Schindler’s List revisited.

April 29, 2009


Schindler’s List shocked me al most as much the second time I saw it as the first.

If nothing else, the film provides a primer for study of The Holocaust, in particular in regards to the suffering of a particular group of Polish Jews.

Considered among one of Steven Spielberg’s masterpieces, Schindler’s List enlists some of the same brilliant cinematography and suffers from some of the same sentimentality of many of his lesser films. But this is essentially a very effective piece of propaganda that somehow managed to rise above its need to manipulate so that some of the real emotion and real horror of The Holocaust shines through.

Shot in black and white, this film chronicles the plight of Polish Jews who were initially corralled into the ghetto at Krakow and later sent to a Nazi labor camp, and the evolving relationship they developed with Oscar Schindler, a failed industrialist who made his fortune through the use of Jews as slave labor.

Taken from a novel rather that direct history, the film deviates from the text in important and revealing ways, often to make graphic points about the Holocaust that even the author did not.

 Unlike Spielberg’s later film, Munich, Schindler’s List stays on message painting The Nazis into machine-like madmen whose sadistic acts are done arbitrarily or without clear motive other than hatred for Jews.

The film – much like the Depression era novel Grapes of Wrath – paints a picture that includes simplistic but overwhelming evil verses complex but helpless good, even when manipulating the original text to make the case more dire. The good Jews and the benevolent Schindler are shown as complex and sympathetic figures (the film even avoids depicting Jews who collaborated with the Nazis so as to keep on message), while we see the Nazis as simplistic, uncaring, ruthless even mad monsters who engaged in mass slaughter for no apparent reason other than their anti-Semitic philosophy.

While historically true, the film seems to deliberately dehumanize the Nazis to make their actions even starker and more diabolical, a kind of retelling of the Star Wars myth – except even there, Lucas’s villains (also based on Nazis) have a sympathetic side.

There are no good Nazis in Schindler’s List and perhaps rightly so. Yet Spielberg’s changes from the novel suggest an increased hype the events do not need.

With the exception of Captain Goeth, the film keeps us out of the heads of the Nazis and through this Spielberg gives us a powerful glimpse of how the Jews must have felt during the various stages of slaughter, when at each step towards living hell, the Jews tell each other it cannot get much worse, and it always does.

Goeth is at the center of some of Spielberg’s changes, and it is curious to how he altered the text to make him into an even more extreme character.

The book, of instance, opens with one of scenes Spielberg uses later in the film to show Goeth’s character, but the material is repackaged in a curious way.

Goeth, who serves as the work camp’s sadistic commandant, selects a Jewish woman to serve as his maid.

The film confused me at this point and took several viewings (I have since watched the film a few dozen times) to understand that the woman in Goeth's bed during the shooting is not the maid. The character's look similar, but act starkly different.

This misperception caused me to think the maid as being depicted as a sexual slave in the film as well as someone Goeth beats. In the book, Goeth refrains from using her for sex, although he is driven to beat her out of his desire for her.

This is an important point because in the film, Goeth defends Schindler kissing a Jew, and it needs to be clear that this insane desire for her helps motivate his hate. How can he possibly love or desire a Jew?

The film depicts Goeth as having some sentimental feelings towards this maid he calls “Lena,” even to the point of violating the Nazi rules against intimate relations.

He beat her regularly, and in an important scene, she explains how he once beat her for throwing out chicken bones she should have saved for Goeth’s dogs.

“On my first day here, he beat me because I threw out the bones from dinner,” Lena says in both the book. “He came down here to the basement at midnight and asked me where they were. For his dogs, you understand. That was the first beating. I said him … I don’t know why I said it;  I’d never say it now … why are you beating me? He said, the reason I am beating you now is because you asked why I’m beating you.”

Later in the same sequence in the book, Lena goes on to talk about how Goeth kills for no reason and that there is no way to predict who he might shoot next or why.

Both the film and show Goeth with a rifle on his balcony routinely shooting Jewish workers in the camp below. The book implies in one section that he picked out targets of Jews he thought did not work hard enough. But in another passage also reflected in the film, the Lena said there is no predicting who he might shoot and why.

“There on the steps, he draw a gun and shot a woman who was passing. A woman carrying a bundle. Through the throat. Just a woman on her way somewhere. You know. She didn’t seem fatter or thinner or slower or faster than anyone else. I couldn’t get what she had done. The more you see of the Herr Commandant, the more you see that there is no set of rules you can keep to. You can’t say to yourself, if I follow these rules I’ll be safe…,” Lena said in the book.

In the film, not the book, Lena says, she believes Goeth will shoot her some day – something Goeth later plans in the film.

While Schindler’s response is nearly word for word the same in the book and the movie.

“He (Goeth) won’t kill you, because he enjoys you too much, my dear, Held. He enjoys you so much he won’t even let you wear the Star. He doesn’t want anyone to know it is a Jew he’s enjoying. He shot the woman from the steps because she meant nothing to him, she was one of a series, neither offended or pleased him.”

The film in repeating the sequence with the chicken bones neglected to include Lena’s initial remark

“Herr Schindler, he (Goeth) likes to beat me in front of those women,” she says prior to going into the matter with the chicken bones.

She is referring to several prostitutes the Goeth and his Nazi friends invited to dinner, who watched Lena serving and took note of the bruises along her jaw line.

“You would have thought that Goeth had too much shame to display a servant in that condition in front of the guests from Cracow … but the relationship between Goeth and (Lena) had taken a twisted path. When with friends, he (Goeth) used her as a conversation piece.”

Spielberg gives Goeth a weakness the book denies, creating conflict inside Goeth over tender feelings his sexual desire has inspired. In a very violent scene later, Goeth starts to give into these feelings, and then goes crazy claiming she has cast a spell on her, and he beats her for it.

Spielberg does alter slightly the relationship between Goeth and another servant over the lack of removing a stain from his bath tub.

Lisiek, Goeth’s 19-year old orderly, has been assigned to remove a stain from Goeth’s tub

In the film, Schindler convinces Goeth that it is more a sign of power to show mercy, and we see Goeth forgive Lisiek in one scene for mishandling Goeth’s horse- ridding saddle, and then again when Goeth discovered that Lisiek failed to use a strong enough cleaner to remove the stain. But after a few minutes of additional thought, Goeth grabs his rifle and shoots Lisiek as he crossed the prison compound.

The book gives us a slightly different account of the situation.

Goeth’s 19-year old orderly feared he would be beaten if he did not get the stain out of the tub so enlisted the help of a p named Poldek Pfefferberg  to procure him solvents to help clean in.

Pfefferberg and Lisiek were upstairs in Goeth’s bathroom scrubbing away at the heavy bathtub ring, when Goeth arrived earlier than expected. Goeth had brought one of the prostitutes with him so they sought to ease silently away out a side door.

“Still standing and able to see them on their line of escape, Goeth recoiled at the sight of the cleaning stick a, suspecting the two men might be assassins,” the book tells us. “When Lisiek stepped forward, however, and began a tremulous reporter, the commandant understood that they were merely prisoner.”

When Lisiek reported the events, Goeth struck  him – apparently for the amusement of the prostitute – then struck him again, then raged for both prisoners to leave.

“When Pfefferberg heard a few days later that Lisiek was dead, shot by Amon, he presumed it was over the bathroom incident,” the book tells u. “In fact, it was for a different matter altogether – Lisiek’s offense had been to harness a horse and buggy for Herr Bosch without first asking the Commandant’s permission.”

These minor but significant changes from the source material in just the opening lines of the novel suggest that Spielberg’s film intends to paint a different picture in his depiction of the fictional and historic events, altering our perception of the Nazis and Jews through a series of small, but calculated details.

How Spielberg’s film differs from the book and from actual history is worth studying, since it gives clues as to what point of view Spielberg wishes to steer to in regards to the characters and the holocaust.

Needless to say, I’ll be exploring more of these changes in coming essays to determine what exactly it is Spielberg is trying to say.




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