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TV REVIEWS : The Real-Life Enigma of Oskar Schindler

March 19, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER

Filmmaker Jon Blair, whose 10-year-old British documentary about Oskar Schindler airs tonight just before those other Oscars, has recently fretted on the record that he never "cracked" the Schindler enigma.

"I always felt it was a weakness in my film that I couldn't explain Schindler's motivation," Blair said about the man who rescued 1,100 Jews from the Nazi ovens, "and ("Schindler's List" director Steven) Spielberg told me the same about his. . . ."

Blair--and Spielberg--needn't fret. That very enigma is what lends Blair's 90-minute "Schindler"--and "Schindler's List"--the quality of art. And art, as Alain Resnais powerfully demonstrated in his documentary about the Nazi concentration camps, "Night and Fog," is not off-limits to factual reports of the Holocaust.

As in "Schindler's List," the salesman-turned-Nazi spy-turned-industrialist emerges as a human prism, perceived as the perceiver wishes him to be. Thus, Ruth Kalder, the emphysema-sticken mistress of Plaszow camp commandant Amon Goeth, defends her reputedly sadistic lover by denying that Schindler "loved Jews." Kalder may have known a side to the man he didn't show others. Yet only she and Joachim Kinstlinger, a member of Schindler's list of Jews sheltered in his munitions factory, say on camera that Schindler was an opportunist.

From another side of the Schindler prism, he was an angel of mercy. In the film's most dramatic sequence--one severely truncated in Spielberg's version--women survivors recall being transported to the Auschwitz death camp after having worked under Schindler's protection. They waited for months to see if their angel would arrive. He finally did, after being arrested himself.

At the same time, Blair explicitly shows how Schindler made himself wealthy at the very moment of Germany's greatest desperation. He mastered the art of black-market trade, thought nothing of buying a luxury car, and easily bribed key officials with diamonds to buy his own protection from the SS.

Yet even here, the enigma remains. At a certain point, Schindler allowed his humanity to overtake his good business sense: The list survivors recall how they were pathetically unskilled at producing usable weapons parts in Schindler's factory, and how their angel-boss had to buy quality parts on the black market to cover for his Jewish workers.

While Blair doesn't give us a glimpse of Schindler's loyal assistant, Stern, he includes a rich, postwar epilogue missing from "Schindler's List." There is Schindler's ironic and harrowing escape from the advancing victorious Soviet army (he was disguised as a camp survivor). There is his aimless life in Argentina and Germany (he appears alone and lost in the Frankfurt streets in a film clip shot in the '60s). Finally, there are the tributes in Israel. Schindler loved a party, and the guardian angel got one from people who never puzzled over niceties like "motivation."

* "Schindler" airs at 8 tonight on KCOP-TV Channel 13.

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