Second thoughts on Spielberg but no second guesses Lessons of History

February 05, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In accordance with the universe's most rigid principle -- that no good deed goes unpunished -- it develops that Steven Spielberg's superb "Schindler's List" has attracted the inevitable backlash.

In publications as disparate as the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Village Voice and Commentary, revisionists of a variety of stripes are striking back at Spielberg's human epic of the Holocaust.

The charges take many forms but basically they come down to two ideas: the first is the irreducibility of the event itself and its moral unsuitability to artistic representation. The second grants the filmmaker the right to choose his subject, but questions his approach to the story materials.

To take them sequentially, the first in dictment runs that the Holocaust was of such magnitude that to reduce it to drama, to story, in some way trivializes it, particularly when the reducer is a popular entertainer best known for such childish confections as "E.T." and "Jaws." The late Terence Des Pres, in his study of victim's testaments, "The Survivor," was among the first to articulate the notion that certain events were so beyond the scope of human knowing that no artistic representation could do them justice. But this concept seems to have caught on (though anyone with a memory can recall when those in Holocaust-culture felt utterly ignored by an American popular culture that preferred more upbeat topics).

Such critics far prefer non-fictional or at least non-narrative invocations, the most powerful of which is Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah," which never attempts to re-create or represent. It doesn't even use the familiar archival material of the Holocaust, believing, perhaps rightly, that such material is ipso facto banal (if simply through overexposure) and that most people encountering it will respond in equal banality. Instead, the event is created in reflection, almost abstractly. One feels the weight of the event rather than experiencing the particulars of its existence.

Spielberg's visual tricks

To bring such a charge against "Schindler's List" is not entirely without merit. At the movie's most powerful moments, Spielberg's technical glibness is at its most fluent. As much as I admired it, I felt queasy when Spielberg unleashes visual tricks that blast me into feeling a certain way, and no other. In the harrowing setpiece that is the core of the movie, Spielberg chronicles the razing of the Krakow ghetto. Though in other sequences he's gone to great pains to shelve his vaunted "technique," here he unleashes it to full dramatic effect.

The sequence climaxes on the night after the action, when German SS troopers hunt stragglers hiding in attics and cupboards. Spielberg "aestheticizes" this grotesque reality by building the sequence around the gun flashes in the night, pulling back from a darkened close-up to reveal a bleak cityscape a-flicker with gun flashes, an infinity of gun flashes. There's something almost indecent about the willed beauty of the shot, and its self-consciousness. I think the shot is a mistake.

However, leveling such charges reflects an essentially elitist bias and miss an elemental truth, which is that man has always sought to comprehend reality by re-imagining it to a certain pattern, the pattern of the drama. This is not even a particularly western device, but common to all cultures with minor tonal variations. When Spielberg, after the novel by Thomas Keneally, "reduces" the Holocaust to drama, he does something that not even the majestic "Shoah" could manage -- he inserts it into public consciousness, where it absolutely belongs, in a way that only Hollywood could manage.

"Shoah," for all its power, was a recondite document; its radical length and obstreperous lack of dynamism made even the act of watching it a physical ordeal. This in and of itself exiled it from public experience. Moreover, it was so subtle in construction and evocative in deliverance that it was nearly abstract. It was documentary as a high art, and it demanded a refined intelligence and a good deal of experience in the technique of cinema to enter fully. It simply was not built to be a mass document. But the point is not to invalidate it -- no critic could do such a thing -- but rather to point out that its existence does not invalidate or preclude the wider appeal of "Schindler's List."

Both, in their ways and for their different audiences, are necessary.

Why focus on the Germans?

The issue of approach fundamentally revolves around the question of appropriateness, and it does strike at Spielberg's most problematic decision. That is, granted that he sought to make a film about the Holocaust, about the murder of 6 million Jews, why did he select a story in which the Jews themselves are barely seen? They are reduced almost to stereotype, as in the figure of Ben Kingsley's quavery, grave Itzak Stern. It is strange, they argue, that the film chose instead to focus on Germans.

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