Soap opera with jackboots?

Spielberg's Holocaust
January 23, 1998

Few films of recent years have carried the moral cachet of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. Hailed at times as the definitive film account of the Holocaust, the work demonstrated good intentions sufficient to inhibit criticism from many who doubted its virtues either as art or as exposition. "Criticising the deep fabric and texture of the film in front of people moved to tears and beyond seems an act of profound insensitivity,'' writes Sara R. Horowitz in Spielberg's Holocaust. "Yet to agree with the effusive praise heaped on the film I find equally difficult."

The same is true for most of the other 11 contributors to this provocative collection of essays. The impact of Schindler's List, they all agree, was extraordinary. Yet the means by which the impact was achieved were often questionable and occasionally repulsive.

For some writers this is nowhere more true than in the film's representation of Jews. While Judith E. Doneson writes of Jews "feminised'' by their subservience, Omer Bartov deplores their depiction as haunched, haggling black marketeers whose wheedling is contrasted with the heroic Schindler's aggressive but ultimately benevolent capitalism.

Several of the film's pivotal scenes also draw fire, in particular Amon Goeth's beating of half-dressed Helen Hirsch and, even more so, the sequence in which naked women shake with fear in what they mistakenly believe is a gas chamber. Cheap thrills, believes Horowitz, not unlike those offered by pornographic movies. Geoffrey C. Hartman detects no such low purpose in the gas chamber scene, dismissing it instead as "Hollywood kitsch''.

Hartman's is an instructive and generally representative phrase. Hollywood, runs the argument, is a place from which one expects saccharine and spectacle rather than historical accuracy. Throw in a couple of narrow escapes (Itzhak Stern rescued from a death convoy, for example, or that gas chamber scene) plus an expediently lugubrious finale and the result is a profitable, popcorn Holocaust.

If some critics felt strongly enough about this to accuse Spielberg of indulging in "Shoah (Holocaust) business'', others reasoned that, in this case at least, bad history was better than none at all. With this in mind, Bartov recalls the consciousness-raising effect in Germany of the 1978 American television mini-series Holocaust, then frequently condemned as soap opera with jackboots.

Nowhere is this principle more strenuously resisted than by Claude Lanzmann, the maker of the marathon Shoah. Miriam Bratu Hansen shows that Lanzmann's rejection of archival footage or dramatic reconstruction in favour of direct testimony stemmed from a belief that any attempt to represent what is by definition unrepresentable is bound, even at best, to produce the grotesquely reductive melodrama that is Schindler's List. Not that Hansen totally agrees; along with a number of other contributors, she denies the film masterpiece status while at the same time acknowledging its sometimes considerable merits.

Liliane Weissberg observes that German critics showed no such caution, many welcoming an opportunity to focus on one German who showed that not all were bad at the worst of times. More disapproving voices were heard in Israel where, as Haim Bresheeth's penetrating piece suggests, state ideologists once looked with some disdain at those European Jews who had gone passively to the gas chambers. Had they come from any other source the vicious notices meted out to Spielberg by some Israeli critics would surely have drawn accusations of anti-Semitism.

Students should ponder this paradox and others in a book that, despite its omissions - Spielberg's controversial use of the little girl in the red coat might have been discussed at length, as should the Arab boycott of the film - still possesses range and insight. The undoubted technical merits of the film meant that too many people, students included, were perhaps too easily impressed by Schindler's List; this book will make them think again.

Laurence Alster is head of media studies, South Downs College, Hampshire.

Spielberg's Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler's List

Editor - Yosefa Loshitzky
ISBN - 0 253 33232X and 21098 4
Publisher - Indiana University Press
Price - £33.50 and £14.99
Pages - 250

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