Written by Maya Gonzales
Photo courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Instytut Pamieci Narodowej
Six million Jews were murdered at the hands of the Nazi party in the 1940’s, yet it took fifty years for a Hollywood director to tell the story of the Holocaust. Schindler’s List was the first American film dealing with the Holocaust to be successful among popular audiences in the United States. In typical Hollywood fashion, the story follows hero, albeit member of the Nazi party, Oskar Schindler—a man who saved over one thousand Jewish lives through his private metalworking business. Making the protagonist of a Holocaust film a Nazi was highly controversial throughout the release and critic review of the film, especially in dealing with authentic and meaningful representation of the Jews. Through treatment of interactions between Jews and Schindler, Jews and Nazi officers, and Jews and Nazi terrors, director Steven Spielberg represents the Jewish population ethically in his film.
Jews in Relation to Nazi Violence
In his documentary-style film, Spielberg made sure to address the casual nature of violence done onto Jews in their homes, ghettos, labor camps, and concentration camps. It is a crucial part of telling the Holocaust story. However, showing it is tricky, and possibly dangerous in a work of fiction and recreation. As said by Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah, a ten hour Holocaust film featuring only testimonials, with no archival footage or re-enactments: “Fiction is a transgression, I am deeply convinced that there is a ban on depiction. Transgressing or trivializing, in this case they are identical. The series or the Hollywood film, they transgress because they trivialize, and thus they remove the holocaust’s unique character.” A notable moment of questionable recreation in Schindler’s List comes with the first mass grave scene. It shows the horrors of burning ten thousand bodies – people who were murdered during liquidation — with an overwhelming choral soundtrack and camera movement which nearly chases Jews. It brings into question what should and should not be recreated in film. However, the chaos created by this short scene is necessary in showing the reality of the Holocaust to viewers. While hero Schindler stands amongst the burning bodies and looks slightly disheartened, it is impossible to read this scene as an undeniable reality of the past for Jews. The recreation of such horrors adds to the shock of the film’s narrative, as intended. However, it also establishes the Jews as a population being brutally murdered regardless of Schindler’s positive plotline.
Another key scene which represents Jews in relation to the Nazi atrocities being committed on them is the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. After chasing most Jews from their homes, SS officers hunt down those in hiding. The soundtrack ceases to play; officers stand with stethoscopes listening for footsteps as Jews creep out from their hiding places. As the last group hiding is found with a bright light, and their hands sneak up to surrender, another Jew falls onto a piano – this scene’s catalyst of death. The piano is shot with machine guns, which transforms into a soundtrack of exciting piano music. The weaponed attack on the Jews continues, with ceaseless intensity, until Spielberg stops to show an SS officer playing a new piano in a house being raided. Two officers stop to question what he’s playing, and the ease with which these men deal with murder is apparent. Spielberg uses this intense visual and auditory strategy multiple times throughout the film to emphasize the casual attitude of the Nazis towards bloodshed.
Schindler’s List is shot fully in black and white, as an attempt to create a documentary style film appropriate for looking into the true past. Although meant to give the film an immersive and historical feel, the use of black and white gives the film a dreamlike effect. For example, when the Jews are arriving off their train in Auschwitz after being rerouted, the white snow floating down from the sky and bright light coming from the watchtower combine to make a strange, ethereal effect in an otherwise very dark scene. However, this light is contrasted by dogs barking harshly and German officers shouting, keeping viewers aware of the horror the Jews have just stepped into. Prior to this scene, on-screen emotions are mixed, the journey not yet revealed to have a horrifying destination. Hard contrast is used to light the faces on the train, which are closely filmed with portions of their faces completely dark; often only eyes are showing. This reveals the mixed pool of fear, hope, and defeat for what is unknown ahead; the eyes of the Jewish women speak for themselves. Spielberg uses this close-up filming, as well as light and color, of the Jewish faces in moments of transition, to show the truth behind their reactions to actions both from Schindler and the Nazi officers.
Jews in Relation to Schindler
To contrast the reactions of the Jews when dealing with Nazi terrors and dealing with protagonist Schindler, we can look again to use of lighting and close-ups. In the scene where Schindler’s “Essential Workers” each give their names before boarding the train, their faces are brightly lit. Each shot is focused on only an individual or family, their names, and their faces. This use of detail, coupled with a swelling string soundtrack, emotes the hope given by Schindler to these chosen Jews. This scene is a short lived success, however, as it is directly followed by previously discussed scene on the misdirected train full of other Schindler Jews. This quick switch of tone emphasizes the rarity of hope during the Holocaust, proving that Schindler’s story was not the norm.
Another important exchange of action and reaction between Schindler and the Jews in the film is the “girl in red.” Her pop of color gives the audience, as well as Schindler, momentary hope when she escapes the chaos of the ghetto liquidation. Spielberg briefly creates the opportunity for at least one non-Schindler related Jewish story to have a positive outcome. This is understandably dangerous in his filmmaking and representation of the Jewish genocide, in which millions were murdered. However, she later returns to the screen, her body being carried to be burned in a mass grave. Here, Schindler expresses his first true sign of humanity, of sadness, seeing these atrocities being committed. This use of action and reaction by Spielberg indicates that at some point, even Germans, even a member of the Nazi party, could see the wrong being done onto these people. While it could be misconstrued that there were many Germans sympathetic to the Jewish devastation because of this depiction of Schindler, the opposing Nazi officers shown throughout the film dispute this claim.
Jews in Relation to Nazi Officers
To understand the representation of Jews and their relation to Schindler, who is a member of the Nazi party, one must also look at the representation of other Nazis throughout the film. The ease with which Krakow Commandant Amon Göth shoots Jews from his villa, the way the labor camp SS officer gets frustrated with his failure to murder senselessly, the usage of casual violence in this film, is what makes it iconic; it highlights the ease with which the murder of six million Jews occured. Commandant Amon Göth is a perfect example of casual violence throughout the entire film. As mentioned, we see him playing target practice from his villa balcony with Jewish laborers, an easy and seemingly fun part of his morning. From the first shot fired, the laborers go from walking to running – a clear indication of the fear caused by this officer’s game. He remains a symbol of fear in the Jewish labor camp, even after conversing with Schindler, who subliminally attempts to teach him that not killing would show his true power. He “pardons” a Jew who fails to do his job of removing a stain from Göth’s bathtub, and viewers believe for a moment that Schindler has made an impact on this Nazi’s view of his own relationship to Jews. The boy walks off the villa grounds, his back to Göth; two gunshots are seen on both sides of him, as if to scare him, but as soon as the camera focuses away from the boy we hear the final gunshot and see his dead body on the ground. Spielberg meant to showing the full reality of the Nazi’s evil; Göth embodies it and fails to falter to humanity, no matter how many chances he is given.
Spielberg’s use of intensity through character interaction, light, and sound in his representation of Jews portrays a vivid and real side of Holocaust, apart from Schindler’s heroism. The terrorized population is shown just as much, if not more often, than Schindler’s Jews, in scenes of both casual and chaotic violence. Spielberg ensures that individuals are the focus of the saved, while the masses are liquidated, worked, and murdered. The six million lost are not forgotten in Schindler’s List, and the last scene of the film reminds us of this. While many find this scene to be warm-hearted, I found myself crying over the fact that history needed a “hero” such as Schindler in the first place. These thousand or so lives were saved, but seeing their tribute to Schindler in color begs the question of how many Jews will never grace the movie screen in such romance and gratitude. The film tells a Hollywood hero story – however, the unsaved Jews play as much of a role in telling the Holocaust story as Schindler himself.
Lanzmann, Claude. “Schindler’s List is an impossible story.” Universiteit Utrecht. Departement Filosofie en Religiewetenschap, 8 June 2012. Web. 28 April 2018.
Schindler’s List. Directed by Steven Spielberg, performance by Liam Neeson, Amblin Entertainment, 1993.