Schindler’s List: Holocaust Portrayal Essay
Schindler’s List: Holocaust Portrayal
In Steven Spielberg’s Schinder’s List, the events are depicted in the Hollywood style narrative dramatization of the Holocaust events. The film offers representation of the real characters based on the true story in the emerging popular cultural discourse about Holocaust. The film has images of graphic violence depicting camps at Plaszow and Auschwitz, offers individualized focus on the two German characters – Goeth and Schindler, collective portrayal of Jews and uses realistic narrative filmmaking conventions to describe Holocaust.
As such, our analysis of events as portrayed in Schinder’s List will be conducted following the three patterns: character and life of the major heroes – Goeth and Schindler, collective portrayal of Jews in terms of whether Steven Spielberg managed to recreate the real spirit of Holocaust, and historical events.
Schindler’s List and History
Schindler’s List, the Academy Award-winning movie of 1993, is based on the book Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. The movie settings are September 1943, when Polish army has been defeated by Germans within only 3 days and the World War II started all over Europe. Oskar Schindler, a not very successful entrepreneur, arrives at Krakow intending to initiate manufacturing of goods for German army using slave Jewish labour (Tighe, 2001). Being a member of the Nazi Party, he sets out to acquire an enamelware factory producing pots, pans, and cooking materials.
Having hired Itzhak Stern to initiate contacts with underground Jewish business community, Schindler soon enjoys fast profits pleasing the Nazis and filling own pockets. Soon after, Amon Goeth arrives in Kraków in order to start construction of a labour camp in Plaszow. During the liquidation of the Ghetto, Schindler sees a girl in a red coat and starting this moment his system of values is turned upside down. From now and on, Schindler is putting every effort to save as many Jews as he can.
When an order arrives from Berlin to dismantle Plaszow, destroy bodies of those killed and move the entire population to Auschwitz, Schindler bribes Goeth to let him move his workers to Zwittau-Brinnlitz, in Moravia, away from Holocaust. Schindler now has not only men and women, but elderly and children in his factory, whom he manages to save. The remainder of earned capital Schindler spends on bribery of Nazi officials to save as many Jews as possible. As a profiteer from slave labour, Schindler had to flee from the Red Army leaving his people. In the final scene, a man places a rose at the grave of Schindler (Gelly, 1997).
When viewing the movie from the historical perspective – events described by Spielberg are in chronological order and portrayed exactly as they happened in real life some 50 years ago. While there is no significant shortcoming from this perspective, when it comes to analysis of major characters portrayal, the situation is more complex.
Character and Life of Goeth and Schindler
Movie omits a number of details about life of Oskar Schindler. Schindler was not a member of the Nazi Party, as stated in the movie. Even though he did join the Nazi Party as a teenage, as became later known – he was an agent of Abwehr, the German Intelligence organization from 1921 to 1944 (Niven, 1995). Movie also omits the fact that at the beginning, before Schindler organized manufacturing using Jewish slave labour, Oskar was a fairly successful entrepreneur. Instead, Steven Spielberg shows his carrier path as a failure from the very beginning; whereas, in reality, only the last attempts, after the war was over, were unsuccessful. Schindler did go bankrupt after he returned back to Germany in 1958, and then again in 1961 when his partners refused to work with him because of his prior connections with Jews. Thw whole process of internal transformation as portrayed in Schindler was different in reality. Schindler never h
ad Nazi views: when first meeting Itzhak Stern he offered him a hand to shake. Even though stern refused it, as it was forbidden by Nazis, this signifies that Schindler always respected Jews. In the movie, this issue was not raised. Another issue is related to words said in the movie in the final scene, before Schindler left Germany escaping from the Red Army (Niven, 1995).
Seeing his luxurious car, Schindler is crying that he could have said several more lives if he were to sell it. In movie, hero is consumed with the feeling of guilt, whereas, in reality there is no source that would confirm Schindler’s statement. The movie also omits reference to Schindler collecting guns to further equip Jews to protect themselves from SS guard, whereas in reality the event did take place. Finally, escape of Schindler from previously occupied by Nazis territory was followed by eight camp inmates who protected him. The movie does not have these events (Niven, 1995).
When it comes to speaking about Goeth, movie does not depict his real character in full strength. Goeth was exceptionally violent, aggressive, and overfilled with hate towards Jewish population. It was custom for Goeth to set his dogs – Ralf and Rolf – upon Jews to tear them apart. After that he would shoot the victims in heads. Murder and torture of prisoners on a daily basis practiced by Goeth appears in the movie in scene, when Goeth shoots Jews from the balcony. No further attempt were undertaken to reveal further the dark side of the character of Goeth (The Daily Mail, 1995).
Schindler’s List: Collective Portrayal of Jews
When portraying Jews in the film, Spielberg escapes individualism. Assessment of the scenes attempting to visualize the emblematic scenes from Holocaust is problematic especially when it comes to portrayal of horror and death. In the scene with dead bodies burning, the most emotionally loaded scene of the movie, one might legitimately expect the degree of inchoateness. However, Spielberg overloads the screen and the soundtrack with cinematic effects. This strategy comes very close to the concept of “kitsch death” explained by Miriam Shahin (1994).
“Kitsch death” refers to extensive usage of cinematic effects in portrayal of death, which shows some degree of fascination of the event occurring or, in this case, the myth of Nazism. In the 1970s followed by 1980s there has been a shift in portrayal of Nazism and Jews in cinema – from horror and pain muted by time to ravishing images one would be pleased to see going on forever. Consequently, Spielberg places a higher emphasis on representation effect rather then on the moral and ideological position of the publicity and author: highly sentimental music and rapidly moving camera that depicts huge clouds of smoke substitutes for the objective depiction of the silent death that was experienced by Jews in reality (Sicher, 2000).
Character of Jews is portrayed through Schneider: their individuality in the movie is lost. Even in the scenes when the point of Jews must be explicitly stated, their presence in the camera is always dominated by Schneider (Tighe, 2001). The shower scene at Auschwitz is a bright example of this tendency: gas chambers, as the embodiment of historical events that took place during Holocaust, are distorted by the inclusion of Schneider. By portraying water coming out of the shower heads, fear of women and the coming relief from the water, Spielberg is creating an analogy of Christian redemption in which Schneider play the role of the saviour. As such, Spielberg intentionally distorts the historical role of gas cameras (Tighe, 2001).
Steven Spielberg’s Schinder’s List is one of the most successful versions of historical movies depicting Holocaust events. Undoubtedly, Spielberg managed to recreate the true horror of the events at those times. However, at times the movie falls short of reality, whereas portrayal of Jews intervenes with the generally accepted conceptions of Holocaust events. We have viewed the movie from three perspectives – history, major characters, and portrayal of Jews. While from the historic perspective, the events portrayed are in accordance with the actual events, Spielberg still failed to recreate the picture of the events overall and concentrated instead on several specific events from Holocaust.
Spielberg also omitted quite a few significant events when constructing his characters making those too simplified at times. When it comes to Jewish perspective, the movie lost the horror of the events occurring at those times placing higher emphasis on Schindler and thus loosing Jewish identity. Gong even further, some scenes show romantic portrayal of death and sufferings. Overall, the movie is close to reality, whereas historical and ideological misconceptions can be attributed to the unique view of Steven Spielberg on the events during the Second World War
Gelly, Ora. “Narration and the Embodiment of Power in ‘Schindler’s List.’.” Film Criticism 22.2 (1997): 2.
Niven, William J. “The Reception of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ in the German Media.” Journal of European Studies 25.98 (1995): 165.
“ON SCHINDLER’S LIST; RACEMAIL, Irish Hope Plans to Win Arc and Melbourne Cup.” The Daily Mail (London, England) 27 Sept. 1996: 66.
Shahin, Mariam. “Schindler’s List – Ghost Movie.” The Middle East May 1994: 42.
Sicher, Efraim. “The Future of the Past: Countermemory and Postmemory in Contemporary American Post-Holocaust Narratives.” History and Memory 12.2 (2000): 56-91.
Tighe, Carl. “Kazimuk — Jewish Krakow.” Journal of European Studies 31.2 (2001): 187.