'Schindler's List' lights a darkness that must be seen

January 05, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

I went to see "Schindler's List" the other day, expecting the worst. I was not disappointed.

It was the toughest three hours I've ever spent in a theater.

Now, it's your turn.

Movie critics like to throw around that "must-see" tag as if it were so much popcorn. But "Schindler's List" is definitely a must-see movie. No, it's the must-see movie.

I don't like to give away endings, but in this case I'll make an exception. The movie ended with my wife, my daughter and myself holding hands and crying.

Your turn now.

"Schindler's List" isn't just a movie. It's the movie experience equivalent of going 15 rounds with Mike Tyson.

Everyone leaves battered and bruised.

And in tears.

I want the same for you. Because it's important. Because what Steven Spielberg, of all people, has done is to produce art, and in the finest sense of the word. He took a subject that is virtually unfilmable -- the destruction of 6 million Jews -- and gave it light.

There are those who believe any depiction of the Holocaust necessarily trivializes it. How can you possibly do justice to the 6 million? How do you explore man's darkest behavior in the same medium that routinely represents evil as a chain saw massacre and expect it to enlighten?

But I think we should turn the question around. How else, other than through art, can we possibly understand, or even face, what can't be fathomed?

See the movie.

You probably know by now something of Oskar Schindler's story -- a true story which Spielberg adapted from Thomas Keneally's non-fiction novel. Schindler was a Nazi, a womanizer and a war profiteer who used Jewish slave labor to make his fortune.

And, in the end, he risked it all to save Jews he barely knew in the face of a culture that said Jews were less than human.

Why Schindler? Why not others?

Spielberg doesn't try to explain Schindler's conversion any more than the evil that surrounds him. In fact, the wonder of the movie is that Spielberg, the master of cinematic tricks and dinosaurs, -- refused to give in to cheap tricks or easy explanations. He gave the viewer the full enormity of the Holocaust. It is the most violent movie imaginable and yet, at the same time, its violence is the least gratuitous.

He confronts you with Schindler's conversion and the evil, too. He gives us, in Amon Goeth, the commandant of a concentration camp, the consummate face of evil and makes it a human, if loathsome, face. It reflects his vulnerabilities, doubts and even, almost, tenderness framed against his hobby of randomly shooting people.

"Schindler's List" is winning all the awards. It will almost certainly win the Oscar for best picture. As a movie, it is relentlessly absorbing. That's reason enough to see it.

There are other reasons. It serves as another document that the Holocaust actually existed. According to polls, as many as 20 percent of Americans doubt there was a Holocaust. And seeing the movie reminds us what it is we are never supposed to forget.

It reminds us with a truth that is palpable.

Many people won't want to see "Schindler's List" because they go out at night to have fun, to escape the day's drudgeries and worse. That's a reasonable expectation. We see enough "truth" every night on the news, don't we?

But let's compare truths. Let's take the truth of the dead American soldier dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. It was a real picture of a real person and a real tragedy. And we reacted in the only way available to us -- with real anger.

The picture, though, lacked subtext. It wasn't a story. It didn't tell us anything other than what we could see. And, in fact, it told us much less.

Art is different. Art -- a movie, painting, poem -- is meant to reveal something.

I learned this truth as a kid when I first read "The Grapes of Wrath," another story of man's inhumanity to man. I knew little about the Depression and nothing about "Okies," but the book left me profoundly moved and even changed. It's fair to say I've not seen the world in quite the same way since.

Somebody once wrote that the Holocaust could never be a metaphor for anything else. I think that's true. The immensity of the horror should stand alone. "Schindler's List" doesn't try to stand for anything. What the movie does is ask you, as art should, to think the unthinkable and feel the unimaginable.

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