For my money Schindler’s List is the Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony of movie-making. Steve Spielberg has come a long way since Jaws and ET! If you haven’t seen it, go with a friend you don’t mind crying with, and with whom you can share the silence afterwards. You won’t want to talk.
The story of the film, a true story, is about how Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and at least nominally a member of the Nazi party, rescues 1,098 Jews from the Holocaust simply by employing them in his factory, which, he claimed, was an essential part of the German war effort.
After watching the movie, I read the book it was based on… twice.(1) Then I found a Saturday Night magazine article about the real-life Schindler.(2) And increasingly I found not only Spielberg’s images disturbing, but also the deeper questions it raised.
For me, the questions cluster around the two main characters: Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth, the Nazi officer he has to deal with. In some ways the two are quite similar. Keneally is quite explicit:
Goeth was some eight months younger than Schindler, but shared with him more than the mere year of birth. Like Oskar he had been raised a Catholic and had ceased observing the rites of the church… Like Oskar too, he had graduated from high school in the Realgymnasium ñ Engineering, Physics, Math. [Goeth] shared with Oskar…his weakness for liquor [and] a massive physique…As well like Oskar, he never suffered the hangovers he deserved. (159f.)
Kenneally ponders the parallels:
The reflection can hardly be avoided that Amon was Oskar’s dark brother, was the berserk and fanatical executioner Oskar might, by some unhappy reversal of his appetites, have become. (171)
In his mind, they come to represent good and evil, God and Satan: towards the end of the movie, Oskar proposes to Goeth that they play cards for the life of a servant girl, Helen:
As for Oskar’s part in this proposal, he had made it lightly. He did not seem to see, in his offer to Amon, any parallel with God and Satan playing cards for human souls. (279)
The main contrast between these two men takes places over precisely this same issue: people. My first question was a line from the movie:
What’s a person worth to you?
In the beginning, Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) is simply out to make money for himself. He tells his wife, Emilie, he is in the factory “To make money for me.” He wants people to say of him, “He came with nothing and…left with a steamer trunk ñ no, two steamer trunks ñ full of money.”
However, quite early on, you see a hint of a different attitude when he meets Stern (who will become the accountant for the factory). Stern (played by Ben Kingsley) introduces himself, “By law I have to tell you, sir, I am a Jew.” Schindler shrugs and replies, “Well, I am a German, so there we are.” By saying that, he levels the playing field and refuses to play the Nazis’ game. If Stern has to state his racial origin, Schindler will do the same. They are equal.
Little by little, not least through influence of Stern, this side of Schindler comes to the fore. One person highlights the change happening, and why it happens: an elderly, one-armed man who comes to thank Schindler, and is then shot by Nazis.
The Nazis show what is the logical end of asking, What’s his use? If the man has no use, then he has no value ñ so they get rid of him. Schindler complains that he has lost a worker…but already there is ambivalence. He knows what he has lost is not just a worker, but a person.
This is foundation to the whole movie. Keneally says:
Schindler’s camp…was the only camp in Nazi-occupied territory where a Jew was never killed, or even beaten, but was always treated as a human being. (391)
Towards the end, when Schindler is trying to arrange to have his workers moved to Czechoslovakia, the question is actually spelled out: Goeth asks him, “What’s a person worth…to you?” The question is not answered directly, but in practice, Schindler’s answer varies. On one occasion, he is able to prevent the killing of one of his workers by offering the soldier with the gun a bottle of vodka. The officer doesn’t understand. Keneally says:
For working all day behind the machine guns… the massed and daily executions in the east ñ for shooting hundreds ñ you were given half a liter of vodka…And here the Herr Direktor offered him three times that for one act of omission. (214)
Later, in the new factory, even before anything could be manufactured, we are told:
Oskar was paying…nearly $14,000 US each week for male labor; when the women arrived the bill would top $18,000. Oskar was therefore committing a grand business folly. (304)
But in philosophical terms, he obviously believes people are beyond price. Is it folly? On one scale of values, of course; but not in another way. In fact, at the end, he is overwhelmed by the realisation that he didn’t do enough, he could have done more.
The question that came to my mind was: Why do we care so much about people? Why do we think they’re so precious, so priceless, if they are (as I once heard atheist Kai Neilson describe them) “big-brained lumps of slime”? Why, in terms of the movie, do we root for Schindler as he gives all he’s got (literally) to save people’s lives? Where does this deep instinct come from that this is right? I have never heard anyone say, Well, Nazism was OK for their culture. Schindler should not have interfered. Rather we say, He was right on. People are of immeasurable value. But on what basis do we think that?
My answer as a Christian is Jesus’ view: people are valuable because they are made by God in the image of God. Not that God bestows on people a value they don’t otherwise have. But Jesus explains why we feel so strongly. Professor Glenn Tinder, writing in Atlantic Monthly (3) a few years ago, puts it this way:
In the act of creation God grants a human being glory, or participation in the goodness of all that has been created…The Lord of all time and existence has taken a personal interest in every human being, an interest that is compassionate and unwearying. The Christian universe is peopled exclusively with royalty…[Without this faith,] the notion that all people…have equal claims on our respect becomes as absurd as would be the claim that all automobiles or all horses are of equal excellence.
If you believe that what Schindler did was right and good, why do you believe that? What is the basis for your belief? If all people are created equal, doesn’t that imply the need for a Creator? If you don’t have a good reason for believing it, it’s difficult to maintain it under pressure.
Which leads to the other side of the coin in the movie:
Amon and the nature of evil
The evil in the movie revolves around attitudes to people, just as does the good. If Schindler’s heroism lay in treating people as people, Goeth’s guilt lies in his treating people as less than human ñ for instance, his practice of shooting prisoners at random from his balcony, just for target practice. (192)
This is where lists take on symbolism. After all, the movie’s title is a list (the book was originally called Schindler’s Ark), but Schindler’s list takes on its significance by contrast with other lists. Generally, speaking, in this story, with one exception, lists mean evil. Keneally mentions at least eleven evil lists:
SS lists of unsatisfactory or seditious ghetto dwellers (99); 1,000 ghetto dwellers who had been rounded up according to Symche Spira’s lists and marched…to the cattle cars (104); Spira had another list and it was either twice or three times as long as the last (127); Spitz and Forster…had drawn up lists for the imprisonment of thousands (143); a list of thousands for deportation (144); labor lists and transport lists..lists of living and dead (227); the man with the list, the man who opened and closed the doors on the cattle cars (231); the list of insurgents (273).
Schindler nearly loses Stern because he gets on the wrong list. In one scene you see why these lists are evil: a Nazi officer at train station cannot rescue anyone who is “on the list.”
Keneally describes the scene this way:
Oskar could see in the man’s left hand an enormous list ñ pages of names… You can’t have them back, said the young man. They’re on the list. “It’s not my place to argue with the list,” said Schindler. “Where is your superior officer?”… The officer also made a statement about the holiness of the list. For this man it was the secure, rational and sole basis for all this milling of Jews and movement of rail cars. But Schindler got crisper now. He’d heard about the list, he said …With emphasis in his pen strokes, the officer removed the Emalia workers one at a time from the list and required Oskar to initial the pages. “Sir,” he said, “it makes no difference to us, you understand. We don’t care whether it’s this dozen or that… It’s the inconvenience to the list, that’s all.” (124f.)
So people are reduced to a name on a list. The list is more important than people: one name on a list is much like another. The list teaches the soldiers how to treat the people: impersonally. A sign of Schindler’s humanity is that he is not impressed or intimidated by the list.
Why do people do these evil things? In the movie, the specific question is asked why Amon does what he does. Oskar thinks it must be the bad local liquor he drinks (217).
He also muses whether Amon is a lunatic (173); Keneally too uses words like mad (253), berserk (235) and deluded (390) to describe him. We shouldn’t use the word mad loosely however. Madness is a relative term. In fact, Oscar is also described as being mad, because what he does is outside the range of what we think of as normal human behaviour, just as much as what Goeth does.
There is another possibility: duty. Keneally says, “Duty, as so many of their superiors would claim in court, was the SS genius” (368). The notorious Milgram experiments at Yale in the 60s “demonstrated the extent to which ordinary citizens might engage in brutal behaviour at the direction of a malevolent authority.”(4) Yet in the case of Goeth, he so clearly went beyond orders, and enjoyed what he was doing, that duty seems an inadequate explanation.
Part of my own interpretation is based on the fact that, generally speaking, we act in line with our beliefs. So if we have reason to believe that all people have worth and dignity, then we will treat them accordingly. If we believe that some people are more valuable than others, or even that some are worthless, then we will treat the “inferior” ones as less than human.
Alan Bullock, in his classic study of Hitler (5), comments that the sin which Hitler committed was that which the ancient Greeks called hybris, the sin of overweening pride, of believing himself to be more than a man. (385) His belief about who he was implied certain beliefs about others, and a certain way of behaving towards them. It is significant that Hitler specifically rejected the teachings of Christianity because they taught the dignity of all people, and favoured compassion towards the weak:
In Hitler’s eyes, Christianity was a religion fit only for slaves; he detested its ethics in particular. Its teaching, he declared, was a rebellion against the natural law of selection by struggle and the survival of the fittest…”Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cultivation of the human failure.” (389)
So Hitler’s belief in himself led to certain kinds of action towards others. His belief in the survival of the fittest led to a certain attitude towards the weak and helpless. He knew that Christian beliefs about the value of people would have compelled him to an opposite kind of behaviour, and so, Bullock says:
once the war was over, he promised himself, he would root out and destroy the influence of the Christian churches. (389)
The contrast between Oskar and Goeth is that Oskar (probably unconsciously) held a Christian view of persons which he probably learned from his Catholic background; Goeth, following Hitler, held a different philosophy.
But evil is not only a matter of what you believe about the world. Professor Tinder again:
The twentieth century…has displayed evil in extravagant forms. Wars and massacres, systematic torture and internment in concentration camps, have become everyday occurrences in the decades since 1914… [The Christian understanding is that] the inclination toward evil is primarily an inclination to exalt ourselves rather than allowing ourselves to be exalted by God. We exalt ourselves in a variety of ways: for example, by power, trying to control all the things and people around…
Tinder is not writing exclusively about Nazism. But his description is certainly apt. Bullock writes:
To say that Hitler was ambitious scarcely describes the intensity of the lust for power and craving to dominate which consumed him. It was the will to power in its crudest and purest form, not identifying itself with the triumph of a principle… for the only principle of Nazism was power or domination for its own sake. (382)
In Christian understanding, however, having a wrong view of yourself or of others not only damages those others: it dehumanises you. So it is significant that Keneally writes of Goeth’s experience:
A man paid for [his inhuman deeds], for by evening the fullness of this hour would be followed by such emptiness that he would need, to avoid being blown away like a husk, to augment his size and permanence by food, liquor, contact with a woman (168).
Sin is ironic. Its intention is self-exaltation, its result is self-debasement. In trying to ascend, we fall.
Evil is the logical conclusion of putting self at centre of universe instead of the Creator. But the scary thing is that we all have the tendency to do precisely that. Timothy Findley in Famous Last Words (6) writes about those who collaborated with the Nazis:
“We should never have done these things,” they will say, “were it not that men like…Mussolini, Dr.Goebbels and Hitler drove us to them. Otherwise we should have stayed home by our quiet hearths and dandled our children on our knees and lived out lives of usefulness and pace…” Missing the fact entirely that what they were responding to were the whispers of chaos, fire and anger in themselves.
The third question the movie prompted for me may not immediately appear to follow. But it does. The question is:
What is God like? People in our society often have a hard time figuring out what God is like. Most acknowledge that there is a supreme Being, probably the Creator, but if you ask what this Being is like, they have a hard time. Similarly, people say, I believe in God, but I don’t understand where this Jesus fits in. Schindler, in some ways, offers us insight into what God is like, as least in Christian thinking.
I say this because, to my surprise, I found that (in the book more than the movie), there are more religious references than I can count to Oskar Schindler:[Schindler] told [his workers], “You’ll be safe working here. If you work here, you’ll live through the war”… The promise had dazed them all. It was a godlike promise. How could a mere man make a promise like that? (91)
What he did is described as salvation (213, 232), redemption (literally “buying back”) (276), and a “massive Biblical rescue” (256). One of the Schindlerjuden (as they came to be called) said, “He was our father, he was our mother, he was our only faith. He never let us down.” (330) He was “the grand, magical, omniprovident Oskar” (332). Schindlerjuden “stated that Oskar was their Savior” (394).
When his women workers are taken to Auschwitz by mistake, one asks: “Where’s Schindler now?” and another replies, “You’ll see, it will all come out. We’ll end up somewhere warm with Schindler’s soup inside us.” (310)
Keneally draws an explicit parallel with Jesus:
When you look at other events of that mad winter, you can see that Oskar wanted the extra 30 [workers] not because they were used to lathes and machine tools, but because they were simply an extra 30. It is not too fantastic to say that he desired them with some of the absolute passion that characterised the exposed and flaming heart of Jesus which hung on Emilie’s wall. Since this narrative has tried to avoid the canonisation of the Herr Direktor, the idea of the sensual Oskar as the desirer of souls has to be proved. (350 cf.317)
This caution is important. In some ways, Schindler is clearly not like the Judaeo-Christian understanding of God. Keneally says elsewhere:
Oskar had become a minor god of deliverance, double-faced ñ in the Greek manner-as any small god; endowed with all the human vices. (232)
But if we bear that in mind, there are some things we can learn. Once again, the lists are helpful. The whole story is a tale of two lists: one gives life, the other death. With one, it doesn’t matter who’s on it; the other is individual, and Schindler and Stern rack their brains to remember individuals who should be on the list. In this clip, Oskar makes up his mind to pay Goeth whatever it takes to buy his Jewish workers and ship them to relative safety in Czechoslovakia. Goeth, of course, with his opposing world-view, does not understand. Madrisch, another industrialist, lacks Oskar’s passion, and is not willing to take the same risk, as we see in the scene where Schindler gives money to Goeth, and pleads with Madrisch to do the same.
Keneally describes the list this way, again in religious terms:
Oskar’s list, in the mind of some, was… more than a mere tabulation. It was a List. It was a sweet chariot which might swing low. (276)
Stern in the film quotes Keneally’s words:
The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its cramped margins lies the gulf… It was blasphemously close to creating people anew just by thinking of them. (290)
The Christian understanding of God is that God feels so passionately about the people God has made that God is willing to do anything to rescue us from the consequences of our own evil. Christians believe that in Jesus, God was writing himself into the script of the movie we call human life, and that Jesus demonstrated God’s passion for us, not by giving a fortune to buy us back, as Schindler did, but by giving his own life to buy us back, and so that we too might be created anew.
Conclusion [In 1961] Schindler was declared a Righteous Person, this title being a peculiarly Israeli honor based on an ancient tribal assumption that in the mass of Gentiles, the God of Israel would always provide a leavening of just men. (394)
Oskar Schindler died in 1974. He is buried in a cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the only member of the Nazi Party to be so honoured.
(1) Schindler’s List Thomas Keneally (Toronto: Simon and Schuster 1982)
(2) Saturday Night, April 1994, pp.40-77
(3) Atlantic Monthly, December 1989, pp.69-85
(4) Allan J. Kimmel, Ethics and Values in Applied Social Research (Newbury Park: Sage Publications 1988), p.60
(5) Alan J. Bullock, Hitler: a Study in Tyranny (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1962)
(6) Timothy Findley, Famous Last Words (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1981)