Hannah Arendt famously described the evil on display in the trial of Adolph Eichmann as the very embodiment of banality, an ordinary man simply and unthinkingly going about his job as a cog in the war machinery of the Nazis. Some have objected that Oskar Schindler–memorialized in Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List (1993), finally available on DVD–represents the banality of goodness, an ordinary businessman with little apparent interior life who manages to do the right thing and save many Polish Jews from the gas chambers. Yet the film, especially in combination with its DVD bonus track, “Voices From the List,” succeeds at doing what historical art aims to do: educate our minds, inform our memories, and foster appropriate sympathy, revulsion, sorrow, and admiration.
At the start of the film, Schindler (Liam Neeson) is an opportunist in business and in love. He is a cagey entrepreneur who uses his connections with the increasingly influential Nazis to elevate his own status. His early aspirations are quite clear: “My father had 50 workers. I’ve got 350…all with one purpose–to make money for me…. People will remember Oskar Schindler, who came with nothing…and left with all the riches of the world.” He admits frankly that they key to his success is seizing the opportunities afforded him by the war.
Of course, he would not be recalled with such affection and adulation were this the sum of what could be said about his character. He certainly underwent a conversion, although the changes themselves are not marked by a great storm of emotion and their effects are revealed in matter-of-fact alterations in the way he conducts business. What is most instructive about Schindler is not just his ordinariness, but the way his entrepreneurial opportunism, his mundane desire for profit, and his willingness to use bribes and other illegal means of persuasion kept him from being swept up into the camp of German true believers and provided him with the skills and habits to engage in systematic deception of German officials.
The crucial realization of what the German invasion of Poland is really about occurs in a scene in which the camera frames Schindler in a position of nearly divine distance and detachment, motionless high on a hill above a street on which SS officers are rounding up and summarily executing innocent Jews. In a black-and-white film, this is the famous scene in which the camera follows a young girl, whose red coat arrests our vision, as she walks amid the atrocities around her.
By contrast with Schindler, his associate, Commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), stands in a similar position of safety–in this case, his balcony–and shoots Jews as target practice. The difference between Goeth and Schindler is fully spelled out in an exchange about power. The drunken Goeth insists that the Jewish people fear the Germans because they have the power to kill them. Schindler counters that it is because the Germans kill arbitrarily. He then insists on a distinction between justice and power and asserts that the greatest power is evident in having the justification to kill and not doing so. Supreme power consists in pardoning offenses.
Schindler succeeds not so much by pardoning as by deploying his business savvy and his amassed wealth to route Jews from the gas chambers to his factory, a factory that produces nothing useful for the Nazis. His accountant, confidante, and conscience is Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), who remarks about the list of names of Schindler’s workers: “This list is an absolute good. This list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.”
Although it depicts in unflinching terms the smug and malign atrocities of the Nazis, the film has been criticized for being a Holocaust story with a happy ending, for accentuating the stories of a lucky few at the expense of the story of the exterminated millions. Spielberg himself praises the film for illustrating how “one person can make a difference,” how an “ordinary man can transcend circumstances and become extraordinary.”
There is an unsettling commonplace in Holocaust stories, wherein the Jewish characters express the sentiment that one character in Schindler speaks to others amid the squalid conditions of the Ghetto: “…this is the bottom. We cannot go any lower.” Unlike the millions of Jews for whom the gas chamber was the only depth beneath which it was not possible to sink further, the Schindler group found a place of refuge and a foundation that did not give way to greater, unpredictable horrors.
The incommensurable scale of the horror experienced by Holocaust victims is in part what people mean when they call the Holocaust unimaginable or inconceivable. Its excess is both quantitative, in the intricate complexity of its organization and the sheer number of lives exterminated, and qualitative, in the way it seems able at each stage to find yet a deeper and more unanticipated form of degradation and torture. For these reasons, many object to the very notion of trying to represent the Holocaust, an objection that would doubtless apply to many of the genocidal programs detailed, for example, in Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell.
And yet the attempt, the need, to speak and tell the story is more than just a biological impulse; it seems a requirement of justice. It is inevitable that, in the telling, artifice will be invoked to assist listeners and, in the case of film, viewers. Here Arendt’s wish for an utterly non-artistic relating of the Holocaust seems quixotic. Of course, no single film, or even collection of films, could encompass and explain the atrocity. The most effective art will be conscious–and make its audience conscious–of its own limits, of the way reality exceeds art’s ability to depict it. (This seems true, by the way, not just of evil on a grand scale but of ordinary human virtues and affections as well.)
On this score, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), the tale of a single survivor, Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish musician, fares somewhat better than Schindler’s List. The Pianist allows the viewer to share the limited vision of the Szpilman (Adrian Brody in an Oscar-winning performance), who peers from behind, under, and around objects that he uses to keep himself hidden. The cinematography thus forces us to recognize that our view of events is partial and incomplete. It spurs us to acknowledge that we have before us no more than a fragment of the whole story.
The real weakness of Schindler’s List is not in the character of Schindler but in that of Goeth, an unhinged psychopath whose intoxicated sadism puts him at too great a remove from the viewer, who is apt to come away identifying the evil of the Nazis with simple madness. In an illuminating suggestion, the philosopher Gillian Rose proposed that a certain conception of an “ethic of service,” captured effectively in the film The Remains of the Day (1993), could implicate ordinary human beings in the Nazi system.
However partial might be the story of Oskar Schindler, the DVD’s inclusion of an hour-long bonus track, “Voices From the List,” fills in certain gaps and is even more moving than the film itself. Here we encounter descriptions of Jewish lives before the war, of their desire at once to keep their own traditions and yet to assimilate to the wider culture, to prove themselves as patriotic as any other citizens. We hear stories of the last words exchanged between parents and children, of the circulation of incredible rumors, of the torture of children, and of the uncertainty about Schindler–uncertainty that gradually gives way to confident trust and finally abundant gratitude.
In ways Schindler could never have anticipated, the survival of these stories–as painful and horrendous as many of them are–constitute an important contribution to the “riches of the world.”
–Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author of Shows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.