PRINT May 1994


Letters to the Editor

To the Editor:
Is it possible to write film criticism after Auschwitz? Theodor Adorno never asked this question, but maybe he should have. Donald Kuspit correctly criticizes Schindler’s List (February 1994) for reducing Jews and Nazis to stereotypes of good/victims and evil/victimizers, and for depicting Nazis in a way that “only makes them the carriers of forbidden wishes.” He might have added that a shower scene is the inappropriate fodder of Hollywood spectacle (unless it’s the shower scene from Psycho). He might also have said that the implicit message of such a film as Spielberg’s is the adequacy of its own genre to represent life—conveying as subtext the insidious notion that anything and everything is representable by Hollywood, that no extreme of human experience escapes its purview. Or, Kuspit might have exercised common sense and simply objected to turning the Holocaust into entertainment.

But instead, in place of the binary good/evil opposition, Kuspit alludes to an even more egregious cliché: the myth of the interchangeability of victim and victimizer. This is what he wrote: “The Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews involved competing claims of purity—it was an attempt by one chosen people to replace another.” This “idea” is offensive and stupid. When Hannah Arendt reported on “the banality of evil” that she saw embodied in Adolph Eichmann, and on the complicity of Jewish leaders in administering the deportations, she avoided Spielberg’s vulgar mistakes through fidelity to the truth. She also, however, avoided Kuspit’s more “sophisticated” mistake by denying that what she had discovered was “an Eichmann inside each one of us.” She wasn’t proposing any theory of “collective guilt,” and she certainly wasn’t buying anything approaching an erasure of the difference between criminal and victim. Kuspit, though, appears to suggest the perverse notion that the Jews’ desire to be Jews was somehow in competition with a similar desire of the Nazis to be Nazis.

For Arendt, Eichmann’s problem was thoughtlessness, brought on by careerism and an instrumentalized conception of reason (losing sight of ends). Don’t let this happen to post-Modern theory in Artforum.

—Gabriel Brehm, Jr.
Santa Cruz, Calif.

To the Editor:
Donald Kuspit expresses a view of the Holocaust that is eerily congruent with that of its perpetrators: his sensitivity to the perils of stereotyping has led him to a strange place, a position in which Nazis and Jews are seen as competitors, and as both implicated in the consequences of their rivalry. Without any referent in the film, Kuspit chooses as a metaphor for the Holocaust the contested baby brought before Solomon. He then faults Spielberg for halving the baby, “dividing the Holocaust into Jewish victims and Nazi victimizers,” and suggests that this division denies an understanding of the Holocaust as a coherent event. I don’t see how Kuspit avoids the implication that Jews and Nazis together conceived this child, which is in some way their shared responsibility.

Kuspit elaborates on this metaphor by describing Schindler as the sword “that separates Jew from Nazi,” with “the suffering Jew rising to heaven, the murderous Nazi sinking to Hell.” Kuspit’s sarcasm suggests that he questions placing Jew and Nazi in separate moral categories. It should be noted that Schindler’s List neither beatifies its Jewish characters (indeed Kuspit himself accuses Spielberg of portraying the Jews as obsessed with money) nor follows its Nazis to damnation.

Kuspit again implies choice and equivalence when he complains that Spielberg never explains why Nazis and Jews are each “on the side they are.” To speak of “the Jews” in this way requires thinking of them as a coherent group, capable of making such a choice. The only thing that united the Jews of Europe was the Nazi fantasy of their purposefulness.

Kuspit describes the Final Solution as issuing from a “vision of purity,” and adds, “The ideology, the vision of purity was never limited to [the Nazis], it is age old. It is upheld even by the Jews, who insist . . . on their own purity of purpose and being.” To view Nazi ideology as the product of an impulse for purification is a fundamental misunderstanding: the Nazis’ guiding metaphor was not of an Eden unfortunately only attainable by ruthless means (this is a Leninist formulation), but of transcendence through apocalyptic battle. War was the end, not the means to an end. Furthermore, to suggest that the Jewish concept of chosenness claims “purity of being” for the Jews is absurd. It is odd to speak of purity as a Jewish ideal. Concepts like asceticism, martyrdom, and celibacy are peripheral to Jewish concerns; ideological uniformity is alien to Jewish practice.

Equating Nazi and Jewish ideology, Kuspit asserts that “the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews involved competing claims to purity—it was an attempt by one chosen people to replace another.” This may have been how the SS viewed the Final Solution—as part of a mortal struggle between two races, an Aryan act of self-defense—but Kuspit fails to make it clear that this notion of competition was utterly one-sided.

Kuspit criticizes Schindler’s List for failing adequately to stress ideology in its portrayal of the Nazis, reducing them to “corrupt psychopathic thugs,” “inhuman beings”: “you or I could never be one of them.” But all knowledge of Nazis confirms that they were precisely corrupt psychopathic thugs, in all of their dealings. The fact that they had an ideology does not enlarge them in any way; thugs invariably have a code of “honor,” or a list of grievances, or a justifying rationale. If Spielberg had emphasized the dogma of the Final Solution, that bizarre amalgam of Teutonic mythologizing, historical fabrication, and fruitcake pseudoscience, would he have shaken our presumed complacency that we could never be one of “them”? Corrupt psychopathic thugs are invariably human, and Schindler’s List presents them as such. Its characterization of SS officer Amon Goeth is the most sustained in the film, but Kuspit refers only to Goeth’s sadism, ignoring his deep confusion and his brief, unsuccessful attempts to accommodate other impulses. Spielberg’s decision to explore Goeth’s emotional life rather than his SS catechism was sound; the psychosexual basis of Nazism is as much to be feared as its fantastical ideas.

—G. Kagan
New York City

Donald Kuspit replies:
Schindler’s List is a triumph of simplemindedness—always Spielberg’s strength. I tried to signal as much in my review by discussing the film’s use of Jewish and Nazi stereotypes; Mr. Brahm suggests that I overdid it by “approaching an erasure of the difference between [Nazi] criminal and [Jewish] victim.” In fact, pace Hannah Arendt, there is a kind of “Eichmann inside each one of us”—not the bureaucratic Eichmann but the destructive, unempathic Eichmann. (After all, what Eichmann was administering was death.) Arendt fails to examine the roots of destructiveness and hatred in all human beings; her understanding of Eichmann’s psychology is superficial, however well she understands the social reasons for his behavior. I am not denying, as G. Kagan thinks, that the Nazis were “corrupt psychopathic thugs,” I am arguing that every human being is capable of becoming a corrupt psychopathic thug, remorselessly—unfeelingly—destructive.

As for Kagan’s point about purity, purity is a key issue for Jews, as is indicated by the concept of kosher, the ritual cleansing required of Jewish women after menstruation, the claim of a privileged relationship with God, and the view of marriage outside the faith as a defilement. There is of course a range of Jewish opinion on these subjects, just as Jews occupy a range of degrees of secularization; but these ideas are at Judaism’s traditional core. And the Nazis obviously made no distinction between secular or assimilated Jews and those who practiced the faith.

The Jews’ view of themselves as “pure” or “chosen,” their prejudice in favor of themselves, hardly exhausts the terms for understanding them, but must be a part of that understanding. This kind of self-privileging, of course, is not unique to Judaism; in varying intensities, it is a characteristic of all religions, indeed of all groups in their efforts to forge a group identity. Such differentiation always risks becoming an elevation of the group’s humanity over the humanity of everyone else. In his book The Nazi Doctors, Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, Robert Jay Lifton notes the “racial-eugenic passion” in “the early [pre-Nazi] German focus on a specific racial entity, the ‘Nordic’ or ‘Aryan race,’” and also in the United States, where, in the ’20s, “fear of ‘national degeneration’ and the threat to the health of ‘the civilized races’” created “impulses to sterilize large numbers of criminals and mental patients.” This notion of “life unworthy of life” has no place in Jewish tradition. But the Jews’ belief in their chosenness—in their spiritual “hereditary worth”—at times seems to spill over into a conception of their biological “hereditary worth” as a group.

Kagan says that I use “as a metaphor for the Holocaust the contested baby brought before Solomon.” Actually, I use it as a metaphor for the film. One of the points of my review was to suggest that the film is not about Schindler, who becomes simply a device to separate Jew from Nazi—a kind of medieval scale of justice, in which the saved rise to heaven and the damned sink to hell. Schindler, in other words, is another strategy of simple-mindedness. And it doesn’t matter whether the baby judged by Solomon was or was not referred to in the film: criticism does not have to limit itself to the terms of an art to address it.

The inadequacy of Spielberg’s treatment of Schindler is indicated by the failure to convey the motivation for Schindler’s “conversion”—his unconscious identification with the Jews. It is hard to believe that it came upon him all at once, like a bad mood caused when the destruction of the Kraków ghetto ruined his horseback ride with his girlfriend. This road-to-Damascus scenario is a startling example of Spielberg’s facile view of people and society. In general, Spielberg’s film hardly examines the lives of its protagonists. How, for example, did the Germans rationalize the Holocaust to themselves—a rationale that made the catastrophe possible? Preparing his troops for the Kraków massacre, Goetz tells them that they are about to change history—to end the hundreds of years of Jewish residence in the city. Nowhere does Spielberg explore why it was so important to the Nazis to change or undo history, an exploration clearly crucial for understanding them. It is the refusal to probe such motives that leaves us with a picture of the Nazis as simply evil.

Brahm is right to point out “that a shower scene is the inappropriate fodder of Hollywood spectacle.” But he needs to go farther: Spielberg’s film is inappropriate through and through, from its shower scene—and another scene similarly exploiting the female breast in true Hollywood fashion, the “love” scene between Goeth and his wet-from-the-bath Jewish maid—through its use of the docudrama mode down to its pseudorealistic, grainy black and white. Schindler’s List exemplifies what Adorno called the jargon of authenticity: it takes an event that was “authentic”—the event through which the Nazis once and for all attempted to define themselves, as well as the Jews—and turns it into a cliché. Are the Jews in the “Jaws” of the Nazis? Are they throwbacks to the age of the dinosaurs? Is Schindler E.T.? Spielberg is a great manipulator of texts, but unlike other post-Modernists he manipulates them to no point.