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Commentary : Why the 'Schindler's List' Backlash? : Charges that the Holocaust has been 'Spielbergized' may conceal the deeper belief that it shouldn't be dramatized at all

January 30, 1994|PETER RAINER | Peter Rainer is a Times staff writer

"Schindler's List" has won the best picture award from all three major film critics' societies, so it's not surprising a backlash should set in. Highly acclaimed movies usually inspire counterinsurgencies, and sometimes the back talk is even justified: Critics groups, along with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, have a way of favoring the safe and respectable over the innovative and the disreputable. But the "Schindler's List" backlash is somewhat unique for appearing to be less a corrective to the overpraise than a cry of betrayal.

It's one thing to argue that "Schindler's List" is something less than a masterpiece. I would concur in that. As powerful as it is, it's a bit too buffed and noble, it doesn't have the clarifying transcendence of great art.

But the outrage goes deeper. What the naysayers are saying is that Steven Spielberg has, in the words of the Village Voice's Jim Hoberman, "Spielbergized" the Holocaust. He's made "a feel-good entertainment about the ultimate feel-bad experience of the 20th Century." Hoberman--who at least has the distinction, along with the New Republic's Leon Wieseltier, of writing the film's best knock--also writes: "The poster of a father grasping a child's hand is not the only aspect of 'Schindler's List' that recalls 'E.T.' "

Frank Rich, in the New York Times, refers to the scene where Oskar Schindler "gives a sentimental speech to the Jewish factory workers he saved, and they look up at him awe-struck, as if he were the levitating mother ship in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind.' " (Wieseltier's piece is titled "Close Encounters of the Nazi Kind.") Excepting Ben Kingsley's Jewish accountant, Rich describes the other Jewish characters as "generic"--"as forgettable as the chorus in a touring company of 'Fiddler on the Roof' or, for that matter, the human dino-fodder of 'Jurassic Park.' "

One would like to put these critics to the test: If it could be rigged to show that an unremarked young American or British director had made "Schindler's List," would the references to the mother ship in "Close Encounters" or "E.T." spring so readily to mind? One of the real-life Schindler survivors said of Schindler, "He was our everything, our mother, our father, our savior," and her remark is representative. This closing moment in the movie is appropriately full of awe because so were the Jews in the presence of the man who finally saved them.

Can anybody look at this film and seriously assume Spielberg invested the same emotional energy in characterizing its Jewish protagonists as he did in knocking over the screamers in "Jurassic Park"? Rich wishes that the Schindler Jews were as "individually and intimately dramatized as Anne Frank or even Meryl Streep's "Sophie," but, of course, Anne Frank is symbolic if any human being ever were, and, as long as we're overcorrecting, Sophie the Auschwitz survivor was Gentile, not Jewish.

This "generic" rap against the Jews in "Schindler's List" doesn't allow for its many piercing moments of human loss. How can it be said that the Jewish maid of the mad Nazi Amon Goeth is just a generic blur? Her hair-trigger terror around Goeth, her shuddering self-will, is entirely specific to her predicament. When the Jewish servant boy of Goeth is at first "pardoned" for failing to remove a bathtub ring and then, almost as an afterthought, shot in the back, the moment is casually horrific. Like so much in the film, the death belongs to the individual but it has a collective horror. There's no way to dramatize the Holocaust without invoking this collectivity; each death assumes millions.

Behind these criticisms may lie the deeper conviction that the Holocaust should not be dramatized at all--by anybody; that however one does so is a disservice, an obscenity. This is not a new concept. Jonathan Kirsch, in his pan of "Schindler's List" in the Jewish Journal, quotes Theodor Adorno: "After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric." That may be so, but isn't it also essential? And can one rule out dramatizations of the Holocaust as somehow beyond the grasp of art without also ruling out all dramatizations of life's horrors? Is "Schindler's List" any less defensible than, say, "Gettysburg"?

Kirsch compares the scene in the film where a trainload of women are mistakenly routed to Auschwitz to "The Perils of Pauline." Fearing they will be gassed, the women are shaved and herded into the showers. But they are not gassed. Hoberman calls the sequence, with its "thriller suspense and last-minute rescue," the film's "nadir." So now Spielberg's narrative gifts--the same gifts that brought him to the preeminent position to make a Holocaust movie, in black-and-white, in Hollywood--are being held against him. (Charles Dickens employed suspense and last-minute rescues for emotional effect too. Why the double standard?)

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