That’s not my headline; it was in the subject line of the email sent to me by Tablet magazine’s PR contact — and minus the question mark, to boot. Liel Leibovitz writes at the Jewish-themed magazine 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” — and seems ‘surprised’ (likely not) that such fighting words have stirred up plenty of controversy:
Last week, Tablet Magazine published our list of the 100 greatest Jewish films of all time. At the very bottom was Schindler’s List. In a brief blurb, I called it an “astoundingly stupid” movie, which, in turn, inspired some of our readers to call me a “piece of shit” and a “neo-Nazi”—all for casting an aspersion on what, if they are to be believed, is everyone’s favorite Holocaust movie.
Which makes perfect sense: More than just a regrettable film, Schindler’s List neatly reflects the Manichean mindset of many American Jews, for whom mythology trumps memory and nothing lies beyond good and evil. Those who howled at me weren’t expressing a mere aesthetic judgment; they were defending a worldview.
To understand this worldview, we need only look at Schindler’s List. The film’s two main characters are Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler and Ralph Fiennes’ Nazi officer, Amon Goeth. The first is a philandering and greedy German who sees a little girl in a red coat and has a nearly instantaneous epiphany, realizing that life is precious and that Jews should be saved. The other 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.
There’s no doubt Spielberg’s sense of World War II history can be off-putting once you get beyond his powerful sense of composition, fluid camera motion, and John Williams’ score. As Mark Steyn noted 15 years ago, there’s plenty of nihilism and moral equivalence at work in Saving Private Ryan, the next WWII-themed movie Spielberg directed after Schindler:
Purporting to be a recreation of the US landings on Omaha Beach, Private Ryan is actually an elite commando raid by Hollywood and the Hamptons to seize the past. After the spectacular D-Day prologue, the film settles down, Tom Hanks and his men are dispatched to rescue Matt Damon (the elusive Private Ryan) and Spielberg finds himself in need of the odd line of dialogue. Endeavouring to justify their mission to his unit, Hanks’s sergeant muses that, in years to come when they look back on the war, they’ll figure that `maybe saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we managed to pull out of this whole godawful mess’. Once upon a time, defeating Hitler and his Axis hordes bent on world domination would have been considered `one decent thing’. Even soppy liberals figured that keeping a few million more Jews from going to the gas chambers was `one decent thing’. When fashions in victim groups changed, ending the Nazi persecution of pink-triangled gays was still `one decent thing’. But, for Spielberg, the one decent thing is getting one GI joe back to his picturesque farmhouse in Iowa.
And Ryan would be far from the only — or the worst — example of a nihilistic WWII film from a Hollywood that during that period definitely took Leibovitz’s advice and moved far beyond good and evil. But is Schindler a “moral and aesthetic disaster,” as Leibovitz claims above? That seems more like an attempt to deliberately gin-up controversy for its own sake. As always, please discuss in the comments below.
(Oh, and for what it’s worth, here’s my choice for the very worst Holocaust-related movie from Hollywood. So far.)