Synopsis of Class: January 23, 2001

THE AMNESIA OF REPRESENTATION. Today we continued to explore the role of popular culture's representations in the remembering (and forgetting) of the Holocaust, taking as a point of departure Miriam Bratu Hansen's statement in her article, "Schindler's List Is Not Shoah": "whether we like it or not, the predominant vehicles of public memory are the media of technical re/production and mass consumption.... In a significant way, even before the passing of the last survivors, the remembrance of the Shoah, to the extent that it was public and collective, has always been more dependent on mass-mediated forms of memory—on what Alison Landsberg calls 'prosthetic memory'" (310). We cut our teeth on George Stevens' The Diary of Anne Frank and its strategies of narrative organization in the classical Hollywood mode. Hansen outlined these for us on p. 298: 1) "causal motivation centering on the actions and goals of individual characters (as opposed to the 'anonymous' Jewish masses who were the object of extermination)"; 2) a reliance on "masculinist hierarchies of gender and sexuality"; 3) "the resolution of larger-order problems tends to hinge upon the formation of a couple or family and on the restoration of familial forms of subjectivity"; 4) a reliance on "neoclassicist principles of compositional unity, motivation, linearity, equilibrium, and closure—principles singularly inadequate in the face of an event that by its very nature defies our narrative urge to make sense of, to impose order on the discontinuity and otherness of historical experience"; and 5) the need felt by cinema to represent visually what, according to Lanzmann, should never be represented directly. Students pointed out the ways that The Diary of Anne Frank conforms to these classical hollywood principles: Dale Fresch pointed out the imposition of a happy ending through Anne Frank's final words (stated first by Anne Frank then superimposed as subjective voice-over [her father is now reading the same words in the diary]) in the final scene of the film: "I still believe, despite everything, that people are really good at heart"; the superposition of a love story onto the horror of the Holocaust (the climax of the film, the discovery of the hidden Jews, is also the moment of a passionate kiss between Anne and her boyfriend); the concentration on a single family and relationship, as E.J. pointed out; the subliminal manipulation of the viewer's emotions through the film's discursive music.

THE POLITICS OF KITSCH. We then explored the question: "Is Schindler's List a 'kitsch melodrama,' as Claude Lanzmann claims in 'Why Spielberg Has Distorted the Truth.'" We first defined kitsch by way of Spielberg's earlier film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: 1) it tends to simplify and trivialize complex ideas by reducing them to black-and-white stereotypes, as Dale Fresch explained (for example, Sean Connery's speech about the "armies of darkness"); 2) it is oriented to the masses and thus tends towards a lowest common denominator so that anyone can relate; 3) it tends to be tied to mass consumption and thus to profit-making entertainment; 4) it often includes a certain insouciant humor, Sarah Geddling pointed out (for example, Hitler's signing of Indiana Jones' book).

Turning to Schindler's List, Nicole Genovese first offered up a useful distinction between Schindler's List and Shoah by pointing out that Shoah tends to conform to a high modernist sensibility that is opposed to the mass market and is often purposively difficult (think T. S. Eliott's Wasteland or James Joyce's later works); modernism also thus often tends to a certain elitism, directed as it is to a minority group of avant-garde intellectuals. A modernist sensibility like Lanzmann's refuses simple black-and-white stereotypes and even, as Becky Clemens added, straightforward narratives. Instead, Lanzmann is highly self-conscious about all the discursive elements he puts into play in his film. The nine and a half hours of the film also makes Lanzmann's work consciously unmarketable; on a basic level, the film's length makes it difficult to consume in any known mass market venue (cinema, television, internet). Spielberg's film, by contrast, "does not seek," Hansen explains, "to negate the representational, iconic power of filmic images, but rather banks on this power. Nor does it develop a unique filmic idiom to capture the unprecedented and unassimilable fact of mass extermination; rather, it relies on familiar tropes and common tehniques to narrate the extraordinary rescue of a large group of individuals" (302). As Lanzmann puts it, "I believe I created a new form; Spielberg chose to reconstruct." However, the question remains: does this fact make Spielberg's film a "serious transgression," as Lanzmann claims. Does Spielberg's film manage to go beyond mere kitsch. Kristin McFarren argued that the film in fact serves an important educational function for public memory and, as such, is a positive representation of the Holocaust; Lori Sparks added that it is in fact an advantage that Hollywood film can give you individual stories since that then allows for sympathy and understanding, unlike the abject responses provoked by a film like Night and Fog. Nick Duley finished class by underlining the importance of audience response. What distinguishes Schindler's List is that it forces the viewer to ask him/herself how s/he would have acted under the same situations. In this way, the film encourages an important form of self-reflection. It also provides a positive model for action, one that arguably could help prevent something like the Holocaust from happening again. I also suggested, along with Hansen, that the film is, indeed, quite self-conscious about its discursive techniques, for example in the use of color during the sequence when we witness the liquidation of the Krokow ghetto. When the red girl appears again an hour later during the exhumation and cremation of bodies outside Krakow, we are forced to acknowledge the fact that we have, in the meantime, forgotten her. Spielberg thus comments not only on the individuality of suffering but on the very limitations of memory.

Next Class Synopsis