Has no-one noticed that Schindler's List is a remake of ET, The Extraterrestrial?
In both films, a bug-eyed but very endearing alien is rescued from the forces of darkness by a lonely boy (in the case of Schindler's List, a boy-man). In each movie, the loveable alien must face death, then returns and assures the boy (man) of its love before heading off to its own world. If you think about it, the physical resemblance between ET and Ben Kingsley is rather startling (and compare both to Whoopi Goldberg-- The Color Purple was ET with black people.)
ET is the only movie Steven Spielberg knows how to make. Schindler's List is a very affecting film (as was ET), but a dishonest view of the Holocaust.
No-one, of course, would have gone to see an honest movie about the Holocaust. It would have been in German (or Czech, Polish, French, Dutch, etc.) with subtitles. It mght begin with a middle-class Jewish family living comfortably in Germany in 1933. It would have tracked the changes in their life after Hitler's election; the events of Kristallnacht, November 10, 1938, as they are beaten up and their windows broken; their arrest and shipment to a concentration camp; at movie's end, they are gassed at Dachau; the final shot, smoke and ash billowing from incinerator smokestacks at night.
Schindler's List is dishonest because the number of Schindlers in Germany, or for that matter anywhere in Europe, was so small as to be statistically insignificant. But Hollywood cannot tell the story of the everyday or mainstream, not the humdrum ordinary or, apparently, even the horrible ordinary. Hollywood must always be about exceptions. Its films cannot portray everyday work; the employee must defy his boss, quit his job or rob his company at gunpoint. To relate the story of the extermination of six million Jews (and four million others, lets not forget; not only Jews died in the camps), Hollywood must pick the happy story of a man who rescued Jews, even though there were so few who did. (Why not tell the story of the teenage Roman Polanski instead? The family to which his father entrusted him as the Warsaw ghetto was being encircled sent him back--but kept the money they had been paid and all his belongings.)
Steven Spielberg is Jewish, but was incapable of making a story about the Jews; he must adopt a heroic Gentile as the center of his story. Why? He must have felt--lets grant the grace that these were all unconscious choices--that we Jews are still the outsider, the other, even in sympathetic America; that no-one would relate to a Jewish story. Schindler's List is of a piece with those movies about other ethnic groups that set a kindly white person in the foreground. Barbara Hershey in A World Apart; Donald Sutherland in A Dry White Season; Sissy Spacek in A Long Walk Home; Sam Waterston in The Killing Fields; all these examples come to mind, but there are hundreds of others.
There is a very revealing bit of business in Schindler that resembles a similar bit in The Killing Fields. When Schindler, atop the hill with his mistress, watches the clearing of the ghetto, amidst the black and white panorama, we see the sole touch of color in the whole movie: a little girl wearing a red dress. Why has Spielberg engaged in this fantasist touch? So that when the prisoners forced to burn bodies later come upon the little girl's corpse, we can recognize her, amidst the hundreds of other bodies, by the tatters of the red dress. In The Killing Fields, we see a more realistic or veristic scene, a man with a plastic bag on his head being dragged away; later, when Dith Pran passes the man's floating corpse, we recognize it by the bag. What's really going on here: in each case, the director needed a gimmick, a red dress or a plastic bag, to allow us to identify an otherwise anonymous, fungible corpse among the mass of corpses. In each case, its not hard (while acknowledging some real-world problems for the story-teller, to make a corpse noticeable, among so many) to detect a racist subtext: just as the other director may have needed the plastic bag because he feared that, to his audience, all Cambodians look alike, Spielberg may have feared that all his Jews (little girl included) would blend together, while only Schindler, the Gentile, stood out. And for the most part, the Jews in Schindler's List do blend together.
It is very hard also to watch the Jews in the movie becoming pets. Schindler appears to be attached to them as if they were so many turtles; again, I am reminded of the children dressing up ET in their mother's clothes, or carrying him around on their bicycles. God bless Oskar Schindler for protecting the Schindlerjuden, whatever his motives; but there are times in the movie when he appears to think of them as if they were so much property.
There are no tough moral choices in the movie. Schindler does not agonize, or even lose a night of sleep like Jean Valjean, before risking himself; there are no Sophie's Choices in the movie; when he sets his Jews to work making munitions, we are told he is sabotaging the munitions, so that they cannot blow anyone up; and when the Jews walk over the hill at the end, they are walking not into the strife-torn Israel of today, but into a golden fantasy Jewish state.
And it is doubtful that the making of the movie has changed anything. Despite the hype, movies about the Holocaust (and better ones) have been made before. The ability of films to educate us morally, to change our lives, is more latent than potent. Most films, even ones about controversial, political or inspiring topics, are not conceived for this purpose, but rather, its opposite: anaesthesia and the final excision of an issue from public debate. Like an oyster coating an impurity to produce a pearl, a Hollywood movie typically encases and suppresses the issue or event it is based on. Put another way, it is the final washing of the hands after history has gone to the bathroom. On May 4, 1970, four students at Kent State, demonstrating against the war, were shot to death by the National Guard. The final hiccup of public attention to these now-forgotten events was a TV miniseries some ten or eleven years later.
Recent events in Bosnia and Rwanda, as well as in scores of other countries in the last fifty years and in Israel itself, seem to prove that no lesson has been learned from the Holocaust, that all can happen again.
If you want to see an honest if rather indirect movie about the Holocaust, track down The Boat Is Full, a Swiss film from 1981 or so, directed by Marcus Imhoof. Several German Jews, and one Nazi deserter, escape across the border into Switzerland. In the course of the day, they meet no evil people, and even encounter one would-be Schindler; but they are told, "The boat is full," there is no room for any more workers, or mouths to feed, in Switzerland. The man who tried to rescue them is locked up, and the refugees are all put back across the border--except the Nazi, who is permitted to stay. The Boat Is Full has more to do with ordinary human nature, and the meaning of the Holocaust, than Schindler's List.