Only a select few would ever venture a thesis arguing against the cinematographic talents of Steven Spielberg, the popular filmmaker responsible for such iconic experiences of cinema like the storming of Normandy Beach, a killer shark’s fearsome two-note music cue, and the timeless image of a boy and his alien, soaring across the heavens, wreathed in moonlight. Each of his shots works, meticulously so, to indulge the audience’s capacity for the basest and most guttural reaction imaginable. Each his musical compositions, penned exclusively by John Williams, aggressively underscores his images, guiding that audience to a quite specific, and quite powerful, emotional response.
Were you to base your conversation of his filmography purely on formal skill, it is hard not to respect Spielberg’s results. Often without irony or perversion, his more serious-minded efforts manipulate commonly understood historical (typically American) iconography – like the Greatest Generation in Saving Private Ryan, or the eponymous historical legend reading to his son Tad in Lincoln – to convey a sense of narrative import. In his sprightlier fare Spielberg similarly beatifies familiar and deeply engrained imagery – think the German Nazis versus the American Marlboro Man of Indiana Jones, or the towering dinosaurs of Jurassic Park – to evoke uncritical, child-like wonderment. That you can leave either of these entertainments cheerfully humming their tunes afterward, recalling the images indelibly associated with them, all but cements Spielberg’s talent with the visceral nature of popular art.
Yet it is that same aesthetic forcefulness that frustrates so many of Spielberg’s harshest critics, and occasionally stymies his most avid defenders (defenders like me). Many would argue the imagery he produces, in committing to a specific kind of response, leaves little room for ambiguity on either an emotional or intellectual level. This is why he often leaves himself open to dismissal from cultural elites as a populist, an impresario, a rank sentimentalist and even – given the fear of the Other displayed in the Indy pictures – a xenophobe. His heroes tend to be immaculate, his villains irredeemably nefarious. His camera often supports this ideology, unflinchingly.
Even Spielberg’s most honored film, the Holocaust epic Schindler’s List, no longer seems invulnerable to derision. Twenty years after sweeping the Oscars and elevating its director to new levels of institutional respectability, it is becoming increasingly acceptable to outwardly acknowledge his supposed narrative and thematic missteps. In his 2007 essay “A Pervert’s Guide to Family,” the delightfully provocative philosopher Slavoj Žižek drew a rather prescient point about the nature of Schindler’s List by comparing it to Spielberg’s other 1993 hit:
“Schindler’s List is, at the most basic level, a remake of Jurassic Park (and, if anything, worse than the original), with the Nazis as the dinosaur monsters, Schindler as (at the film’s beginning) the cynical-profiteering and opportunistic parental figure, and the ghetto Jews as threatened children (their infantilization in the film is eye-striking) – the story the film tells is about Schindler’s gradual rediscovery of his paternal duty towards the Jews, and his transformation into a caring and responsible father.”
I consider Schindler’s List one of my very favorite films, and even I must concede that Žižek at least emblematically (and efficiently) distills the most common argument against the film: a lack of moral greyness. The ideological narrative is rather clear: Nazis are carnivorous monsters, the Jew-rescuing war profiteer is (by the end) unambiguously righteous and the Jews are hapless victims in sore need of rescuing. Following this narrative, which essentially argues that it takes a righteous agent of the oppressing party to achieve justice on behalf of the oppressed, one recalls the similar approach used to make other mainstream “issues movies” more palatable. Particularly, one recalls movies about race like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Crash and The Help, which assure the viewer that, yes, racism is very bad. Yet these movies do not exactly challenge the social constructs that led to such systemic oppression in the first place. The viewers’ hearts bleed, yet are afforded the luxury of never exiting their comfort zone.
But how neatly, really, is Schindler’s List actually fitted to that particular black-and-white narrative? Perhaps a broader reading of the film facilitates the argument Žižek makes, and that others promulgate, but I fail to understand its potency when considering the actions and developments of the principle characters Spielberg and his crew help flesh out. Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern, among those “infantilized” Ghetto Jews, displays remarkable deftness early in the film in rescuing Jews doomed to forced labor in the Plaszov camps. Stern becomes not a “threatened child,” but an agent of his own people’s survival, in exploiting Oskar Schindler’s opportunism (and eventually, his conscience) to create new jobs in his Enamelware factory. As for Schindler himself, the obfuscated nature of that character, in addition to Liam Neeson’s challenging performance, cannot be stressed more emphatically. The trail leading him from wealthy womanizer to compassionate savior is an ill-blazed one, muddled with selfish acts and incorrigible flaws that, as the closing epigraphs suggest, ultimately doom him in the years following his signature act of goodness.
Most notably, however, I take issue with placing the most prominent Nazi in Schindler’s List, Amon Goeth, on the same reptilian level as one of Spielberg’s animatronic Velociraptors, both because it undersells the humanity actor Ralph Fiennes brings to his murderous SS Kommandant and because I believe it side-steps one of the subtlest points Spielberg has ever made about the intoxicating allure of power. That point is distilled in a simple five-minute sequence midway through the film where Goeth struggles with the meaning behind the power he wields as Plaszow’s Hauptsturmführer. In a brief respite from the film’s horrific violence, we peer into the life of excess and debauchery to which officers of the SS are privileged. Schindler and Goeth, winding down from a particularly decadence-laden evening, chat atop the balcony of the latter Nazi’s villa. A particularly intoxicated Goeth commends Schindler on his liquor-holding abilities, citing his self-control as a harbinger of power. Schindler, no doubt growing concerned about the increasingly violent actions of his friend (if ever they can be called “friends”), attempts to sell to Goeth an understanding of “power” through a new lens:
“Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t… That’s what the Emperor said. A man steals something, he’s brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground. He begs for his life, he knows he’s going to die. And the Emperor… pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go… That’s power, Amon. That is power.”
Goeth initially dismisses this anecdote as hogwash, telling Schindler midway through his spiel, “I think you are drunk!” He proceeds to imitate Schindler’s unnamed Emperor derisively, proclaiming “I pardon you!” before slumping into a fit of hysterics. Yet Schindler, ever the salesman, has planted a seed of an idea within Goeth, a man clearly hungry for power in a system defined by one people’s infinite power over another. This reimagining of power intrigues him, partly because he sees it put to effective use in Oskar Schindler, a man he clearly admires, and partly because this more liberalized definition gives him the chance to exercise power in a way that distinguishes him from the fray of other murderers in the SS.
So Goeth puts Schindler’s theory to the test. On a particularly stressful day, when Itzhak Stern informs him his books are being audited, he explodes at a young Jewish boy who dared to leave his expensive horse saddle on the ground. “Do you know how much this saddle is worth? Do you know how much it costs?!” Amon exclaims to the terrified boy, the s-sounds of “costs” leaving his mouth as hisses might from a snake. A moment passes. He calms himself, and simply says “all right… all right,” to the passive Stern’s great bewilderment.
Riding his horse later that day through the camp, he happens upon one of his officers dragging a young Jewish girl by the hair, being punished for smoking on the job. Goeth has killed for smaller infractions, as when he once raised his sniper rifle and picked off a woman from his balcony for daring to stop and tie her shoes. Looking at this girl now laid before him, Goeth simply commands his officer to “tell her not to do it again,” and departs. Spielberg’s camera opts afterward not to linger on Goeth’s face, never informing us if this merciful act has left him satisfied.
Goeth returns to his villa. He proceeds to his bathroom, where another boy named Lisiek scrubs desperately at the stubborn ring of his Kommandant’s tub. Lisiek runs out of time when Goeth enters, and the boy must report his inability to clean it, further incriminating himself by indicating his simple failure to use a cleaning solution more powerful than soap. Again, there is hesitation in Goeth’s action; perhaps he recognizes just how neatly he and Lisiek now fit into that parable about the Emperor and the thief. He then says it: “Go on, leave. I… pardon you.” Goeth taps his two fingers on the boy’s shoulders, absolving him, and orders him away.
Goeth looks into his bathroom mirror, beholding his own glory. He has now ordained himself Emperor within his own Camp. In an instance of image framing as quintessentially Spielbergian as anything in Schindler’s List, Goeth takes those same two absolving fingers, and presses them against the mirror. He insinuates himself into the iconic imagery of a benevolent, peaceable leader. Perhaps he even tries here to emulate the awesome power his Führer exudes in those Leni Riefenstahl pictures to which he, being a German, must surely have been exposed. He says it one last time, to his reflection and to himself, for reassurance: “I pardon you.”
He looks down, examines his finger, and turns to the camera. His piercing blue eyes gleam almost in spite of the black and white cinematography. We know not what he is thinking… until, finally, we cut to Lisiek, midway between the villa and the gates of his barracks. The boy’s walk is interrupted by the sound of a gunshot, and a bullet kicks up a cloud of dirt right before him. Lisiek turns around, offers to the villa a defeated frown, and sadly continues his journey as the sniper’s shots inch closer to him. We cut to Stern, who happens to enter the scene. Walking along, he flinches slightly at the third and final shot. Without further examination, he walks past the freshly made corpse of Lisiek, and back to the barracks. And all is right again in Plaszow.
Why does Schindler’s attempt to re-appropriate Goeth’s understanding of power fail? The Žižeks of the world would be inclined to say it is because he is, by the film’s estimation, a monster. Even those who love Schindler’s List might make the argument that Amon Goeth is an evil bastard, and when it comes to evil, there simply is nothing to be done. But what a dull, unsatisfying interpretation of this work that truly is! At the very least, such conclusions disserve the very clear fact of the journey Goeth takes, even if the arc is small and he ultimately ends at the same place he started.
It is important to understand the angle Schindler uses to sell Goeth on this new kind of power. He never actually tries to convince Goeth that the wielding of power should entail benevolence and mercy for their own sake (though those results are Schindler’s goal), but that benevolence and mercy might instead be tools to feed into his own perceptions of himself, his ability for others to recognize his greatness in an entirely unique way. Schindler appeals not to Goeth’s compassion, but to his hubris. And while hubris may indeed be the inherent quality of the most arch of storybook villains, it is an incontrovertibly human trait as well. Even our most altruistic of deeds are often fueled in part by our selfish desire for personal fulfillment, satisfaction or (depending on your beliefs) to earn enough moral capital to purchase a ticket to Heaven.
If it is with id-fueled hubris that Schindler’s parable tempts Goeth, it is id-fueled hubris that snuffs out the Kommandant’s interest in mercy. The damage upon Goeth’s sense of self is done. “We have the fucking power to kill, that’s why [the Jews] fear us,” Goeth tells Schindler early in this parable about power. That statement is one informed as much by theory as it is by practice. He has found power and dominance in the affirmation that it is his right to summarily kill his Jewish prisoners. What’s more he has predicated, upon that power he has earned, a life of wealth and booze and women. A simple anecdote from his drinking buddy about a “Thief and Emperor,” compelling though it may be, is not nearly enough to undo years of taking murder and genocide and scapegoating, and making it part of an ideology, and part of an identity. Sure, Goeth is too weak to understand the fact of his own immorality, but he has become engineered that way, systemically and systematically. He kills Lisiek, finally, because that is now his interpretation of justice.
Here is why Goeth is so fearsome a villain in Schindler’s List: It is not because he is, strictly speaking, a monster. It is because the selfish desires propelling his sociopathy are founded – chillingly – on qualities we all share. We all have hubris, and we all accept, comply with or even embrace certain injustices happening in our world, so long as they bring us a sense of comfort, or sport the sexy allure of power or superiority over others. Goeth terrifies not because he is evil, but because he is recognizable.
For a storyteller apparently incapable of working beyond moral binaries, it is critical to observe just how deftly Spielberg blurs the lines of morality. Yes, his understanding of the Holocaust as an empirical moral wrong could not be crisper. Yet his ability to craft a portrait of how we reached that terrible wrong, using our own human weaknesses in the process, makes an argument far smarter and far more ideologically interesting than his haters would like you to believe.