Spielberg's 'List'

June 08, 1994|By Margie Burns

RECENTLY I watched a great 1942 movie, "To Be or Not to Be," and was jolted by a familiar name in it.

The movie is set in Warsaw in 1939, during the German invasion of Poland: Jack Benny and Carole Lombard play the leads -- husband-and-wife state actors in the grand tradition, Polish Barrymores, who get caught up in the resistance.

Late in the movie, Lombard has an appointment at Gestapo headquarters. We see the Gestapo officer's list of appointments. Beneath the name of Lombard's character is the single name: "Schindler."

This is a spooky coincidence. "To Be or Not to Be" was a classy, witty, backstage-theater movie, but it also came closer than any other Hollywood movie of the time to dealing openly with the Nazi treatment of Jews. Produced by Alexander Korda and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, its cast was German, Austrian, English and American.

Its opening sequences portrayed the German trashing of Polish-Jewish small businesses. By coincidence, it was Carole Lombard's last film and -- by no coincidence -- the best film performance turned in by Jack Benny, born Benjamin Kubelsky.

The movie's Shakespeare allusions -- to Hamlet, Shylock, Macbeth -- were delightful, but the title "To Be or Not to Be" clearly applied to more than Hamlet (played hilariously by Benny); it applied to the fate of Poland, of Jews, and perhaps of Western civilization in a period of barbarity.

"To Be or Not to Be," of course, brings to mind another black-and-white film about Germans and Jews in Poland during World War II, one in which Schindler plays a bigger part. "Schindler's List" is also an impressive piece of work, not that praising Steven Spielberg's film at this point takes much courage.

And the emphasis on Mr. Spielberg undermines the film's achievement, implying that "List" succeeds because of who is behind it rather than what is in it. Actually, the film's content is its strength; it challenges commercial assumptions that the last thing the American public wants is information. It dares to contest the subtle force of hipness in order to instruct.

History leaves opaque Oskar Schindler's innermost motivation. As conceived in the film, Schindler's character is an old-fashioned sensualist. He likes things that make him feel good. And becoming a "good man" -- as one of those he rescues calls him -- makes him feel good. So he continues to rescue Jews from the Nazis in a remarkable example of the feel-good power of virtue. Basically, he risks his life to feel excellent. If there is a moral to this story, it is that we need to incorporate into everyday life, and into the structure of society, things that make us feel excellent.

But in spite of the attention drawn to it by "List," the best answers to Holocaust denial still remain to be achieved. Ignorance is denial's strongest ally, and anyone who seeks to combat Holocaust denial must do so largely through education.

One cannot teach the Holocaust to students who do not know what World War II was. It is difficult to teach the condition of Jews in Central Europe through the 19th and early 20th centuries to American college students who, given a world map, cannot find Canada on the first try. (One instructor of introductory economics found a number of college sophomores who did not know that banks are for-profit institutions. After all, they have government-sounding names: First National, First Federal.)

This idea of education has occurred to others. One teacher at Castlemont High, in California, tried to use "List" to teach the Holocaust, precipitating a much-publicized incident. With adequate preparation, the effort might have succeeded (and without adequate preparation, "Schindler's List" would not have succeeded).

Mr. Spielberg himself is now underwriting a large-scale documentary, recording testimony from the 350,000 Holocaust survivors for future educational purposes.

One cannot downplay the power of the visual. Combining text with footage and photographs strengthens teaching. Denial becomes difficult, though never completely impossible, for anyone exposed to visual images of that which is denied. "To Be or Not to Be" and "Schindler's List" demonstrate that.

Margie Burns, a teacher, writes from Cheverly.

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