I had decided to see the movie Schindler’s List by myself. In fact, I was in two minds about seeing the film at all. I have always had a hard time viewing portrayals of dark and violent inhumanities inflicted upon helpless people–especially women, children, and the elderly. I can handle most of the typical Hollywood versions of violence; they are so gratuitous as to be virtual comic books, and I grew up on comic books. But the advance publicity and critical reviews of Steven Spielberg’s film described a cinematic realism about actual horrors perpetrated on real people, some of whom are alive today. Thus I hesitated to inflict upon myself the emotional trauma of absorbing the story’s “Spielbergian” images.
My forebodings about the film’s emotional effect proved genuine; the three hour movie sent its spell straight to my vulnerable heart. Scene after scene of black-and-white cinematography hammered my mind’s eye, unfolding the story of a Nazi businessman, entrepreneur, and philanderer whose conscience is slowly and shockingly awakened to the genocide being committed in front of his eyes. This film portrays an amazing story of human suffering, agony, and death alongside incredible human courage, tenacity, hope, and endurance. Spielberg’s ability to capture graphically the nature of ruthless, mindless cruelty and savagery perpetrated on the Jews under the Nazi regime stunned me.
A number of questions came to mind as I pondered the nature and impact of Schindler’s List.
Why did Spielberg make this movie? Steven Spielberg has proven himself the quintessential entertainer with movies like Jaws, E.T., the Indiana Jones series, and his last film, Jurassic Park. In each of these films, he strove to wow us with the proverbial “good-time-at-the-movies.” Spielberg’s trademarks have become big budget, scope, color, cutting-edge special effects, and a suspenseful, action-saturated story-line. This is the stuff of big-time Hollywood mega-money-making movies. Schindler’s List, however, departs significantly from Spielberg’s magical and incredibly successful movie formula.
So why did Spielberg do it? This is a guess. Spielberg, a card-carrying member of the baby-boomer generation, has lived through one of the most remarkable times in human history. Spielberg’s generation has tried it all, done it all, and felt the consequences of it all. Meaning and significance in and for our human experience is not a “commodity” easily come by, even though we moderns treat it as though it were purchasable. Like other artists of his generation, Spielberg the human being has felt the pangs of groping in the darkness of a spiritless universe. In his personal quest for what is truly worth believing and doing in this world, he has undoubtedly thought out and felt the implications of our culture’s taken-for-granted radical relativism. During the sixties, this search for authenticity led a generation to question all values and to reconstruct their own in powerful political activism, drug-altered consciousness, free sex, and a renewed romantic focus on nature and the natural in contrast to the scientific or technological. We have completed the two decades following the sixties only to find ourselves immersed in trenchant “me-ism.” Entertain-me-to-death runs thin quickly if you happen to be in any sense a thoughtful, sensitive human being. And most artists of Spielberg’s character and talent are just that–thoughtful observers of human nature and circumstance. So when materialism–both economic and philosophical–runs its course, our human hearts yearn for “connections” to something more substantial than “things” that make us feel good. Perhaps for Spielberg Schindler’s List is an outlet, the manifestation of a personal search. Using the tools and art medium of which he is a master, he has attempted to “re-ground” himself in his own Jewish spiritual heritage.
Most art, in some small or great degree, portrays a “vision of life.” Art, often in very mysterious ways, contains messages about what the artist thinks it means to be truly human. Modern cinema is arguably the most emotionally potent art medium ever developed. In cinema, visual composition and imagery, powerful acting, and music combine uniquely to form an all-out psychological assault on our human senses. At the movies we are quickly and easily absorbed into the world the film creates in front of us. This world seems so “real” because we are not looking at an inanimate painting, reading a poem, or listening to music, all of which leave the creation of images to our own imaginations; rather, we are seeing with our own eyes the “moving” photographs of real human beings acting out real-life scenarios with which we deeply identify. With Schindler’s List Spielberg uses the medium of black-and-white film to paint a film version of a real account of real people, and it contains a powerful “vision of life.”
The starkness and texture of black-and-white film shocks us because we have grown so accustomed to the warmer emotional tones of color filming. The black-and-white filming of this movie, much of the time done with hand-held camera techniques, hits us like unexpected cold water in the face. Spielberg intends this. He did not mean the vision of life portrayed in this film to be “entertaining.” He wants to shock us with what happened in the brute reality of modern, “civilized” humanity. He wants us to feel the weight of our humanness–the full gamut of its potent, unthinkable darkness, along with its yearning and need for courage and goodness.
The vision of human life Spielberg portrays is all too real. What, then, does the “hip,” modern person do with the kind of depravity shown in this film? Our contemporaries would say that the Nazi view of humanness and the evil consequences that follow are the stuff of willfully blind human beings, not ordinary people. While this view may be true in one sense, the Bible pictures our human hearts as clouded with a darkness which continually occupies itself with small and large self-deceits. Schindler’s List presents a vision of our humanness that we deeply desire to rise above or to deny. Who enjoys the thought of oneself owning the kind of dark inner character equal in God’s eyes to the heart of a Nazi assassin? But which of us, in rare moments of inner clarity, has not felt self-revulsion at the depth and intensity of our own evil? Is this not what Jesus described when he condemned evil inner thoughts equally with evil outer action?
While Spielberg’s film portrays human evil at its worst and does us the important service of reminding us of the human potential for atrocity, the film falls short of giving us the radical critique of the constancy and profundity of evil lurking in every human heart. Something is deeply wrong at the core of our humanness–at everyone’s core, not just at the core of a select few. Spielberg’s film will help raise consciousness, and rightly so, about the deep human evil of the holocaust. But, according to the vision of life–the Gospel–presented in the Bible, the indifference and hate in us that regularly rears itself toward others who may have wronged us is the same powerful moral evil loosed in unthinkable degrees in the Nazi regime. What, for example, are we to make of the appearance of Neo-Naziism, Bosnian genocidal behavior, or the mindlessness of anonymous drive-by shootings of innocent victims? Spielberg has put his timely finger on human darkness at one awful time in history, but it’s not as if we don’t see lesser versions of the same evil around us all the time.
Has Spielberg’s artistic effort benefited us and our generation? Yes, I think so. Works of art like Spielberg’s–even those in other mediums–can be used powerfully to speak to us about both our desperate need for goodness and our woeful failure to manifest it. In this sense, the mediums of modern art, especially the cinema, have an enormous potential to speak to our consciences about the social, the political, and the fundamentally personal nature of our human failures and strivings.
Most of today’s use of cinematic art is trivial and wretched in its presentation of what makes for true human fulfillment, dignity, and goodness. Films like this one from Steven Spielberg set a different course for the use of movies as both popular and high art–art for life rather than against it. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, films like Schindler’s List may lead us to ask more questions about the deep recesses of the character within each of us.
Copyright March 1994 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.