'A' Paper from Spring 2001

HONR 199K: "Telling the Holocaust"


Things to note (in order of importance):

1) The student never rests at paraprase but always seeks to interpret the descriptions s/he provides. What you have here is an argument that enlightens the text, not a mere rehashing of plot or description of scenes. The student is also offerring up a fascinating application of theoretical ideas from the class, including strong quotations from the readings completed so far. These help support and clarify crucial sections in the paper.

2) The student has used a good deal of evidence from the work s/he examines to support his/her case (and the references are clear since they clarify the names of people involved in a given scene). S/he also provides insight into these passages and incorporates her quotations well.

3) Rather than making numerous points briefly, the student has chosen to concentrate on a specific topic so that s/he can provide an in-depth and extensive interpretation of the work at hand.

4) The paper has a clearly articulated thesis in the introduction, one that is developed in different ways in each of the paragraphs of the paper.

5) The paper proceeds logically from sentence to sentence, from point to point, from paragraph to paragraph.

6) The paper has almost no grammatical and stylistic problems.


"Schindler's List: A Story of Kitsch"
[Note that I have included my marginal comments in red]

The winner of seven Academy Awards and three Golden Globe Awards, SchindlerÕs List was a success not only in ratings but in the box office as well. Schindler's List, a three-hour-and-seventeen-minute film, attempts to represent an event so traumatic that even its survivors cannot face its reality. In the Holocaust, the unthinkable occurred, something "which defies human imagination as it distills a real hell from human evil" (Adorno 361), yet viewers across the world flocked to the theaters to watch Schindler's List, a representation of this ineffable event. Why would the public so readily embrace a film which explores an event that questions the limits of human morality and perhaps even reality itself? The answer lies in the fact that Spielberg evades representing the reality of the Holocaust altogether by creating a story viewers can easily accept and interpret. The story of Oskar Schindler presents a simplified picture, where "the dark sun of the Holocaust is not confronted," and one to which the masses can relate (Lanzmann 14). In short, the film is kitsch. Schindler's List allows viewers to leave the theater feeling comforted that Oskar [,] the altruistic Nazi [,] managed to save eleven hundred Jewish lives when in reality he saved only .0002 percent of the Jews exterminated in the Holocaust. The Holocaust is not about life but about death, and any film which attempts to represent it otherwise can be labeled as kitsch. Because Schindler's List presents a simplified representation of the Holocaust using narrative techniques and a Hollywood ending, it distorts the reality of this massacre for viewers and thus entails a theme of kitsch.

Before examining how kitsch can distort the reality of the Holocaust, it is crucial to understand the uniqueness of the reality that surrounded this unprecedented event. In the Shoah, the unthinkable became reality: over eleven million people were extinguished in the most inhumane ways imaginable, all within the time span of a decade. Although it may be possible to empathize with the Jews, accepting the reality of the Holocaust is almost impossible to comprehend. Realizing that humanity could inflict such suffering upon its own kind can evoke in us a sense of guilt that [idiom] we may be capable of similar actions or a fear that the same hatred could suddenly be focused upon ourselves. Geoffrey Hartman describes the elusive qualities concerning the reality of the Holocaust: "The subject is hell itself: a state of victimage that before the Shoah had only been fantasized but that then became totally real through the Shoah" (333). To many, the Holocaust remains just a fantasy, since reality becomes too difficult a concept to comprehend. Some witnesses admit that they have yet to accept the reality of the Holocaust since the event left them traumatized, questioning their fundamental beliefs about their own existence and reality. Hartman explains how "everything that happened was so gigantic, so inconceivable, that the witness even seemed a fabricator to himself" (327). This loss of connection to reality reveals the difficulty in portraying any accurate representation of the Holocaust through film, whether that may be Shoah or Schindler's List.

By examining the representational techniques utilized in the film Shoah, one can understand how testimony, as opposed to a reenactment, presents a clearer image of the Holocaust and avoids kitsch. The fundamental difference between Shoah and Schindler's List lies in [the fact] that Shoah focuses completely on the testimony of numerous witnesses while the latter follows the life of Oskar Schindler and creates a reenactment of the Holocaust. Although Shoah may not provide viewers with complete understanding, the film compels them to interpret the testimonies and to form their own conclusions. In Schindler's List, director Stephen Spielberg controls every aspect of the film and creates his own conclusion, which in most cases will be readily accepted by the audience. In addition, Spielberg can easily manipulate filming techniques in order to sway viewers' emotions and overall reactions to the film. Visual representation can lead to two downfalls that affect the reaction of the audience. It may present a scene so graphic that viewers find it impossible to comprehend, ultimately rejecting the idea altogether. Hartman explains how "what is presented becomes an offense, an aggression, and may arouse such strong defenses that—in a profound way—we do not believe that what we are made to feel and see is part of reality" (331). However, visual representation may also fall to the other extreme by watering down images or situations to prevent alienation of the audience.

Both of these filming strategies can be attributed to kitsch. The first sensationalizes the Holocaust and ultimately causes viewers to reject the images they have just witnessed. It induces feelings of shock that fade and are then forgotten. One example can be found in Schindler's List during the evacuation of the Krakow Ghetto. Every lurid scene in this sequence is filled with weeping families being ripped apart while the Gestapo officers randomly shoot Jews attempting to evacuate their homes. One scene depicts a close-up angle of a man receiving a bullet through his skull while another reveals a women mercilessly shot in her husband's arms as he carries her down the street. These scenes are presented as reality yet seem unreal to viewers due to the extent of their graphic content. The second technique waters down the images or provides those that distract the audience from the horror of the Holocaust. The events and their meanings are simplified, allowing the masses to watch comfortably without feeling extended guilt or grief. In Schindler's List, the many scenes involving Schindler and his future wife provide a distraction or an easing of pain for viewers. They focus on the rocky relationship that is finally resolved between Oskar and Emily, thus providing an alternate story for viewers to follow. Shoah avoids these problems by presenting only testimonies, which provide neither graphic images nor simplify situations.

One final problem arises with reenactment as opposed to testimony. If witnesses of the Holocaust cannot comprehend that their experiences were reality, how can actors in a film be expected to portray these victims accurately? Lanzmann explains, "I fail to see how deportees, sick with fear after months and years of misfortune, humiliation and misery, can be played by actors" (14). Testimony allows witnesses to describe their emotions extensively and thus provides the audience with a deeper understanding of the traumatic experience. In Schindler's List, the actors rarely discuss their inner thoughts, and instead viewers must rely on conversation and body language to interpret emotion. The film also focuses on the Jewish masses rather than individuals for the most part, excluding the scenes depicting Schindler's Jews. But theses characters still fail to provide a clear picture of the victims' suffering since their predominant emotions are those of hope rather than abject sorrow. Reenactments are created mainly for the sake of the audience since they are generally more entertaining and easier to follow than testimony alone.

Another element contributing to the qualities of kitsch in Schindler's List is the narrative story of Oskar Schindler upon which the film is centered. An unbiased and accurate representation of the Holocaust proves to be impossible with this underlying subject. Viewers, instead of concentrating on the story of the Jews, follow the character of Schindler as he transforms from an egocentric businessman to a selfless hero, giving away every last possession in order to save more Jewish lives. While Schindler's story does contain a positive moral implication, it fails to capture the tragedy of the Holocaust. By focusing on Schindler, viewers at the same time concentrate on the victims that he saves rather than the masses that perish. Lanzmann attacks this narrative style: "Everything is seen through the prism of Schindler's own story: there is Schindler and women, Schindler and sex, Schindler and money" (14). From the opening scenes of the film, Spielberg creates a character intriguing to the audience. Schindler is shown dressing and then traveling to a dinner party yet his face is never actually revealed until much further in the scene. This technique forces viewers initially to become fascinated with the mysteriousness of his character and consequently to follow him closely throughout the film. Spielberg creates the perfect hero, exemplified in the scene where Stern presents Schindler with a gold ring saying, "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire" (Schindler's List). This quote implies that because Schindler saved these eleven hundred lives, the deaths of the other six million Jews can in some ways be forgotten. This concept distorts the reality of the Holocaust to the extreme. Even the entire conclusion of the film focuses on Schindler. The camera fades out on a shot of his grave, covered with pebbles representing the Jews he saved. The emphasis on Schindler's life provides the audience with a reality, but it is that of a German Nazi rather than the moribund Jews.

Another problem arises from this continuous focus on Oskar Schindler. As Miriam Hansen points out, "the film narrates the history of eleven hundred rescued Jews from the perspective of the perpetrators" (299). Not only does the audience concentrate on those few Jews who live rather than the majority who die, but numerous events are also seen through the eyes of the Germans. How can such misery be conveyed from this point of view? The audience may also find themselves empathizing more with Schindler than with the Jews to the extent that the Jews appear to be guilty and deserving of their punishment. For example, Jews (before being forced to move to the ghetto) are shown in a Church making illegal business exchanges during a service. They appear to hold no reverence for the building in which they are exchanging and are depicted as both foolish and paranoid when Schindler arrives, wishing to make a purchase. Another instance occurs when Schindler is thrown in jail for kissing a Jewish girl at his birthday party. Gertrud Koch points out how this scene provides a negative image of Jewish women:

"You have a sequence where a Nazi gets attracted to a Jewish woman and another where Schindler kisses a Jewish girl who brings a birthday cake. It is a kind of mirroring and it refers to the phantasmagoric danger of being seduced by a Jewish woman." ("ShindlerÕs List")

Both of these scenes portray a negative image of the Jews and in some ways attempt to justify the cruelties inflicted upon them during the Holocaust. When Schindler is imprisoned, Goeth explains to his superior the beauty and seductiveness of the Jewish woman, causing the audience to place the blame for the imprisonment on the Jews. Although these scenes provide an entertaining story for the audience, fingers of blame are pointed at the Jews in a film supposedly dedicated to telling the story of the eradication of the Jewish people. Although some scenes don't point fingers of blame, they still focus primarily on Schindler and his reactions rather than the plight of the Jews. For example, during the extermination of those hiding in the Krakow Ghetto, Mozart plays continuously on a piano. The surrounding buildings flicker with light as machine guns eliminate any remaining Jews. This scene transfers to one of complete silence. One would imagine that silence be incorporated into the ghetto scene, since the Jews are being exterminated and thus forever silenced at this time. However, silence is not implemented until the next scene reveals Schindler staring down at his empty factory. Schindler is not upset because his workers are being sent to their deaths; he instead mourns the money he is losing while his factory is inoperable. Although Schindler is portrayed negatively in this scene, viewers are still forced to focus upon the effects the evacuation will have on Schindler rather than the Jewish people. All of these scenes contribute to the underlying theme of kitsch [can kitsch be a "theme"?] that weaves itself about the film.

The final element that condemns Schindler's List as a work of kitsch is revealed in its semi-happy Hollywood ending. Viewers leave the theater feeling comforted that Schindler's eleven hundred Jews manage to escape death and that Schindler himself transforms into a selfless man, devoted to saving Jewish lives. From the beginning of the film, the story focuses on the Schindler Jews, those who will live through the Holocaust. As the crowds of Jews are entering the Krakow Ghetto, most of the shots follow the Schindler Jews; therefore, from the start, the audience identifies with these characters. Viewers are relieved as the Schindler Jews walk away from the Auswitch [Auschwitz] gas chambers although thousands more are walking into them towards their deaths. Few Jews ever walked out of the gas chambers alive; if many had, there would have been no Holocaust. The Shoah is not about life. It is about the death of six million innocent people. One of the final scenes follows the Schindler Jews as they travel across a field singing "Yeroushalaim Chel Zahav", or "Jerusalem of Gold". Both the song's title and its uplifting melody signify that the Jewish tradition will continue despite of [delete "of"] the Shoah. The victims' faces are hopeful as they move forward while envisioning the lives that lay [lie] before them. This scene replaces the many haunting images presented earlier and instead allows an inspiring aura to accompany the conclusion of the film.

Spielberg's Hollywood ending is also largely influenced by his sudden use of color in a black-and-white film. There are four scenes within the film that contain color. The first can be found in the opening scene with the Jews gathered around candles as they celebrate the Sabbath. The candle fades to black and white as the flame burns out, signifying that the flame represents the Jewish faith and that it is extinguished with the commencement of the Shoah. This flame is relit (in color) much further into the film, when Schindler allows the Jews to celebrate the Sabbath within his factory. Two factors link this relighting of the candle to kitsch. First, in the scenes surrounding those of the Schindler Jews, human ashes float down from the sky over the town. There is a fire burning, but it is a fire of death rather than one of life. How can this candle representing the Jewish faith be relit while at the same time thousands of Jewish bodies are being burned and forgotten? Not only is the candle relit, but a short paragraph describing Schindler's factory and the money he spent saving the Jews appears beneath it. Because of this scene, viewers focus even more intently on the surviving Schindler Jews rather than the masses that perish and also link this survival directly to the hero of the story, Oskar Schindler. Once again, the reality of the Holocaust is completely ignored.

The third use of color occurs during the evacuation of the Krakow Ghetto when a little girl in a red coat attempts to escape and hide. The use of color in these scenes serves a different function. Schindler watches this girl from a mountaintop above and then later sees the same girl lying dead in a wheelbarrow before her body is burned. This use of color for once does not symbolize life, and is one of the few attempts to distinguish individual Jews that perished in the Holocaust rather than the masses. Although Spielberg wishes to remind the audience of its own amnesia through this scene (since most have forgotten about the little girl until she reemerges dead), he ironically causes viewers to forget once again the death of the girl as he immediately focuses back on the Schindler Jews who survive. [Strong paragraph, especially since you take into account and then dismiss the counter-argument]

The final use of color occurs in the last scene, as the Schindler Jews travel slowly across the field. Lanzmann points out how Spielberg implements "the sudden use of color to suggest the possibility of a happy ending" (14). Like the candle flame, color symbolizes the continuing Jewish faith and allows viewers to leave remembering this colorful, uplifting scene. Audiences want to walk away from movies with a sense of comfort and finalization, and Schindler's List provides these exact emotions. The only finalization found in the Holocaust is that of Jewish lives; Lanzmann takes the opposite approach in ending Shoah: "It shows a train trundling on interminably, and says the Holocaust has no end" (14).

Spielberg's goal of educating society about the horrors of the Holocaust is not wrong in itself. In fact, society should be aware of the circumstances surrounding the Holocaust in that these atrocities may somehow be rectified and prevented from reoccurring in the future. However, "there is something intrinsically and profoundly incommensurable about the 'recreation' of the traumatic events of the Shoah 'for the sake of an audience's reaction'" (Hansen 296). Spielberg created Schindler's List to reveal the true nature of the Holocaust, yet he ultimately formed a work of kitsch by focusing almost completely on the life of Oskar Schindler and the Jews he saved. Although Speilberg [Spielberg] states at the end of the film that it is "in memory of more than six million Jews murdered" (Shindler's List), in reality the film is in memory of Schindler's life and the generations of Jews that now live because of him. Why else would the closing scene be of his grave and the many pebbles, representing Jewish lives, being placed upon it? While other events may be accurately portrayed in a film of kitsch, the unique reality of the Holocaust bans it from this sensationalism. Schindler violates these rules of representation as he creates a film about the Holocaust that brushes aside the transcendental qualities of which this traumatic event is comprised. Although Schindler's List "is historically 'authentic,' it cannot but remain a fairy tale in the face of the overwhelming facticity of 'man-made mass death'" (Hansen 299).

Sources Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. "Meditations on Metaphysics." Negative Dialectics. Trans. E.B. Ashton. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Hansen, Miriam Bratu. "Schindler's List is Not Shoah: The Second Commandment, Popular Modernism, and Public Memory." Critical Inquiry. Winter 1996.

Hartman, Geoffrey. "The Book of Destruction." Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the "Final Solution." Ed. Saul Friedlander. Cambridge: Harvard. UP, 1992.

Lanzmann, Claude. "Why Spielberg has distorted the truth." Manchester Guardian Weekly. 3 April 1999, vol 150, Weekend ed.

Shindler's [Schindler's] List. Dir. Stephen [Steven] Spielberg. Universal City Studios, Inc. and Amblin Entertainment, Inc., 1993.

ŌShindlerÕs [Schindler's] List: Myth, Movie, and Memory.Ķ Village Voice. 29 March 1994. 24-31. .