PRINT February 1994


Schindler's List

Not until Schindler was I really able to not reference other filmmakers,“ Steven Spielberg has said. ”I’m always referencing everybody. I didn’t do any of that on this movie.“ But he did something even more ”post-Modern" and appropriative: he referenced the Holocaust, and without understanding it. Instead of interpreting this particularly notorious part of modernity (a part that pessimists have come to view as symptomatic of the whole), instead of gaining insight into it, he identified himself with it the way one does with a film star.

Schindler’s List is a filmic act of belated empathy yet of perfect timing, for the Holocaust is topical these days. The Holocaust is in fact a star, a great Jewish star—Solomon’s Seal writ large, perversely larger than ever before. Spielberg may have wanted to show Solomonic wisdom, but in Schindler’s List he practices what Solomon only provocatively preached: he cuts the baby in half, dividing the Holocaust into Jewish victims and Nazi victimizers, and treating both as stereotypes. However unwittingly, this amounts to a “cynical” understanding of them—what Peter Sloterdijk calls an “enlightened false consciousness.” This kind of consciousness is generally implicit in referencing, which pretends to a wisdom it does not have. It is in fact an “ideology of reification” in cunning practice, to use Theodor Adorno’s words—it is “life transforming itself . . . into a death mask.” Redundant as it is to make a death mask of the Holocaust, that is what Spielberg has done.

Schindler (Liam Neeson) is not the film’s real subject, however much it yea-says his goodness. Rather, he is the sword that does Spielberg’s Solomonic cutting—that separates Jew from Nazi. Or, if one wishes, he is the scale of justice that weighs each one, the suffering Jew rising to heaven, the murderous Nazi sinking to Hell. The only non-stereotype in the film (and popular culture finds it hard to deal with people who act individually, preferring to reduce them to type), Schindler paradoxically becomes a kind of no-man’s land, on one side of him the Jews, on the other the Nazis. Spielberg never explains or even suggests why each are on the side they are, or, above all, why the Nazis took the Jews so seriously.

Adorno famously declared that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and “corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.” Was he saying that any artistic attempt to deal with Auschwitz couldn’t help but reduce it to the preconceived terms of popular understanding, to “common sense”? Common sense, “folk” wisdom, almost demands the barbarism of stereotypes, for the folk must deny the web of particularities—especially those of unconscious motivation—that not only constitute the horrific reality of Auschwitz but implicate them in it.

In unthinking compliance with the Jewish stereotype, Spielberg casts the Jew as the archetypal, fated victim. He also accepts the canard of the Jewish obsession with money. (Is this what makes the businessman Schindler an honorary Jew?) It is easy to express solidarity by embracing a stereotype, easy to mourn by recognizing that “there but for the grace of God go I.” But Spielberg’s endorsement of the Jew-as-eternal-victim idea is a way of hiding from the more complicated, less metaphysical possibility argued by Jean-Paul Sartre: that society chose the Jew to be the outsider.

Perhaps the most disturbing failure of understanding, the most obscurantist stereotype, in Schindler’s List involves the reduction of the Nazis to corrupt psychopathic thugs—a facile, populist rationale that only makes them the carriers of forbidden wishes. Spielberg makes them inhuman; you or I could not be one of them. More telling even than the figure of the sadistic Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), commander of the work camp, are the walk-on appearances of two crazed SS officers, one wildly playing Mozart on a piano during the massacre in the Cracow ghetto, the other shooting at the corpses on a funeral pyre. The Nazis certainly did carry out their program of purity with an insane religious fervor, which Spielberg simultaneously distorts and underestimates in this caricature. But the ideology, the vision, of purity was never limited to them, and is age old. It is upheld even by the Jews, who insist, with a religious fervor of their own, on their own purity of purpose and being. Indeed the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews involved competing claims to purity—it was an attempt by one chosen people to replace another.

With Schindler’s List, Spielberg will get the credit not only for being an empathic human being, which he may well be, but for understanding what he doesn’t understand. The referencing he does here is not real research but the translation of appearances into a popular idiom. It’s like robbing an archaeological site—digging not for knowledge of the past but for other kinds of reward. Grave robbers are careless and hasty, and often destroy things that don’t suit their purpose. Their disturbances of the past leave it in worse condition to reveal itself to those with the patience to accept its loss and horror. In making Schindler’s List, Spielberg has disturbed an important site of history. He will no doubt stake his claim to immortality on the film; but memory of the Holocaust must last longer.

Donald Kuspit is a contributing editor of Artforum.