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Humanities Core Course

5 June, 2014

Schindler’s List: What it Erases and
Highlights about the Holocaust

Holocaust that occurred under Nazi Germany’s rule in the Second World War is
one of the events of history that humanity is still searching to comprehend,
how Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism translated into the persecution, exclusion,
and finally the extermination of the Jewish populations under their control.
How could 6,000,000 Jews be controlled and killed in this manner? More
importantly, how can this number of people be remembered without making them
all fall into one category of “Jew”? Since the Holocaust occurred, there have
been countless attempts to teach the world about this event through media, such
as documentaries, published witness accounts, and fictionalized films. Many questions come into play when portraying such a
volatile and sensitive topic. How can we perfectly capture the Holocaust in a
way to pass on the stories of the victims? Also, in these portrayals, how will
these victims be represented? As new generations are born away from this time
period, their elders feel the need to teach the younger population about this
event. But how should this event be remembered as a whole, while also telling
the individual stories? How can history manage to capture the horrible events
that took place?

Instead of
building a monument or constructing a museum, the famous director Steven
Spielberg decided to create a film to capture the Holocaust in a fictionalized
retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler. Based on the Thomas Keneally novel
of the same name, Schindler’s List is
an over three hour epic, following Oskar Schindler, a
businessman and a member of the Nazi party. His ambivalence towards the plight
of the Jews in the Krakow ghetto and then the P?aszów1 work camp transforms into
sympathy and a need to save them from extermination and particularly from the
antagonist Amon Goethe. It is a story of growth and compassion set against a
world of hate and horror.

            As a
historical artifact, the film can be examined in many ways, especially since
the lengthy film is full of historical references and set in a well-known
theater of the Holocaust, right in the middle of the conflict in Poland. One
way examines the content of the film, or what is included in the story and what
is excluded. There are several voices of survivors from the movies who speak
both positively and negatively about the accuracy of the film and the types of
stories that the movie portrays. Another possible examination could be the
reasons behind the actors chosen to represent parts of Oskar Schindler’s story,
and the use of Polish people as extras in the film. One final way is to analyze
the film is to look at it as such: a film. This is the most prominent part of
my analysis, looking at the cinematography and how it relates to the
remembrance of the victims. Film analysis of its filming style and editing
process can be used to interpret the desired results of the director Steven
Spielberg on his audience, and also the actual impact of the effects in the
film. Some of these effects include the choice of black and white, or
monochrome for most of the scenes in the film, the choice of using color in
certain parts of the film, and also the framing of shots and the angles that
certain characters are shot. In my analysis, the audience is specifically an
American audience, as that fact is also part of my analysis and the film’s
target audience as a blockbuster film. The ongoing conversations about these
effects all link back to the intentions of the director, and debating whether
or not these were his actual intentions.

 Then there is the
question of the impact that the film, and specifically these effects, have had
on the way the Holocaust is received by the American public, and how it is used
to teach younger generations about this tragedy, and this is in regard to how it
is shown, rather than the content of the film itself.It is difficult not to see
the impact that Schindler’s List has
had on the genre of Holocaust films, and also the impact it has left on the
memory of the Holocaust as a whole, changing how we see and teach the event. Although
the content and places may be accurate and used to make the Schindler Jews’
experiences intelligible, the filming techniques and editing result in
distancing the audience from the experience and creating a barrier between the
worlds of the Holocaust and the modern audience, and shifts the Holocaust into
an American memory that is warped to teach the younger generations about this
event in a dramatic and personal way that does not honor the countless victims
and the tragedy they endured.

The barrier
between the audience and the subjects of the film starts in the monochrome. The
majority of the film is in black and white, but the feelings of distance
between the audience and the victims on the screen happens in particular
scenes. When the Jews are in the concentration camp at P?aszów,
they make all of the Jews come outside and submit to physical examinations.
Thousands of people are made to come into the filthy Appellplatz2,
undress and run around in the nude, male and female together and be picked out
at random and their fate would be decided whether they could work or not. To
the Jews in the story, it is a massive humiliation to run around in the nude and
to be under the scoping eye of the quack Nazi doctors. This part of the film
would earn the R-rating by itself, not blurring the genitalia of either sex and
showing 360 degree views of both the nude male and female body. The way it is
filmed is different, as in how the shots are all from faraway, making sure the
whole naked body is viewed but never focusing on a face. This isas opposed to
other emotional parts of the film that are in a close up frame of people’s
faces in order to gauge their reactions. Before this scene, they had many close
ups on the faces getting ready to go outside, and they were all wearing clothes
and trying to look more alive by smearing blood on their cheeks, but the moment
they step outside and undress, that connection with the reoccurring characters
is severed and they all become one of many of the mass of naked bodies running
around in humiliation.

The way that this
is done in the film, the dehumanizing factor manages to distance the audience
from the humiliation. They may feel pity towards them, but do not regard the
subjects as their equals. Gone are the focus on the stories of the reoccurring
characters, and the focus is on the people as a whole submitting to this
cruelty. They form a collective of people going through this struggle, and that
is all that is emphasized, not the humanity and their reactions to the degradation
that they had to endure. Their individuality has been taken away, and they
become a part of a sea of naked bodies to be processed. They are being treated
like animals by the Nazis, and they are being perceived as animals by the
audience.This scene, while horrific to watch and very effective on its
audience, has no true purpose in the progression of the film. The purpose is
only in its shock value and a way of getting the audience’s attention, but this
attention had no emotional attachment to the victim because it was like
watching a wildlife documentary and they could distance themselves from the
terrible things happening to the Jews in Plazow.

The monochrome of
the film was argued over many times during production, but Steven Spielberg wanted
it to stay in and he won. The clearest answer he gave regarding the reason
behind the monochrome was that he wanted it to feel like a documentary-drama.
That being said, Spielberg changes his mind per interview question what the
true purpose of the film is, either as a memorial or a documentary. He confesses
in an interview that the scene analyzed above was very difficult to watch while
they were filming, the extras they had been using for the film now subjected to
being filmed clinically in the nude. However, he says that it was much easier
to watch when he replayed the scene in black and white (2, Royal). The director
himself ended up distancing himself from the work, severing the emotional
connection he felt the first time we watched the extras filming. Instead of the
emotional appeal he had been trying to invoke in the audience, he sees the
black and white film serve as a way to mute the horrors of this particular
scene of humiliation.He mentions this scene specifically, but he could mean any
part of the film, any of the mass shootings or violent crimes committed.

After the film was
released, critics and scholars had varying opinions on the use of the black and
white, and also its impact on them as a viewer. Film critic Thomas Doherty
believes that the grainy monochromatic filming “resonates with the documentary
memory of the Holocaust”(Doherty), and Philip Gourevitch states the black and
white makes the material “appear more familiar by coloring it according to its
period”(Gourevitch). Both critics agree that the desired feeling of a
documentary style film has succeeded with the use of monochrome.Julie Rigg also
argues that the “black and white for Spielberg also denoted ‘history'”(Rigg),
like the scene is the equivalent of just peering into a textbook about the
Holocaust.  But is the documentary
feeling helping or detracting from the overall story and message that Spielberg
was trying to convey? Referring back to the Appelplatz scene, a mass scene as
this one with no focus on particular people, the sea of black and white bodies
forms no emotional appeal for its audience. The audience is distanced from the
experience, and the humanity that the film is telling in its story of growth
and compassion is lost in the mindless black and white scenes of nudity.The
humanity is stripped away from the victims and the audience no longer regards
the victims of the camps as human beings like themselves. “For the most part,
they are treated by Spielberg as a class, a group, a category: Jew,”(Rigg).

The barrier is
built higher in the parts of the film when the Little Girl in the Red Coat is
seen, not by distancing the audience from the narrative, but by immersing them
emotionally into the scene. During the Krakow ghetto massacre, Oskar Schindler
is looking down on the horrific scene from a hill on horseback with his
mistress, and he sees the little girl (whom the technical consultant names
Genia) walking among the dead bodies and soldiers killing Jews coming from all
the buildings. The color of her coat can be seen from a zoomed out shot, lost
among the sea of black and white. The scene cuts back and forth between
observing the girl walking through the carnage and close up on Oskar
Schindler’s face. When she disappears from site, he leaves the massacre looking
emotionally disturbed, and this is the first time in the movie that he has
shown any type of sympathy for the Jews. Many sources agree that the girl is a
first turning point for Schindler, who after this moment finds more chances to
help the Jews instead of just adding to his wealth and avoiding their plight.
Genia shows up in only one more moment in the film, and it is when bodies are
being dug up from the massacre and burnt in a mass pyre. She is seen on a
cartload full of bodies, and again the film cuts to Schindler dropping his
handkerchief in disbelief, obviously moved by the fate of the girl in the red
coat. This is then agreed as a second turning point for Oskar Schindler to save
the Jews from being sent to Auschwitz, and the creation of the famous list.

There should be
great significance in the fact that the girl in red is one of the very few
times that color is used in the film. By her being a small child, attention is
on her and the audience is attentive to the fact that she is walking along the
carnage, in some ways the only innocent bystander, as she is walking calmly and
not running or shuffling like the adults shown around her. But, when she is
hiding in the end of the ghetto massacre scene, and again when she is seen on
the cart with other dead Jews, she becomes one of the many dead, and just
because she caused an emotional reaction does not mean she is exempt from the
Nazis’ treachery and murderous deeds.

Behind the scenes,
the character in the filming had an explicit purpose in the plot, at least to
Steven Spielberg. Technical consultant Franciszek Palowski talks of the girl in
red as a turning point for the character of Oskar Schindler, and how in his
inner mind, he has become the only witness to this event, the only witness to
her death and resolves to do more about helping the Jews (101, Palowski). Also,
she is understood to be a representation of all of the children lost in the
Holocaust, how the Jewish community lost nearly an entire generation throughout
the war (Bulow). The talk of her emotional significance is not lost in the film
reviews and scholarly discussion about the film. Julie Rigg talks about the
girl in red, the splash of color among a sea of black and white carnage. She
states that Spielberg makes her appearance and meaning grossly obvious to his
audience and how that in turn becomes just one in a line of cheap cinematic
shortcuts that insult our “emotional intelligence”(Rigg). Spielberg uses the
little girl as a cheap effect in his film to channel emotions that the audience
is already feeling, but is now having it paraded in front of them.

In reference to
scholarly discussion, Mark Anderson uses the girl in red for his argument about
the Americanization of the Holocaust, and how we transformed the way American’s
receive and teach about the event. In essence, the girl in red becomes a symbol
for the entire Jewish race, the entire people that was oppressed during this
time. However, Anderson believes that the emphasis on the child victim leads
the entire Jewish race to be symbolized like a child. In this way, they may
seem helpless or defenseless. This in turn causes the Holocaust to be
personalized and the memory of the victims warped in the eyes of the audience,
and makes a “false sense of solidarity and understanding” with the victims of
the Holocaust by the American public (Anderson, 1). By using the young girl to
stand in for the rest of the people, the Jewish people are again put under a
category, under a set of characteristics that lead them to need someone to come
and help them, someone like Oskar Schindler.

In connection to
the infantilization of the Jews through the shots of the little girl, how Oskar
Schindler is portrayed and shot in the film is the final separation between the
actual victims of the event and the audience. Steven Spielberg is known for
using low angle shots, in order to gain a childlike perspective on events, but
in the film this is used to the extreme with scenes with the principal
character. When Oskar is filmed with the Jews, the camera is mostly angled up,
like the audience is looking up at Schindler. With Steven Spielberg’s past
films as a guideline, this focusing up on the character would seem normal, but
it is what is used alongside the low angle shots that creates the distance. In
contrast, most of the mass Jew scenes, such as the shooting in the massacre and
the running medical exam in the Appelplatz show the audience looking down at
the Jews, shot from above or level to their faces, instead of looking up to
them. There is an unmistakable difference in how the principal hero of the film
is shot, in contrast to the victims that the film is attempting to remember.

Angled up shots
are used in cinematography to endow power and importance, the audience viewing
them as an authoritative figure from their lower perspective. In conclusion,
Spielberg has placed the savior in the authoritative figure seat, and placed
the Jewish population into the crowded and lower status places. With
similarities to the child victim in the red coat, Oskar Schindler is endowed
with a fatherly demeanor, despite his indiscretions, and the Jews are again
trivialized and infantilized in the sight of the hero (Anderson, 10). Gourevitch
criticizes this focus on Schindler with the argument that he is never seen as
morally good in the film, but is still made the hero over the Jews, and that
the Gentile needed to swoop in and save them all (Gourevitch). These specific
shots and their continued use throughout the film is an example of how the film
does not perform its base task, to teach about the victims of the Holocaust,
and is instead transformed into a hero’s journey, with the victims and millions
killed only used as a back drop for the amazing and benevolent Oskar Schindler
to come in and save the day.

The usual order is
that history influences the works produced about the events that take place. On
the contrary, the film Schindler’s List
has changed the event itself, at least how it is remember and how it is taught
to the younger generations. As the American people start to teach their youth
about the Holocaust, Schindler’s List
would seem like a quick and efficient introduction to that education, a three
hour lesson plan in the Holocaust; covering the life in the ghetto, life in the
camps, the threat of death by gas chambers, and the rare compassion from
Germans in effort to save the Jews. In fact some Holocaust remembrance
websites, like Yad Veshem, have lesson plans that focus on Schindler’s List and how it can teach younger Jewish generations
about the Holocaust. However, scholars believe that this dependence on Schindler’s List should be met with
“resistance”(Bernstein, 432). Bernstein discusses the “Schindler’s List effect”, that the movie itself has had such an
influence and such fame that it has shaped the outline for how the Holocaust is
represented, and in turn how the Holocaust will be taught in the future. He
believes that the muted and misguided focus of the film Schindler’s List should be avoided as the main way to teach
generations about the Holocaust, because the film does not give due diligence
to the victims of the tragedy. Instead of the history being more objective and
attentive to the victims of the crime, it just serves as another platform to
teach the younger people only what is included in the film. Bernstein is not
alone in beliefs and in fact another scholar Alan Mintz believes that “‘Most
groups are stumbling along into the future under the cover of the convenient
mystifications about the Holocaust and complacently vague banalities about the
imperative never to forget'”(Cole, 131).Mintz believes that the convenient
mystifications in works like Schindler’s
List build a barrier and cover up parts of the Holocaust, and only leave
certain parts to be remembered, erasing the parts of history that do not make
it into the chapter, or make it off the cutting room floor. The film does not
provide a way for conversations to start between the world of the Holocaust and
its modern audience. Through the personalized and distorted nature of the
memory, the victims are not being remembered as they were, but just how the
director wanted them to be shown: as a wildlife documentary that pulls at the
heartstrings but does not show them as human beings. Spielberg, instead of
being faithful to history and to the victims he represents in his film, has
created his own tale of the Holocaust, and how he wants it to be remembered. In
teaching the younger generations with dramatizations and movies with special
effects trained to target our emotional appeals, we cannot connect to the
horror on the screen and focus instead on the personal connection we felt to
the victims. Meanwhile, the victims and their stories of struggles and
individual turmoil are silenced.

There is no way to
remember everything about the Holocaust; no doubt many artifacts and stories
are lost. However, there are misguided ways of remembering the parts that
survive, and how they get taught and reproduced for the next generations. Through
the monochrome and the effects to pull at the heartstrings or insult the
emotional intelligence of the people, the modern audience is distanced and
drawn in at the same time, causing the Holocaust to become a personal memory
for them. It focuses on the hero Oskar Schindler himself, and makes the Jewish
victims into a defenseless people who need a savior to guide them, which effectively
ends the connection to their pain and suffering as individuals. This does not
leave the victims to be remembered in their entirety, and that they only live
on in films to perpetuate the pity for their plight, and nothing more. Their
humanity and individuality has been taken away from them, and they become the
event that they lived through. They are stuck in the past, in their grainy
black and white world.

Works Cited

Anderson, Mark M.
“The Child Victim as Witness to the Holocaust: An American Story?” Jewish Social Studies ns 14.1 (2007):
1-22. JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2014.

Bernstein, Michael André. “MOVIES:
The “Schindler’s List” Effect.” The American Scholar 63.3 (1994): 429-32. JSTOR. Web. 22 May 2014.

Bulow, Louis.
“World War 2, The Little Girl In Red and Oscar Schindler.” The Holocaust, Crimes, Heroes and Villains.
N.p., n.d. Web. 8 May 2014.

Cole, Tim. “Representing the
Holocaust in America: Mixed Motives or Abuse?” The Public Historian 24.4 (2002): 127-31. JSTOR. Web. 22 May 2014.

Doherty, Thomas. “Schindler’s
List.” Cineaste 20.3 (1994): 49. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 May

Philip. “A Dissent On `Schindler’s List’.” Commentary 97.2 (1994):
49. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 May 2014.

Franciszek, Anna Ware, Robert G. Ware, and Thomas Keneally. Witness: The Making of Schindler’s List.
London: Orion, 1998. Print.

Rigg, Julie.
“The Question Spielberg: A Symposium Part Two: Films and Moments.” Senses of Cinema RSS. Sense of Cinema,
July 2003. Web. 15 May 2014.

Royal, Susan.
“Schindler’s List – An Interview with Steven Spielberg.” Inside Film Magazine n.d.: n. pag.
Inside Film Online. Web. 14 May 2014.

Schindler’s List. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Liam
Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley. Universal Pictures, 1993. DVD.

“Schindler’s List Educational
Resources.” The
International School for Holocaust Studies. Yad Veshem, n.d. Web. 04 June


1 Polish, pronounced

2A compound German word
meaning “roll call” (Appell) and “area” or
“place” (Platz). The location for the daily roll calls in Nazi
concentration camps. In the film, it is a large open space surrounded by the
prisoners’ barracks.

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