Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Schindler’s List - Spielberg (1993)

 Schindler’s List, which might have been called Schindler’s Memorial, would have benefited from some old-school studio intervention. Spielberg wasn't going for an edge-of-your seat thriller but something between an action-packed biopic and a period drama with an epilogue, so the observation that he allows the punch of the film, which is considerable, to dissipate in the solemn commemorative festivities that conclude it, is somewhat gratuitous, if not disrespectful. It nonetheless points to a flaw of the work as an aesthetic totality. The documentary style present-day homage feels tacked-on, like a special feature incorporated into the body of the film. You can't append a sermon to a drama, even a wordless sermon to a fact-based world-historical tragedy, and avoid tendentiousness. Especially when the film itself includes an explicitly stated moral in the form of a speech from the mouth of its eponymous 'hero.' Spielberg's humanitarian gesture thus constitutes a dual violation--it detracts from the film's formal dramatic integrity and the genuine solemnity of honoring extermination victims

But lest I dissuade anyone from seeing the film: rest assured, there is plenty of killing. The victims, for the most part, are Jews who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong historical hour facing resolutely eliminative Nazis. The hokum with the tribute doesn't detract from the power of the film that precedes it. Spielberg's emplotment of the annihilation of the Continent's ill-fated Jews, carried out with casual efficiency--not to mention beauty--makes Schindler’s List an instant, if not seminal, classic. It's originality outside the context of its prototypes--Jakubowska's The Last Stage (1947), Pentecorvo's Kapo (1959)--is easily overstated, but it's iconography of Holocaust horrors is unique.

There isn't any actual shooting until forty minutes into the film, which is remarkable considering it's reputation as an endless series of artfully staged executions. The wait is well-calibrated for optimal effect, though the actual sequence feels almost like a slight-of-hand, its matter-of-fact precision and great visual beauty are unforgettable. 

In it the figure of an old man--the one-armed man Stern managed to have transferred to Schindler's workforce at the eleventh hour--is framed by columns of ghetto residents clearing the street in zoom. He stands slumped over facing a wall between two implacable SS officers as shovel-fulls of snow are thrown left and right, briefly obscuring our view. Culled from the line of workers for his want of productivity (assuming his selection wasn't pure caprice), the man points out his special status but makes no further appeal for mercy, standing frozen where his over-seers have positioned him. Having for all purposes already exited the world of humanity, his execution is a mere formality.

The conscripted Jews assiduously apply themselves to shoveling. When two siblings pear in the direction of the three men their mother, attempting to redirect their curiosity, exhorts them to ‘look at the snow!' In deep focus one officer stands imperiously just behind the old man, his pistol-wielding arm stretched out in the direction of his head. Snow is flying across the screen as the shot is fired. A dot of white signaling the bullet’s ejection is answered by what looks like black ink shooting out of the man’s head just before his body sinks to the ground like a wet sheet from a cloths-line. It's a kinesthetic marvel in a film replete with masterful visuals. 

Cut to Schindler in an office decrying the loss of work-force and demanding compensation. Then back to the old man lying face-up, slowly imbuing the snow with his blood.

Spielberg himself makes no attempt to spell out what made killing Jews irresistible to Deaths' Head functionaries. It suffices that the perpetrators of the slaughter are there--as ciphers of Pure Evil. His film focuses instead on explaining why a man, untouched by eliminationist zeal, would go out of his way to throw a monkey wrench in the orderly process of ethnic cleansing. Though it's made quite clear that Schindler’s motivation was largely economic. Or in some perhaps ungaugable proportion moral and economic. 

The night-time arrival of a train in Aushwitz, with people descending into the bowels of the crematoria as snow falls and the chimneys glow, throwing up clouds of glowing ash, is unforgettable. On repeat viewing I discovered that my memory had assembled a single master-shot of the sequence that exists on film only as separate shots of the various elements. A fact for which I credit the magic of film-construction (editing) rather than the resourcefulness of my memory. The two work in tandem to create such totalizations, a fact that perfectly illustrates the synergy of spontaneity and convention at the assimmilative end of artistic creation.

It is during this scene that the disparity between a formal, shot-analytic (aesthetic) approach to the horror of the Holocaust becomes conspicuous. One could of course just acknowledge that the spectacle of mass extermination has its own distinct beauty qua mounted visual production, but then one must also accept that the aesthetic point-of-view, as either pre- or post-moral, over-rides the moral. This displacement is precisely what the taboo against cinematic treatments of the holocaust was concerned to obviate. The visual-auditory perspective's pleasures are beyond the morally crucial disjunction of good vs. evil. Not because it is cynical or immoral, but because it is abstractive; it brings to bear the same power of concentration (focus/ selection and therewith omission/elimination) informing both the artist's construction and, here, the act (art) of making entire communities disappear.

Has Spielberg put this dilemma to rest? has he vindicated the capacity of the medium of cinema to 'mount' the Holocaust in such a manner as not to dishonor or trivialize the memory of its victims? Perhaps. I'm not certain, but at least I am not convinced that he has traduced that memory. It is his prerogative and perhaps even his duty as an artist to conceive the inconceivable. For is there not a danger comparable to misconceiving the inconceivable? namely to mythologize as irreducibly unique the brutalization of Jews during the Holocaust? to institutionalize it as untouchable and sacred?

The film celebrates lighting effects, of which it is a kind of compendium. One obvious example: the panning beam that illuminates Goeth’s villa in the background while Schindler and Stern negotiate. Some of the indoor shots are elaborately lit with all the nuance of German expressionist aesthetic adopted by so-called film noir cinematography, with figures obviously standing in spot-lights that have no source in the "actual" locations the occupy. The high-contrast luminescence flattens features and obliterats detail. 

The zoom lensing during Schindler’s hill-top epiphany evokes the documentary feel of films like The Battle of Algiers, with its epic crowd scenes. I was frequently reminded of Toland’s use of ceilings to frame his figures. A rather mannered approach, but then Kane was the brain-child of one of cinema’s most turgid over-the-toppers (stylistic maximalists). There is a shot in the sewers that looks like a wide-screen version of the famous sequence in The Third Man. Near the end there are a couple of miraculous shots of snow-covered rural wonderlands traversed by a smoke-spewing locomotive that call to mind the conclusion of Grand Illusion. Not just a work of remembrance and a gesture of tribal solidarity, Schindler’s List, in its black & white neue Sachlichkeit, is a magisterial homage to the art of cinematography. 

The duality of light and dark enforces moral clarity. Or at least--the polarity that informs a dualistic version of the world riven by the forces of good and evil. A vision which, in its Judaic embodiment, is inseparable from the dialectic of obedience and transgression, repentance and forgiveness. It is a tribute to his post-dualistic appreciation of the grey zone that mediates and complicates simple oppositions that the portrait of Schindler emerges as ambiguously as it does. The portrait of an opportunistic profiteer and well-nigh unwitting humanitarian who embraces his philanthropic potential almost as an after-thought. But the bottom line is that lives set for extinction are saved, and that fact strikes us as miraculous. No wonder his beneficiaries were moved to pay solemn tribute, leavened though it must be with a portion of bitterness. 

During he evacuation of the ghetto a father obstructs the line of fire of an SS man attempting to shoot his fleeing son only to be shot down himself to blood-curdling and horrific effect. It is the first time in the film when I felt over-taxed by the excess of violence, though the frisson that surged through me was as much a response to the formal brilliance of this wallop-packing sequence as to the abrupt brutality of the SS man’s "order-keeping." A dovetailing of executions (literal and formal) that will only seem problematical to men of conscience (those who should pen sermons, not write about art).

The cinema-vérité approach is perfect in such instances, canceling any distance between audience, perpetrator and victim. It was intended for precisely such moments of heightened immediacy, acting as a kind of exclamation point. The default use of this technique, where every sequence is rendered to significance-heightening effect, is arch, hysterical and mannered. Thankfully, it is a mannerism Spielberg avoids. 

As for the cast, Kingsley just looks too jewish, while Liam Nesson resembles a hapless bear and has difficulty conveying a believable level of callousness. Fiennes a bloated fairy-prince who appeals to pre-pubescent girls, is a bit too delicate to portray the colossal Goeth. He does manage to convey the appropriate malice, progressively modulated by a sense of compassion inspired by his friendship with Schindler, who informs him that real power resides in refraining from the gratuitous violence to which the situation of the work-camp tempts some. It's enough to make him question his proclivity to randomly torment and shoot Plaszow inmates. Though not to the point of canceling his need to randomly pick them off from his perch above the campground. Besides his spell of clemency we don’t get any sense of his ideals as a person (Goeth can be seen hailing his Leader seconds before a chair is kicked out from under him in archival footage of his execution). Instead, the film shows us a man who is clearly insane. 

There is one brilliant sequence which plays with our expectations of moral regeneration that I can’t praise enough. Having pardoned a young servant for using soap instead of lye in his bathtub, Goeth sends him away. The boy descends from the villa while Goeth in close-up stands scrutinizing his dark reflection in a mirror. He raises two fingers in a Christ-like gesture and in mesmerized incantation announces, “I...pardon you.” As if he were trying on the part of pardoning judge to gauge it's potential to empower before reverting to the baser but more accessible thrill of playing executioner. Cut to the boy at the bottom of the flight of stairs as he proceeds across the camp grounds. Then back to Goeth; his faux-transcendent moment dissolving back to the here and now as he examines his fingers for what appears to be an irritating spar. He looks pensively up in the direction of the youth. Shots are fired. The youth pauses briefly, casting a glance in the direction of the villa before continuing on his way. Just then Stern passes. In a tracking shot we now follow him as he overtakes the youth lying face-down in the dirt. Cut to an extreme close-up of Goeth’s hands being manicured by his Jewish servant and love-interest. The scene ends on a close-up of Goeth looking almost innocent. He is in love. 

We have come a long way since Adorno’s post-war exhortation that to write poetry after Aushwitz would be barbarous. Evil seems less and less ineffable these days. It has been on the tip of cinema’s tongue with increasing sang-froid since the early days of crime & detective stories shot in German expressionist style. Now we have finally advanced into the inner sanctum of the holocaust itself--the "Brausebad"). In Schindler’s List we are led in with the huddling masses covering their nakedness in a modern-day expulsion from paradise, expect that paradise is here life per se.  They wail and moan awaiting a fate no one ever quite believed, even at the 11th hour, a human mind could dream up. A "final solution" with no exit, beyond mercy.

But this is Hollywood,  so rather than Xyclon-B, actual water streams down out of the shower-heads, to the ecstatic relief of all and sundry. For this group of Schindler Jews the end-of-the-road has not yet come. They really are being disinfected. However historically accurate the scene may be, it feels like the kind of vicarious collective miracle cinema’s miracle-workers strive to produce. The fact that it is staged with such sweeping gestures and swelling chords makes it all the more effective--and, strangely, offensive.    

This film might have ended less tendentiously had Spielberg saved his commemoration for an extra features of a DVD release. As it is, he has made a masterful film with an epilogue that seems tacked-on, and sanctimoniously manipulative. What made this film exceptional was the relative absence of sentimentality, so its implementation at the end seems like the return of the repressed, and it returns with a vengeance. Granted, there are notable lapses in the rest of the film, mostly pertaining to the scoring (the children’s choir during the liquidation of the ghetto; a chorus and soaring strings accompanying the exhumation and burning of corpses at Chujow Gorka, etc.). They would be less objectionable in the absence of Schindler’s indulgent, self-reproach filled speech and the grave-site tribute of modern day survivors. The film already had enough pensive self-reflective moments slowing things down (viz. the drinking scene with Stern). It is as if Spielberg could not leave well enough alone and felt compelled to spell out what should have been left to the viewer’s imagination. Such explicitness does not make the film any more moral, just more formally commemorative.

As it is a film that matter-of-factly emplots the systematic depersonalization and destruction of persons and goes to great lengths to show Schindler in all his pragmatic fallibility, ends with a paean to character. And instead of returning home in a state of shocked outrage, we leave the theater with a sense of surfeit, a fact that would be forgivable were final impressions not so crucial to a film’s legacy. 

As descendant of the Tätervolk I feel the shame of the perpetrators more intimately than those whose ethnic identifications allow them to view the Holocaust as the unique derangement of a hateful foreign people. I have never been one who could see it as the logical out-come of Germany's history, authoritarian or otherwise. The obligation to attempt to comprehend the motivation of Hitler's henchmen, as grotesque as it seems, imposes itself. But this self-imposed duty is effective in the context of attempting to understand crimes and sacrifices on the part of those who would have been my brothers in arms had I been their contemporary. Yet there are limits to understanding. To see an entire ethnicity as carrier of a contagious degenerative disease threatening the health of the Volk is just too fanciful. Though no more fanciful than the belief the 'the' Germans were Jew-haters of eliminative propensity one and all. That kind of madness is reserved for true believers, and it is at least questionable whether they were any more numerous among Germans than Europeans of other nations. Ethnic identification that is anything more than a linguistic-territorial sense of belonging always runs the risk of distortion and xenophobia (witness present day Israel). 

I do not subscribe to the idea that one can humanize National Socialists too much. A film that normalized the unthinkable by putting us in the hearts and minds of its perpetrators (viz. demythologizing them) would actually further humanize the victims. Paradoxical as that may seem. It would drive home not just the evil of those who murdered, but the absurdity of the whole racist distortion of culture, in addition to s
howing what an arbitrary and tragic waste the German (or rather Hitler's) war effort was. Perhaps it is unavoidable that the work of mourning confronting anyone who contemplates the fate of Europe during the Second World War picks and chooses its victims.That Spielberg's film does so by focusing one his own people rather than Poles, gypsies, Jehovah's witnesses, POWS, or any other victim group, is understandable given that he was telling a specific story. Its specific fate is emblematic of the fate of humanity writ large.

WWII is an inexhaustible source of drama.
Someone a bit more cynical should develop a triptych dealing with the Ilse Kochs, Maria Mandels, and Irma Greses of that world conflagration. To the best of my knowledge no one has tackled Goebbels, Hess, or Speer. Presumably because an effort of such expense and magnitude is only justified if it edifies.

In spite of its shortcomings, Schindler belongs on the short list of great World War II films. Its camp-scenes are incomparable. Polanski may have been able to avoid the melodrama of Schindler’s confession, but it’s hard to imagine he or anyone could have improved on the mis-en-scène of concentration camp life.

Other films on my list of war fims: Rome: Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero, Le Silence de la Mer, Murderers Are Among Us, Decision before Dawn, The One that Got Away, Mr. Klein, Lacomb, Lucien,  The Ascent, Das Boot, Come and See, The Tin Drum, The Wannsee Conference, Europa (Zentropa), Les Misérables (Lelouch), Black Book.   

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