Schindler’s List : Speilberg’s Justice to Historical Context and the Moral Dilemma of Representation

Does the insertion of melodrama fit into the retelling of history?
Schindler’s List : Speilberg’s Justice to Historical Context and the Moral Dilemma of Representation

'My primary purpose in making Schindler's List was for education. The Holocaust had been treated as just a footnote in so many textbooks or not mentioned at all. Millions knew little if anything about it. Others tried to deny it happened at all' – Steven Speilberg. 

On the eve of World War II, a Jewish family lights up Sabbath candles, and a Rabbi recites Jewish prayers. As the prayer continues, the family disappears, and the flame of candles turns into wisps of smoke. With the subsequent shot, the scene transforms from colourful to monochrome; routine prayer into the diegetic sound of a train whistle; and the final wisp of smoke into huge fumes of a train, marking the beginning of Steven Spielberg's most anticipated docudrama, Schindler's List  —  a film about the commemoration of people subjected to the horrors of the Holocaust. The film spans the period of 1939 to 1946, beginning with the German invasion of Poland, which ultimately led to the start of World War II. It covers a vignette of the Holocaust from a definite point in history by accreting the narration and the melodrama, without rupturing or damaging the historiography revolving around it.

The film revolves around its protagonist, Oskar Schindler, an anti-hero, a war profiteer, a prodigal promiscuous who carves his way to the top in profit-making business with the aid of his influential friends  —  the SS Officers. Spielberg tries to encapsulate the history of the Nazi Regime, its atrocities and mass murders of Jews through the modality of narrativisation, singularly focusing on the journey of Oskar Schindler. His constant efforts to save 1100 Jews from extermination after the conscious awakening of morality and realisation of the worth of human lives, who, to him, were primarily essential wage workers available at a low price, culminates the narration of this historical nonfiction. As the film progresses, his quality of righteousness and a sudden feeling of humanity is brought forward in the continuum of scenes, briefly mentioning a scene where Izhtak Stern, Schindler's accountant for his 'Enamelware Factory', is ready to be deported to Auschwitz for extermination. Schindler, just on time, reaches there and saves him. He later remarks, "What if I got here five minutes later? Then where would I be?" It highlights the innate traits of Schindler as an opportunist and a liberal capitalist, who, after having an encounter with the process of 'ghetto liquidation', turns into a risk-taker and goes on to sacrifice his fortune to save Jews. Spielberg accentuates the brutality and violence in this particular scene by intentionally showing a girl in a red dress in colour in contrast with the film's monochromatic theme. The same girl later appears as a corpse on a wagon at the inferno of Chujowa Gozka. It was a deliberate move to transport the audience from mere spectators into the journey of survivors.

The nondiegetic music in the scene 'Oyfn Pripetshok' is composed by Mark Isham and is taken from the film Billy Bathgate. It's a Yiddish song in which a rabbi teaches the alphabet of the Hebrew language to young students. The song has pathos and conveys the history of Jews written in blood and tears. Therefore, this music acts as a paradox with the projection of the event of the ghetto liquidation, where essentially the task of effacing Jews' history is in the perpetuation, which in return, emotionally captivates and disconcerts the viewers. The film's music is composed by John Williams for which he won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, and the theme is performed on violin by Itzhak Perlman.

The Holocaust is a horrific incident of the past to which no medium of art can do justice in bringing forth the trauma experienced by the victims and the survivors. Spielberg does great justice in projecting the history with facts through the screen adaptation of Thomas Keneally's nonfiction novel, Schindler's Ark. Coming from a non-film school in the times of Scorsese, Coppola and Lucas, Spielberg had no credibility in the nonfiction genre. After twelve arduous years of patience, the decision to finally make Schindler's List was to educate Americans and other people about the Holocaust when most Americans were Holocaust deniers. Therefore, to deal with the sensitive topic of the Holocaust, Spielberg ingeniously adapts a monochromatic theme to show a truthful representation of the period. The striking light effects combined with German Expressionist lighting heighten the violence and horrors in the film. It teleports the spectators from the present to the years in the past, precisely to 1939, when life was subject to a chance, when Germans started the record-keeping of Jews in the newly captured Poland. Spielberg tries to inform his audience about the distinction in his story right from the beginning: the story isn't about the Holocaust per se or Jews who were mass-murdered in the era of Nazis, but a personal account of an individual, in order to then present the bigger picture of the genocide.

In contrast to other films on the Holocaust, it strays from certain aspects of historical truth and focuses on experiences to stimulate curiosity. The depiction of a story about Jews by focusing on a german character and its glamorous representation of horrors landed the film in a huge controversy and brought criticism. One notable critique was from Shoah's director Claude Lanzmann, a nine-hour documentary film about the Holocaust. He called it 'a 'kitschy melodrama' and a 'deformation' of historical truth. He has been quoted saying, "Fiction is a transgression; I am deeply convinced that there is a ban on depiction [of the Holocaust]". The other criticism includes depicting Schindler's breakdown before running away to save his life. Critics remark that  Schindler didn't have any time to cry; he didn't run away as a fugitive and had a bag filled with loads of money in the back trunk of his car. While making such assertions, critics often neglect that this story is about memory and its preservation.

The breakdown is fundamental to the storyline to depict the untold part, the unsaved lives. Though 1100 Jews were saved, millions died, and Spielberg tried to solicit viewers' attention toward this fact. He tries to portray hope and conceive meaning from an inconceivable incident. From the very start, by registering the name of Jews and focusing on ink-pots, pens, papers and stamps, Spielberg tries to convey the insignificance of Jews living in the Nagi Regime. Through the list of people, he signifies that life was perilous and could be ticked off anytime depending on a small mistake, the mood of their victimiser, or by pure chance. The same list was the hope of survival, a slight possibility of evading extermination.

Similarly, through the gas chamber scene in Auschwitz, by focusing on women's faces and amplified painful screams, Spielberg presents a different angle  —  an angle of the incident where instead of gas, water pours down the faucet and hundreds of them are saved. Films have long been a powerful medium for the visual projection of culture and society. It has the power to transmit beliefs, morals and values and serve as a cultural memory that transcends space and time. At the same time, many scholars argue for the role of art in representing horrors, beauty in inconceivable horrors and money-making by dramatising misery and suffering on screen.

Still, it is important to focus on the evasion of history and the fact that only in the last 40 years the destruction of European Jews has found its way into the school texts in a comprehensive manner. Hence, through the insertion of melodrama, into the narrative trajectory of his film and its appeal to morality, Spielberg amplifies the mute, inexpressible emotions associated with the tragedy and a search for lost innocence which speaks vehemently of a story that needs to be heard.

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