(The following was written in 1993.)
Recently, when a visiting friend wanted to rent it, I saw "Schindler’s List" again. I can report that a second viewing of Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth yields even more layers and subtleties. But Fiennes notwithstanding, I have to say that, for me, watching "Schindler’s List" has now twice been a vexing experience.
What irritates me about "Schindler’s List" is that it never gets beyond lamenting man’s inhumanity to man and celebrating triumph of human spirit, etc., when it could have thrown at least a quick light on something of consequence that apparently still baffles a lot of people—what Nazis were actually about.
Normally absence of serious probing into psychodynamics of egregious human behavior would no more disappoint me in a Steven Spielberg film—even one about Holocaust—than it did in a episode of “Hogan’s Heroes.” Spielberg is an enormously gifted filmmaker, but plumbing nastier depths isn’t something he does and you don’t go to his movies looking for that. (On contrary, you go in hope of retrieving a prepubescent innocence.) So I’d have no cause to make an issue of film’s limitations in this regard were it not for fact that Spielberg comes maddeningly close to giving his audience a glimpse of where Nazi’s were coming from. (You could say, in fact, that he gets to within just an inch or so of accomplishing this.)
I’m thinking of scenes in which Goeth shoots two prisoners from his balcony and then returns to his apartment and urinates.
In this sequence, Spielberg is demonstrating that most monstrous deeds issue from men just like rest of us, and he makes this point very nicely. The trouble is that everyone’s known as much since Eichmann trial. To keep this statement AND illuminate what it is that turns ordinary man into a homicidal maniac, all Spielberg needed to do was have Goeth, in place of urinating, sit down and move his bowels.
I’m serious. It’s shit, after all, that personifies hideous fate of decay and dissolution that nature has devised for everything corporeal. Shit approximates—and serves daily to anticipate—the condition our bodies themselves will wind up in. And it’s problem of which shit is emblematic, mother of all problems, problem of death, that “Final Solution” was, of course, addressing.
Let’s, just for a minute, try to acknowledge something that ought to be common wisdom—certainly after work of Ernest Becker. What makes world go around is, purely and simply, fact of death. The real, if usually unconscious, purpose of virtually all human behavior is to mitigate terror and panic anticipation of death induces; to, at very least, reduce trepidation that derives from very terms of existence to a manageable degree of fear.
When, for a relatively straightforward and transparent example, we invent prospect of an afterlife and then adhere to rules of conduct we’ve decided will assure us of admission, we are handing ourselves a comforting shot at surviving death. But another of myriad ways we’ve concocted or seized upon to make living with an intolerable given possible is to pursue and amass financial wealth beyond requirements of our organismic well-being. The god-like trappings great sums of money buys enable us to feel superior not just to common man but, more importantly, to common fate. Many of “faults” or “neuroses” we develop are also designed to cushion us against specter of death. Procrastination, for instance, helps us to fashion illusion that we are suspending time.