Schindler’s List is 25 years old. This seems unfathomable in both directions, in the way of so many things these days: Surely the film cannot be that old; it feels like yesterday. And also surely the devastating cultural experience this film presented to us all back then was so much longer ago than that. I saw the film during its initial release — late 1993 and into early 1994 — and then again six years later, when I reviewed every Oscar Best Picture winner in early 1999. Both viewings were very difficult.
I had not seen the movie again until just now, another 20 years on, and the overwhelming reaction I am left with today — beyond a face full of hurt from sobbing for two hours straight at human beings’ inhumanity to fellow human beings — is a new astonishment: While in the 1990s, Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, his raw, brutal depiction of the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust, was harrowing, it felt like history, a nightmare safely in the distant past. Watching it again now, from the bowels of 2018, it feels like a warning, a premonition, a harbinger. Watching it now, it all feels closer to us than ever before, even as the events depicted are a further quarter of a century in the past.
Clichés about history repeating and history rhyming are too blasé, too pat, too easy for comfort. I’m genuinely afraid about where we’re heading.
I know, I know, I know: There are those today who moan that we screaming lefty Cassandras are being ridiculously hyperbolic to liken what is happening in the West — particularly in the United States and in the United Kingdom — to Nazi Germany. But Nazi Germany didn’t start out genocidal, at least not overtly, even if the warning signs that that was the direction in which it was heading were already there… as a new look at Schindler’s List reminds us. And so begins the lessons for 2018 I gleaned from my recent rewatch:
• Complicity and complacency are not only the hallmarks of rising fascism, but absolutely essential to it. There are two complementary opening sequences to Schindler’s List. The first is the one in which Jews politely line up to register with the Nazis in Krakow, Poland, essentially handing their fates over to an occupying power that no one can at that time possibly conceive will exterminate those it is, apparently, merely censusing. We must resist the temptation to say that they should have known, but with our hindsight, today we must acknowledge that compliance with totalitarianism is dangerous, not least because it signals acceptance. The other opening sequence is our introduction to Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson: Widows, The Commuter), newly arrived in Krakow and sucking up mightily to the Nazi powers that be, hoping to do business with them. And succeeding wildly, because narcissistic emotional children like the bullies the Nazis were are always susceptible to the kind of flattery and buttering-up that Schindler offers. (Remember this: Bullies, once you recognize them for what they are, can be manipulated. This will be another important lesson. More on this in a bit.)
• Empathy can be engaged — in some people, if they aren’t actually sociopaths — but it takes time and proximity. In my 1999 rewatch, I wasn’t sure whether Schindler was already plotting subversion as he was scheming to get on the sweet side of the Nazi powers. I’m still not entirely sure: Spielberg (Ready Player One, The Post), screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and Neeson are all very coy on this point. But I suspect now that Schindler is, at this early point in the war and in the movie, just looking to get rich on conflict, in the timeless tradition of industrialists — ie, rich privileged white men — everywhere. (Ferengi Rules of Acquisition No 34: “War is good for business.”) I think it is only very gradually that he comes to see what is really happening and that it is really happening to actual human beings, via his relationship with his accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley: The Ottoman Lieutenant, The Jungle Book), who is Jewish, and whom Schindler has to rescue from a train taking Krakow’s Jews to… well, we know where, but likely Schindler at best has only dark, vague suspicions of where his very useful, very smart employee is headed. It may be pure practicality that leads Schindler to use his standing as a rich German and good Nazi to insist that his essential helper be removed from that cattle car, but it may also be the first inkling that Schindler gets that things are going south quickly now. Which leads us to:
• Things go south very quickly. And blind obedience to authority is a necessary requirement of that. The scene here of Jews sorting the luggage that other Jews packed onto the death trains have left behind is like a kick in the gut. As is the scene of Jewish children happily waving goodbye to their parents as they go to what we know will be their deaths. The horror of people willingly walking into oblivion when mass governmental murder is inconceivable can no longer an option. Again, we must resist the urge to say “They should have known” and “They should have fought back, or at least refused to comply,” because the world was different then. From which follows:
• We can no longer feign ignorance of or astonishment at rising totalitarianism, nor can we downplay the peril of it. We know now, today, in the 21st century, that the unimaginable is not only imaginable but entirely possible.
• Resist resist resist, however you can, from whatever position you can. Use whatever privilege you have to resist, if you have any kind of human soul and conscience. Undermine from within if that’s where you are. This is perhaps the single most utterly essential, the single most unconditionally vital message to take away from Schindler’s List today. We can debate where the point is that Schindler knows incontrovertibly what is happening to the Jews, but we cannot debate that once he knows, he uses his position, his power, and his money to subvert it. There is a special small rebellious magic in how Schindler (and Stern) use bureaucracy to stick it to the Nazis: Schindler’s list is literally just paperwork, a memo to the Nazis about Jewish workhorses he needs to keep running his business that is, ostensibly, supporting the Third Reich. And yet… perhaps the most powerful line of dialogue in the whole film is this, from Schindler: “If this factory [which is manned by Jews Schindler saved from being shipped to Auschwitz] ever produces a shell that can be fired, I’ll be very unhappy.”
• Toxic masculinity is cultural poison, but it can be disrupted. The counterpoint to Schindler is Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes: The Lego Batman Movie, Kubo and the Two Strings), the Nazi camp commandant, who shoots Jews from the balcony of his on-site manor for fun and is generally the shittiest representation of humanity imaginable, at least as present in this film. And yet Schindler figures out how to divert his worst impulses, with the sly suggestion that the power he has been using to decide who should die at his caprice could be used to decide who lives at his “mercy.” Schindler gets Goeth to do his bidding by appealing to the other man’s vanity. The white-male rage and weak, insecure manhood that was — and still is — Nazism is not impervious to manipulation that can cripple its goals.
• We cannot rely on the beneficence of rich white men to save the rest of us. Six million people were exterminated in the Holocaust. Even Schindler despairs that he was able to save only a tiny handful from that awful fate. Of course we must celebrate Schindler’s campaign of resistance, and indeed it forces us to wonder where the likes of him are now, men using their wealth and privilege for the betterment of all. (George Soros and Bill Gates are only two dudes.) And yet, we must never depend on the whims of rich white men for anything. No individual should wield such power. It’s no way to run a planet.
Was the Holocaust the lowest point in human existence, or can we go lower? “Someday this is all going to end, you know,” Schindler says to Stern at one point, but has it ended? Only our eternal vigilance against its like can ensure that it has. With World War II starting to pass out of living memory, it falls to pop culture to keep it in the public imagination. Schindler’s List remains extremely difficult to watch — how many people will be willing to see it again as it gets a new wide rerelease in the US this week? who will be willing to endure watching the new 25th-anniversary-edition 4K Ultra blu-ray to be released this month? — but if there is anything heartening to be found in it today, it is the very pertinent lessons it has for us right now.
• Schindler’s List (review) (1999)