thinking, the void where language breaks down isn’t a highly productive substitute. In fact, it is this space, this possibility, and the inability to speak properly of it that opens up room for the true horror Spielberg is after. The problem I found on returning to Schindler’s List is that the Holocaust, as it is represented here, fails to move beyond the physical responses of shock and fright into this realm of horror, or into any real awareness of the full implications of the Holocaust machine. “As it is here” is the crucial point of distinction—I don’t believe it impossible to represent the Holocaust, it just needs to be done right.
In trying to analyze my response to the shocks (not horror) of Schindler, I tried to think of films that had gone further towards this productive space beyond language and came quickly to the work of Robert Bresson. His films Au hasard Balthasar, Mouchette, Une Femme douce, L’Argent (and many of the others, come to think of it) circulate around characters playing the victim at the hands of an uncaring society (though it sounds banal, it never is), but the sad magic of Bresson is how he pushes the individual destruction, often through suicide, of each member of this motley crew of outcasts into the realm of an epic inexpressible loss for all of humanity. When at the end of Mouchette, the titular heroine fails in her first attempt at suicide, picks herself up, climbs the hill and rolls towards the lake below again, the effect is unforgettable. When her second attempt fails forcing a third and successful try, the effect is unspeakable. If the world holds nothing for this young girl, what could it possibly offer the viewer? Or, in Au hasard Balthasar, after innocent Marie heads off to reconcile with her rotten boyfriend, Bresson cuts to a shot of him with his cronies running from their hideout, flinging clothes and laughing. Inside, Marie is naked, huddled in a corner, slightly shivering. Combining the images in my mind today still hits like it did when I first saw them; I don’t know, and didn’t see, what happened inside the house, but does one need that to be rocked by the sequence? Narrative gaps like these are central to Bresson’s project—his films provide us with nothing less than the image of ourselves prostrate before another kind of narrative construction (one promising an illusory coherence), and with that image, the freedom to react to those he supplies; to experience the horror of implications, those acts that are unspeakable. If the Holocaust is supposedly unspeakable, why is it so easy to talk about Schindler’s List? Perhaps it’s because all the violence is localized, the source can be found, and Spielberg offers an alternate option in Oskar Schindler, the savior. In Bresson’s universe, there is no way out. Though I’m tempted to wonder what Bresson might have done with this same narrative, I know he’s crafted smaller-scale versions in almost all of his later films.
On the level of narrative construction, I think Spielberg is incapable of wreaking the kinds of violence that Bresson handles so easily. Spielberg is a maximalist and showman, so it may be somewhat unfair to criticize him in this fashion. He does point towards the solving of an equation that may have redeemed his project, but sadly never completes the math as in his masterful endings of A.I. and Minority Report (finally linking life, simulation, and the realm of the digital, piecing together strands woven throughout both films resulting in a confusion of these categories both fascinating and horrifying). Here, he begins to construct the bridge between capital and the Holocaust, but leaves the structure unfinished. Jews start out early in the film bearing punishment for a control of capital imaged by the Nazi regime, morph into laborers for the system they were once said to have controlled, and end up bought and sold as commodity, completely reversing the earlier relation. What’s missing is the next piece: Jewish labor for Nazi production had as its end result the death of the labor itself. This is important as it underlines a most disturbing implication about how the Final Solution was implemented: it was a distinctly capitalist “solution” and its orchestration could not have happened without it. Spielberg has Amon Goeth drop a remark about Marx’s Judaism, but a true sense of the full workings of capital is absent here. The fall from grace of simple laborer Yvon in Bresson’s final film L’Argent begins with a shot of a few francs being dispensed from an ATM which sparks the action and turns every shot and edit into currency in a series of narrative exchanges, all of which work to his detriment. His descent at the hands of capital (material understanding of capital as a root cause for societal ills is a dirty little secret of Bresson’s filmography only starting to peek out through the smoke created by critics howling about transcendence and spirituality) from family man to lonely serial killer is wholly unnecessary, undeserved, and horrifying. In Schindler, Spielberg mimics factory production with a shot of exhumed corpses piled on a conveyer belt leading to the bonfire, but he still denies an important step. It is in the fateful “shower scene” where things break down. Mass killing is the missing link, the one act he cannot bear to show us, or even strongly imply (a quick shot of a billowing smokestack doesn’t manages to carry this weight). He’d rather linger on a highly eroticized shot of Helen Hirsch, pulling her shift off and revealing the nakedness underneath, than follow that body through production (gassing) and into the inferno.
If there were such a thing as a “pure” viewing experience (even my response from years ago was mediated in certain ways), Schindler’s List might rank as one of Spielberg’s best films. The early scenes of Schindler in Nazi society are as glossy and stylish as anything in Lubitsch, and Spielberg’s mastery of narrative craft helps him keep this unwieldy beast afloat and immensely watchable for over three hours. Oskar Schindler’s acts make for a great story, but to be honest, function as little more than a framing device for the horror to which Spielberg attempts to bear witness. He ends up creating powerful reactions to be sure (the piles of tissues I gathered from the theater are certainly a testament), but with this material, his aim is much higher. Late in the film Schindler speaks about business matters to Stern: “Do I have to create a whole new language?” he asks. “I think so,” is the reply. Spielberg might have been served by this advice. Schindler’s List is shocking, but the universe it should have occupied is horrific (like Bresson’s). Though Spielberg may have fallen short here (and similarly in Amistad and Saving Private Ryan), he brought a truly incisive critical vision to bear in A.I.—an apocalyptic masterpiece about the limits of humanity completely intertwined with the kinds of questions around capital that Schindler never answers. For me, the critics who lauded Schindler’s List, and the audience members I saw exiting the theater in tears, were right about Spielberg, they were just a few years early. ++