• Isaac Simon

Holocaust Representation in the Modern Age (2017)

Holocaust Representation in The Modern Age Isaac Simon

“Form inherently alters content. The way history and historical events are presented is its own form of “manipulation.” -Hayden White



For decades now, historians and individuals have wrestled with the question of how to best represent the Holocaust. Theodor Adorno’s proclamation some seventy years ago that “poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” offered the immediate suggestion that to represent the Holocaust through artistic expression is to commit an injustice against the history itself. While few since then have seemed to honor Adorno’s thesis (one he would later revise it), it helped raise a question that in many ways remains unanswerable. How does one attempt to represent the Holocaust without omitting critical parts of its history? Who is the intended audience for these forms of representation? How does one balance the need to honor the dead while also crafting a narrative that hopes to educate the living? These questions and others do not have fixed answers. And while these questions continue to guide this discussion, problems arise when a specific representation is discussed as a definitive answer.

This essay seeks to examine and analyze the role of Schindler’s List in representing the Holocaust, outlining the film’s faults and failures while also pushing back on scholarly critiques of the film. Spielberg’s film is, perhaps more than any other film, understood as the definitive Holocaust film. But this status is a product of the film’s distribution and reception. At no point does the film itself claim to be anything but the story of Oskar Schindler and his efforts to rescue his Jewish workers. Thus, I want to draw attention to what strikes me as a contradiction between the film’s content and the way it was framed for the general public. A stark contrast emerges with respect to Schindler’s List—a contradiction between the film as Holocaust representation and the film as framed by its director for general consumption. Spielberg’s decision to universalize his film to the public often works against the Jewish-centered story he tells in the film.

In his promotion of the film, Spielberg said that, “this is a story about tolerance and remembrance, and it is for everyone…[It] represents racial hatred everywhere in the world” (From Michael Andre Bernstein’s “The Schindler’s List Effect,” 431). We can guess about Spielberg’s motives for characterizing his film in this way. It widens the film’s commercial appeal. It insists that his audience goes beyond the Jewish community or those familiar already with the Holocaust to address more generally problems of racism and bigotry. Or it may be that Spielberg honestly believed that lessons could be derived in a way that crossed intersectional paths with other persecuted peoples. “Spielberg has insisted repeatedly that his movie is as pertinent to the Bosnian Muslims or African-Americans as it is to Jews” (Bernstein, 431). The release of the film roughly coincided with the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., itself an institution working to make its message resonate with the American public at large.

Spielberg’s hope of others understanding the story and how it could provide answers to racial hostility in parts of the inner cities seemed to backfire. The most famous example is a screening of the film at Castlemont High School in Oakland. “It helped trigger a bitter controversy, as different ethnic groups competed over whose history had been more traumatic… more than sixty Castlemont students who had been taken for a required viewing of Schindler’s List (on Martin Luther King Day!) were ejected from the movie theater because they continued to talk and laugh throughout some especially brutal scenes” (Bernstein, p. 431). Such a reaction suggests the film may not have so easily lent itself to cross-racial or cross-ethnic understanding. The representation of historical events depicting intolerance and hate do not automatically get translated into a general message against hate. The students at the high school were not able to see themselves or their community reflected in the depiction of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. Spielberg may have been wrong in presuming that his story would speak to everybody. Furthermore, Spielberg’s insistence that his film be read as being about universal suffering did not necessarily help his audience understand the specific events of history he was depicting in the film.

While Spielberg sought to universalize his film’s message, a close reading of the film shows us that it depicts the Holocaust in particular and not universal ways. That is, while Spielberg’s framing of the film for the general audience could be seen to erase the specifically Jewish aspects of the Holocaust, his film argues otherwise. The movie begins with Sabbath candles being lit and Hebrew being spoken. The first time we see text on screen it is used to inform us about how the Jews were the targets of Nazi persecution, in this case relocation to the ghetto. This is accompanied by shots of the rail yard where it is clear that the victims are Jews. Later on, the text helps the viewer understand the Judenrat and again points to the specifically Jewish focus of Nazi brutality. Toward the end of the film, we see Schindler remind a rabbi that he should be preparing for the Sabbath and Spielberg follows that with shots of a minyan sating shabbos prayers. The plot also contains small details that remind the viewer that these crimes are being carried out against Jews. Armbands with Stars of David are part of the mise-en-scene of many shots. Schindler is thrown in jail for having kissed a Jewish girl. And toward the end, after the war has ended, in a scene that only a Jewish audience might understand, the Jews on the factory floor recite the kaddish out loud. They recite the prayer with a very strong East European accent. All of these moments make Schindler’s List about the persecution of Jews and not about universal suffering.

But one scene stands out as the best example. The Nazi Commandant, Amon Goeth, describes six centuries of Jewish life in Krakow and concludes by saying all that history will be turned into a rumor. He does not describe these centuries as Polish history or European history. He makes it clear that it is Jewish history that he and the Nazis are destroying. In fact, no groups beside the Jews are depicted in the film as the victims of Nazi brutality. Even though we know that the Nazis killed Poles, gypsies, Homosexuals, Russians and Communists, Schindler’s List leaves the impression that it was only Jews who were targeted for killing. The point is that for Spielberg to insist that his film is about universal suffering requires that he overlook the details of his own movie.

While Spielberg’s film points specifically to Jewish suffering, it has been criticized for representing Schindler as a Christ-like figure and for providing the Jews with a Christian savior. At the end of the film, Schindler delivers, a sermon “to the awestruck Jews looking up at him from the Brinnlitz factory floor” (Michael Andre Bernstein, 430). In this scene, invented by Spielberg and his screenwriter Steven Zaillian, Schindler not only announces to the Jews that the war is over, he succeeds at scaring away the German soldiers had been guarding the factory. As he is getting ready to leave the factory, Spielberg gives us a scene in which Schindler breaks down in tears. Clutching Itzak Stern’s hand firmly, he says ‘I could have got more. I don't know. If I just…’ Schindler surveys his material possessions, listing them and quantifying how many more people he could have saved with each item. The melodrama not only materializes in the tears that our shed by Schindler, and perhaps the spectator too, but that “those tears are the realization of being too late” (Kerner, 33-34). As Aaron Kerner notes, the Holocaust becomes the backdrop for Schindler’s evolution. His emotional breakdown turns the scene into one of his self-reflection than of Jewish survival. Furthermore, even though it is the Jews who have lost so much, they are the ones who comfort the Christian Nazi. As Schindler crumples next to his car, Stern and the others move in to hug him and give him strength.

However, being a savior is not the same as being Christ-like. Throughout the film, Schindler is hardly depicting as a Christ figure. He wears expensive clothing and takes pleasure in women and alcohol. He is never meek and often physically dominating. He takes pride in his power and sense of self. But it could be argued that he flirts with god-like powers when he teaches Goeth about pardoning people. In one of their many scenes together, Schindler teaches the Nazi killer that real power comes from forgiveness not killing. Although it can be argued that this is just one of Schindler’s schemes for saving Jewish lives, it shows he has the power to convince a ruthless killer, to convert him. After this scene, we see Goeth practicing what he has learned as he pardons several people for actions that would have otherwise brought his anger and probably his violence. Schindler also enacts god-like powers when he is approached by a woman named Regina Perlman. She asks Schindler to take in her parents as employees so they can be saved. At first he refuses but in the end he tells Stern to add them to the workforce.

The criticism that focuses on Schindler as Christian savior overlooks the extent to which Itzak Stern is also an important figure in the story. Stern is in many ways the unsung hero of the story, often placed at the center of shots, “motivating camera movements” (Hansen, 303). Stern is Schindler’s right-hand man, so to speak, and not only does he help Schindler build his business, he knows the Jewish community and is crucial to Schindler building his Jewish work force, the names that will ultimately become the list. Stern saves Jews at the Nazi desks. The man who tells the Germans he is a scholar is corrected by Stern, who lies and tells the Nazis he is a skilled metal worker. This saves the man’s life. It is true that Schindler and Goeth get more attention in the film than Stern. We are shown both Germans going through their own psychological struggles much more than we are shown Stern struggling with his life. But it is Stern who makes the important moral statement of the film when he tells Schindler that “the list is an absolute good. The List is life.” Criticizing Spielberg for not making Stern the central figure of the film does not add to the accuracy of the history, nor is the film less Jewish for accurately placing Schindler at the center of the story.

Arguably, to not portray Schindler as a savior would be to have distorted this part of history. Schindler was a hero to those he saved and Yad Vashem would later recognize him as a righteous person. Thus, one could read Schindler, the Christian savior, as Spielberg’s acknowledging that the Allied victory over fascism was largely carried out by non-Jews. But as a Christian, Schindler can also stand in for the non-Jewish film viewer who, at the beginning, knows very little about Jews. In fact, at the beginning, Schindler employs Jews not to save them but because they are cheaper than hiring Poles. But as the war goes on and he witnesses the crimes being committed against the Jews, Schindler is converted into a savior. He didn’t start out as one. Witnessing events changes him and perhaps Spielberg’s hope is that the viewers witnessing the crimes on screen will also be converted to understanding and sympathy for those who are persecuted.

The attempt to universalize the Holocaust in modern American culture is not necessarily an indictment of the writers or directors of Holocaust films. That is, there seems to be an effort on the part of critics and educators to connect tragedies, to study or discuss one genocide next to another. But in the case of Schindler’s List, critics have often created a standard not applied to other Holocaust films. Perhaps this is because the film received so much attention and praise. Still, Schindler’s List cannot be attacked for failing to describe the origins of German hatred towards Jews or Spielberg’s decision not to outline Hitler’s final solution. No one form of interpretation is responsible for outlining the entire, complex history of the Holocaust. In fact, the story of Schindler’s List does not require a retelling of the destruction of European Jewry.

Furthermore, Schindler’s list is a drama, not a documentary or a collection of eye-witness testimony. I would argue that it is paramount that Schindler’s List be analyzed through the conventions of its own medium and not compared to Holocaust art in other mediums or even films in other genres. Understanding Schindler’s List within its genre, the historical drama, is crucial for understanding its place in the history of Holocaust representation. However, while it would be unfair to judge Schindler’s List in relation to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, one can still criticize how the film employs the conventions of its own genre. Miriam Hansen has argued that “Attendant upon the film’s fictional form—with its (nineteenth-century) novelistic and historicist underpinnings—is the claim, supported by the publicity and Spielberg’s complicity with it, that Schindler’s List does not just represent one story from the Shoah but that it does so in a representative manner—that it encapsulates the totality of the Holocaust experience” (Hansen, 297). She then goes on to argue that Schindler’s heroism and ability to save 1,100 Jews (“miracle of survival”) suggests that it is the triumph of one individual’s story much more so than the “totality of Holocaust experience” that is being represented.

Once again, there may be a contradiction between what the film represents and what Spielberg purports it represents. But if we accept Hansen’s claim (and maybe Spielberg’s complicity on this issue), we can point to three crucial ways the film fails as Holocaust education. First, Spielberg casts many of the Jews as “generic types, incapable of eliciting identification and empathy. Or worse, some critics contend, they come to life only to embody antisemitic stereotypes (money-grubbing Jews, Jews-as-eternal-victim, the association of Jewish women with dangerous sexuality” (Hansen, p. 300). In other words, the film may reinforce existing negative attitudes toward Jews rather than expand the viewer’s knowledge about Jews in Europe before the Holocaust.

Second, the film often depicts violence toward Jews as random more than systematic. In many scenes, Nazis pull out guns and shoot random Jews for being disobedient or, as with Goeth, simply for target practice. The scenes of the ghetto round-up does point toward a systematic violence, but the film spends almost no time on the death camps. The one scene at Auschwitz hints at people being walked to the gas chambers, but for the most part, the film follows the lives of Jews who survive the war. The young Jewish couples, the mother and daughter, the rabbi among many others that we get to know a little and can identify with survive the ordeal. In this way the film is almost saying that if there had been more good Nazis like Schindler, the Holocaust might not have happened or been so bad. One can almost imagine a viewer who knows little about the Holocaust leaving the theater more relieved than crushed by the events on screen.

The third failure is connected to the ending of the film. The film ends with Schindler’s survivors walking alongside the actors who played them, paying homage to the man that saved their lives. However, the fact that the story ends in Israel raises question some problematic questions, especially for those who are not aware of Israel’s history and its relationship to the Holocaust. From the film, one gets the sense that Israel became the ultimate savior for the Jews so that an event such as the Holocaust will never happen again. It suggests that Israel was a direct byproduct of the destruction of European Jewry and therefore acts as a silver lining. This is misleading. While it is true that the international community took the Holocaust into account with the establishment of the Jewish state, the film draws a false correlation between the two moments in history. The Zionist movement predates World War II and has its roots at the end of the nineteenth century. Spielberg suggests that Israel was a sort of consolation prize for Holocaust survivors.

At the end of the film, one of the survivors asks a Soviet soldier on horseback who has just declared them liberated, “where do we go?” Another tells the Soviet soldier, “We could use some food.” Instead of responding to these questions, the soldier points to his right and says, “Isn’t that a town over there?” Spielberg then cuts to a row of people marching. The location is now Israel. Spielberg keeps the black and white of Czechoslovakia where the Schindler Jews are freed for the first minute of the scene of the Jews now in Israel so the connection between Holocaust survivors and the new state of Israel is made clear. By doing so, the Nazis are temporarily relieved of their responsibility. It becomes equivalent to the erroneous assumption that without Hitler there would be no Israel.

In his book, The Demands of Holocaust Representation, Michael Rothberg raises an interesting criticism of Spielberg’s film. He devotes a chapter to the way in which representations of the Holocaust have undergone a process of Americanization. It is here that he argues the stark differences between the physical historical elements (i.e. Schindler’s List) and the story Spielberg sets out to tell. The differences between these two help outline the difference between history and story. Sheer elements of randomness and luck are absent from Spielberg’s narrative in part because it would work against the continuity he is trying to create. “The events of the Nazi genocide,” Rothberg writes, “as represented even by the exceptional story of the ‘list,’ do not fulfill those narrative demands since they radically ‘deconstruct’ any notion of continuous ‘character’” (Rothberg, 229). In other words, the story-telling conventions that Spielberg must follow require a shape and continuity, even a logical flow of the plot, that conflicts with or does not exist with the events of the Holocaust. Spielberg’s style of representation, the Hollywood narrative, can’t express all the random events of the Holocaust.

But this raises a larger question, one of the recurring and unanswered questions of the semester—coming to terms with how Holocaust representation has itself been represented. I would argue that no single film or text should carry the burden of being comprehensive. Searching for a work that can represent the totality of the Holocaust too often leads to an absurd competition between films. The initial critical reception of Schindler’s List placed it at the pinnacle of Holocaust films. This was due to the film’s strong commercial appeal and the awards it earned in the year it came out, not because it revolutionized Holocaust representation. There is no one form of Holocaust representation and to celebrate one form as definitive can work to silence other forms or approaches. Indeed, if there were an objective standard by which to measure all Holocaust films, why would anyone experiment or seek new approaches to the subject?

Claude Lanzmann’s critique of Schindler’s List points in this direction. Miriam Hansen quotes Lanzmann as saying, “In [Spielberg’s] film there is no reflection, no thought, about what is the Holocaust and no thought about what is cinema. Because if he would have thought, he would have not made it—or he would have made Shoah” (Hansen, 306). In other words, further reflection on the Holocaust is not necessary. Lanzmann has done all of it already and produced the only film that any thoughtful person could produce. Lanzmann’s indictment of Spielberg could be applied to other filmmakers as well—why make another Holocaust film, the perfect film (in Lanzmann’s opinion) has been made. Hansen sees this as casting the disagreement as a “binary opposition of showing or not showing—rather than casting it, as one might, as an issue of competing representations and competing modes of representation” (Hansen, 302). I would argue that we should not see these as competing representations but as alternative ones. Scholarly comparisons between Schindler’s List and Shoah miss the mark if they only result in judgments about which is the better approach. Dramas might point to problems with documentaries and documentaries might point to problems with dramas but in this sense they might improve each other.

As I have suggested above, if we agree the Holocaust is an incredibly complicated phenomenon, how can we look to a single text, or even a single genre, to present a comprehensive representation of it. Other films, other stories, other styles offer important new perspectives and ask important questions. I want to discuss The Grey Zone, directed by Tim Blake Nelson in 2001, as just one example. It can serve as an interesting alternative to Schindler’s List.

While Spielberg’s film pays very little attention to the extermination of the death camps—there is a brief episode at Auschwitz, The Grey Zone takes place entirely inside that camp. While Schindler’s List is in black and white, The Grey Zone is shot in color and uses intense close ups of bodies and faces to convey the horror and tension within the camp. The film tells the story of the 12th Sonderkommando unit at Auschwitz and its mission to blow up crematorium IV. The Sonderkommando were Jewish prisoners assigned the task of disposing of the dead bodies into the crematorium. While this Sonderkommando unit was comprised of Hungarian Jews, Jews of all backgrounds largely made up each of these units. The Grey Zone is in many ways limited by its location, but manages to represent the death camps in a way that is faithful to the time period. Putting aside any sense of satisfaction elicited on the part of the viewer after the crematorium bombing is carried out, The Grey Zone is a film about death. It confirms the idea that, “Piles, not people, are the legacy of the Holocaust” (Landsberg, p, 71). One of the film’s most powerful scenes shows the Sonderkommando giving orders to the newly arrived Jews at Auschwitz. Confused about where they are and how long they will stay, they are forced to strip down and give over all their personal belongings. When one man refuses these orders, one of the Sonderkommandos demands that he give over his watch as punishment. “What does it matter? I’m not going to get it back anyway,” exclaims the new prisoner. Angry and embarrassed, Hoffman insists that he comply with the order. The man not only refuses, but declares him no better than the Nazis. “You are a Jewish Nazi,” the new prisoner tells Hoffman. What follows is a horrible beating of the new prisoner. Hoffman beats him to death and SS men are there to witness it while the man’s wife screams at the sight. Once he has killed the man, Hoffman sits on the ground, clearly traumatized by his own actions and perhaps shocked that he acted as perpetrator of such terror. The SS men take off the dead man’s watch and dangle it in front of Hoffman, giving it to him, signifying a job well done. This scene illustrates the moral ambiguity defined as The Grey Zone. Such ambiguity takes place in an acute environment where victim and perpetrator lose their distinctions, where in some cases, both titles are assumed by the same character.

Schindler’s List does not represent the Sonderkommando but it does represent the Judenrat, in particular Marcel Goldberg who served as a policeman in the ghetto who took orders from the Nazis. Some of the Jews in the ghetto are critical of Goldberg but the film does not spend much time considering the morality of his actions. Interestingly, the real Goldberg is said to have played a role in saving Jews. According to David Crowe’s biography of Schindler, Goldberg helped compile several lists of Jews who ultimately got saved. By leaving out this aspect of the story, Spielberg further heroicizes his main character.

Since it takes place entirely in the death camp and centers on the Sonderkommando, The Grey Zone deals directly with the issue of morality. How The Grey Zone redefines moral judgments is reinforced by Hesch Abramowics when he tells the others, “We’re all dead anyway.” In an environment in which characters understand themselves as “already dead,” the morality or immorality of specific actions becomes less clear. For example, is it immoral to blow up the crematoria if it will result in the deaths of “innocent” people when those same people are condemned to death anyway? In The Grey Zone, where all are sentenced to die eventually, personal agency might best be defined by seizing the chance to choose how one dies. Dying on one’s own terms, and not by the schedule set by the Nazis, may be the only source of redemption in The Grey Zone. Furthermore, unlike Spielberg’s film, all the characters we have followed throughout the film are killed by the end. There are no survivors who can head to Israel and no silver lining.

But just like Schindler’s List, The Grey Zone tells one episode in the larger story of the Holocaust. And even though it is set in the same location as Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, it tells a different story than that work of literature. Yet few critics if any have ever worried that The Grey Zone will be understood as the last word on the Holocaust. Clearly, the huge commercial success and the reach of Hollywood movies has made Spielberg’s film susceptible to this kind of worry.

But if one of the issues for this paper has been the universalizing of the Holocaust, it can be argued that films of the last twenty years have been far more likely to put the Jews at the center of the tragedy than films from an earlier era. For example, in The Mortal Storm (1940), the Roth family is the victim of the Nazi rise to power and Freya Roth, the daughter of the family, is killed by Nazis as she tries to escape Germany. Even though the family has a Jewish sounding name, they are never identified as Jewish. In fact, the word Jew is never mentioned in the film. Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) centers on efforts by the FBI to shut down a Nazi spy ring in New York. While the film’s mise-en-scene contains swastikas and the plot shows Germans secretly plotting to aid Hitler in America, there is no mention of the Jews as targets of Nazi ideology. Not until 1959 did a Hollywood film explicitly identify the Jews as victims of Nazi persecution. In The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), the family as Jews is made clear and they are shown celebrating Hanukah. However, Ilan Avisar argues that the film fails to identify the persecution as specifically aimed at Jews. “Although in the commercial version the Jewish identity of the Franks is never concealed, and they are even shown celebrating holidays, what is completely missing is any attempt to present the Franks’ predicament as essentially Jewish, within the context of the history of Jewish experience” (Avisar, 122).

It can be argued that for a long time, The Diary of Anne Frank—the book not the film—stood as the central Holocaust text for many Americans. It was required reading for many students and was a tremendous bestseller. But the diary, of course, as well as the movie version end before a description of Anne’s death or the horror of the death camp. Only after certain historical events—the Nuremberg trials, the trial of Eichmann—and changes in the film industry that permitted more graphic representations of violence, could films begin to depict a fuller account of the Holocaust. If filmmakers had decided that it was impossible to represent such events, the world would understand the Holocaust in a very different way than it does today. Each new film, none of them the perfect representation, contributes to the ongoing discussion of the Holocaust.

Intelligent discussion of Holocaust representation will only be carried out if it fosters dialogue. Rather than seeking to establish a hierarchy of Holocaust films, the important task is to do close readings of rhetorical strategies and not belittle one form of representation in an effort to boast about another. Once the critical discourse shifts its focus from a work as the form of representation and understands it as a form amongst a long list of others, a more fruitful discussion on such critical issues will take place.


Works Cited

Avisar, Ilan. Screening the Holocaust: Cinema's Images of the Unimaginable. Bloomington; Indiana University Press, 1988.

Bernstein, Michael Andre. “The ‘Schindler's List Effect.’” The American Scholar, vol. 63, no. 3, 1994, pp. 429–432. JSTOR [JSTOR].

Hansen, Miriam Bratu. “‘Schindler's List’ Is Not ‘Shoah’: The Second Commandment, Popular Modernism, and Public Memory.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 22, no. 2, 1996, pp. 292–312. JSTOR [JSTOR].

Kerner, Aaron. Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives on Dramas, Documentaries, and Experimental Films. Continuum, 2011.

Landsberg, Alison. “America, The Holocaust, and the Mass Culture of Memory: Toward a Radical Politics of Empathy.” New German Critique, vol. 71, no. Memories of Germany, 1997, pp. 63–86. JSTOR [JSTOR].





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