February 9, 2010 § Leave a comment
What is it about the Holocaust that makes filmmakers revisit it time and time again? Is it merely an endless source of emotional manipulation to make some money? Are the stories that surface from what happened during that horrible time truly that much more remarkable than other dark times in human history? Or is it, as I will attempt to posit somewhat clumsily, that filmmakers are so obsessed with the Holocaust because it reveals what is truly inside of man, both good and bad?
I saw Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993) for the first time recently and it elicited a strong reaction from me. But it wasn’t one of sorrow, or even necessarily of anger. What I felt is hard to explain. On one hand there was such a strong undercurrent of hope running through the film, but on the other you are faced with the incredible brutality of the German troops. It wasn’t long, however, before I started to wonder how a man can get to the point where he wakes up in the morning, climbs out of bed, grabs his rifle and shoots two Jewish prisoners from his balcony before even going to the bathroom.
Spielberg spares the audience nothing. There is no quick cut away from the body spurting blood. There is no effort to cover the nakedness of the Jewish prisoners being paraded around like animals. Filmed in black and white, there isn’t even any color to offer a respite from the relentless stream of injustice. Even the hero, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), is a man full of vices content to live in ethical shadows for the majority of the film.
Yet, what I kept coming back to was the knowledge that deep down, I am no different than the men who did these things. I am capable of the same terrible things. As indie singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens sings in his chilling meditation on serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr., “In my best behavior I am really just like him, look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.” A few different decisions in my life and I could have been a part of the Holocaust. It doesn’t take a bad person to do awful things, it only takes a good person who has been willing to compromise little by little.
This was the first realization I had while watching. The second was that, even with my innate propensity for committing evil, good can come from unexpected places. Schindler began looking for an easy buck, and he found it. But he made some different decisions. He made the decision to view the Jews as real people, not just chattel to be driven around. This is very clear in the film when at his birthday party, he kisses a Jewish girl on the mouth in front of all of his Nazi friends. This causes quite a stir, but also is important for the viewer. With Schindler humans are humans, because he has made the decision to treat them as such.
This is why I think filmmakers return to the Holocaust. It is a colossal battle between evil and good to be sure, but it also allows us to reflect on our own hearts. The difference between life and death is sometimes simply a matter of the heart.