A few weeks ago, when I was looking for a clip of Seinfeld making out with his girlfriend during Schindler’s List, I stumbled upon an article called Listless. The writer of the article, Liel Leibovitz, declares that “Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is both a moral and an aesthetic disaster, an embodiment of much that is wrong with American-Jewish life.”
I don’t want to defend or critique his article; I simply want to respond to it because I found it a compelling read.
I imagine that, for many people, it is shocking to hear someone say that Schindler’s List is a terrible film. It is probably even more shocking to hear a Jewish person say that. I was not shocked. In college, I stumbled upon a book, a collection of essays, called Spielberg’s Holocaust, which collected scholarly essays about the film. Not all of the essays were overwhelmingly positive about the film. One essay even laid its cards on the table from the very beginning, called “But is it good for Jews?” I was stunned when I discovered that article.
When I read the article, I was surprised to find out that I agreed with some of its key points. Particularly, the writer pointed out something that I noticed the first time I watched the film. The main character is a German. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but I did not feel emotionally connected to the Jewish characters. Leibovitz describes the phenomenon as follows. “Schindler’s Jews do not matter. They’re abstractions, spiritual currency so that our “hero” can pay his way toward salvation.” They are rather nondescript and interchangeable, and this is most noticeable at the end of the film. I remember seeing the progression of the actors and their real life counterparts walking past Schindler’s grave, and thinking, “Ok, now who is that person again?” I recognized the actors, but I cannot describe any of the characters in great detail. They lack development and individualized personalities. It is a shortcoming of the film, I can certainly agree with that. (Being a younger woman at the time, I was also disappointed that the women were very much in the background. I found it funny that the women were little more than random victims in the film, considering that the most famous Holocaust victim is a woman, or rather, a young woman, Anne Frank.)
The article also criticizes the depiction of Amon Goethe in the film. “(Amon Goethe) is a monster; it’s no coincidence that the American Film Institute ranked Goeth at number 15 in its list of the 100 greatest villains of all time, just one spot below the slimy creature who terrorized Sigourney Weaver in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Goeth, too, is an otherworldly sort. He is not, like the real-life murderer on whom he is based, merely a hateful, opportunistic, and cruel young man who relished the chance to play god. He is impenetrable, predatory, inhuman. We have little reason to fear him more than we fear, say, the Nazis in Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark or the shark from Jaws; all are terrifying, but all are the sort of baddies we’ll only ever see on-screen, not the kind of ordinary and crooked and all-too-human scum living quietly next door and waiting for a stab at power.” I will agree with this to a certain extent. The film tries to make Amon Goethe seem human by showing him attracted to his Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch, and contemplating raping her. (Think about that for a second. He’s human because he wants to rape.) However, does contemplating rape really show someone’s humanity?
At the same time, I think that Spielberg, and every filmmaker who makes a film about the Holocaust, is in a terrible bind in its portrayal of the Nazis, especially the camp guards. It is perfectly understandable why a filmmaker would want to stress that the people who worked at the camps were not corporeal demons, but rather human beings who took it upon themselves to kill their fellow human beings. First of all, it is true. Second of all, as Judgement of Nuremberg states, if the guards were demons, then the event holds no warning for us. However, how is this accomplished, and what happens if this goes wrong?
A good example of that is The Reader. The film tries to portray Hanna Schmidt (a guard at Auschwitz) as a real person, and portray her in a more ambiguous light. The film received severe criticism in the United States for making her sympathetic and for downplaying the nature of her crimes. I do not believe that the filmmakers intended to mitigate the crime of the Holocaust, however, I do believe the criticism is warranted. (I actually think that a large part of the difficulty stems from casting a star as the role of Hanna. An unknown actress would have been a far better choice. But that is another discussion for another day.) Even more striking, I read one critical review that expressed outrage when Kate Winslet (I believe) stated that the Holocaust was perpetrated by ordinary people. Clearly, the portrayal of concentration camp guards is a terrible minefield, and I don’t blame Spielberg for going to the lowest common denominator.
Second of all, I do want to reference one of the comments to this post. The comment tells the story of a talk at a synagogue in which the speaker brought up just this objection to Amon Goethe. He was not a flesh and blood villain, but an inhuman monster. A member of the audience, a Holocaust survivor, stood up and said, “But that’s exactly what they were like!” It is easy for us to look back and declare that the guards were human beings, not monstrous extraterrestrials, but is that how they would have seemed to the prisoners? I doubt they saw much evidence of the guard’s humanity. In Hope Is The Last To Die, Halina describes a rare moment of mercy from a guard. For a moment, he seemed human, and she tried to embrace him to thank him. He struck her. That was the limit of his humanity. It is possible that the prisoners saw flashes of humanity from the guards from time to time, but the guards were true believers in Nazi ideology. The flashes must have been few and far between.
(The article also addresses the idea that American Holocaust films are “upbeat” or about those who survived, as opposed to those who died. This is very true, and deserves its own post, so I won’t address that here.)
The last point to which I want to respond is the idea of the “closing of the Jewish mind.” Liel Leibovitz talks at lengths about the idea that Jewish culture is becoming increasingly insular. He does not seem to be alone in that idea. Simon Schama is also afraid that Judaism is becoming “walled off” from difficult confrontations. In the shadow of the walls at the West Bank, he offers a huge caveat that he does not have the right to judge the building of the wall. After giving that caveat, he then expresses his belief that encounter is at the heart of Judaism, encounters between men and God, between different cultures, and even enemy brothers! He fears that this openness and celebration of encounter will not survive the building of the wall. When I was in college, my Holocaust class professor also worried (both in class and in his essay) that “Never Again” could mean “Never Again For Us.” He argued that Judaism must be open to the sufferings of others and concerned with the welfare of all mankind.
Are these fears common? I have no idea. I’m not Jewish, so I have no firsthand experience. It is possible that this is a common worry among the Jewish community; it is also equally possible that I have found the only three Jewish men who feel that Jewish society is becoming insular.
I’m also not sure that Holocaust discussions are the best test case for determining a culture’s openness to diverse opinions. The subject is still so raw, so painful, and so terrifying, that people can have extreme reactions to the subject. Dick Feagler, a local columnist in Cleveland, discovered that first hand. A few years ago, he described a column he wrote about John Dimjanuk. He was a man who lived near Akron and was tried in Israel for being “Ivan the Terrible,” a notorious concentration camp guard. He had been found guilty and was sentenced to death, and had appealed his case to the Israeli Supreme Court. Dick Feagler wrote a column in which he said, “Before we execute this man, let’s be absolutely sure he is who we think he is.” A man wrote to Dick Feagler and called him, “A dyed in the wool anti-semite.” (For the record, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the conviction, though he was later tried in Germany for being a guard. I believe he died before the trial completed.) Dick Feagler concluded that there were some subjects so polarizing, so painful, that discussion about them is almost impossible.
But I do not want to talk about insularity withing Judaism. I’m not qualified to speak on that subject. I DO want to talk about the problem of insularity within American culture as a whole. I commented in my previous post that the internet is fundamentally paradoxical. On the one hand, we have access to information and people in a way that was previously unthinkable. I can go onto Youtube and watch videos made by people from Germany, India, South Africa, Israel, Australia, and so forth. We can read articles written by people of a wide variety of political, religious, social, cultural, and artistic opinions.
At the same time, Google’s search algorithms are becoming increasingly sophisticated, making it easier and easier for Google to anticipate our opinions and feed us websites that reinforce our preconceived notions. We become lazier and lazier, nodding in agreement as we read and saying “That’s right” as we watch videos without even bothering to engage the arguments. We don’t have to engage them; we agree with them. We become intellectually identical to Pavlov’s dogs. Pavlov was able to train dogs to salivate to the sound of a bell by ringing a bell before feeding them. In the same way, we salivate to ideas that we already accept and further condition ourselves to salivate to these ideas, rather than train ourselves to think, converse, and argue productively.
We see this most clearly when we encounter a person who does not accept our arguments and salivate to the same bell to which we salivate. The evidence surrounds us. Is there anything more horrific, more upsetting, and more disgusting than reading internet comments? We encounter an opposing argument and we no longer know how to respond. Couple this with the absolute anonymity of the internet, and society becomes a cesspool of hate devoid of all substantive thought.
I saw this first hand after the 2012 election. I have Facebook friends on literally both ends of the spectrum, and then on a different spectrum as well. One of them was so upset with the results of the election that she began “purging” her friends list. At one point, she literally said, “Like Minded or Bust!” (I was also friends with one of the people who did not survive the purge. That friend responded with grace and friendship. Who knows if others did?) However, what does this response say about the state of our society? When we lose an election, do we pack up our toys and go home, or lift up the ladder to the tree house? Do we retreat even deeper into the echo chamber? Even worse, are we even aware that we live in an echo chamber? I’ve seen people shocked
It is a strange age in which we now live. We have the opportunity to truly encounter a wide variety of viewpoints and ideas, not simply political ideas, and yet we are becoming increasingly insular and less tolerant of opposing views. It is possible that Liel Leibovitz’s concerns about the Jewish community are simply symptomatic of the American society at large. I certainly believe that the country would be a much healthier place if every American home subscribed to both The New Republic and The National Review and read them regularly. Even if no one changed their mind, we would all learn how to think and how others think. We may also learn how to have meaningful conversations without resorting to this.