Movies

St. Steven

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This article originally appeared in the Seattle Scroll.

One might have expected Schindler's List's halo to have dimmed somewhat by now, three and a half years after its release. Its theatrical run is over, its video release is accomplished, its awards have been won. Yet the PR barrage continues. When NBC broadcast the film last month, it was a certifiable Event, an occasion for praise and self-congratulation. More than three times the number of people who saw the movie in a theater watched it on TV, we are told. Well, yes -- and a lot of people watch the Super Bowl, too. Why should Schindler's List's ratings be any more socially important? Because of that halo.

Steven Spielberg's publicists have done their work well: his epic has ceased to be a work of art and become an education project. All we have to do is make everyone watch Schindler's List, and there will be no more genocides. (Not here, anyway. Rwanda will remain unsafe until blue-hatted peacekeepers install satellite dishes and TV-dinner trays in every Hutu home.)

Allow me to dissent from this pedagogical utopia. Schindler's List is not an especially good movie, let alone one of the greatest ever made, let alone a project that will save the world. Nor, I should add, is it bad; it includes some very good performances and several individually powerful scenes. Of course, one of the functions of that fine acting is to paper over the flaws in the script: Liam Neeson delivers so convincing a portrait of Schindler's evolution from self-absorbed ne'er-do-well to altruistic hero that one might not notice the fact that the screenplay offers no clues as to why he, but so few others, would undergo this change. And any remotely competent director, given the Holocaust as his subject, can create powerful scenes. The trick is weaving those scenes together into a worthy story, one that says something more meaningful than "mass murder is bad." Otherwise, one is better off watching a documentary: nothing in Schindler's List is as terrifying as, say, Alain Renais' 1955 classic Night and Fog.

And a worthy story is what we are left without. I will not go as far as Jean-Luc Godard, who hated Spielberg's picture: "Nothing is shown, not even the story of this interesting German, Schindler. The story is not told. It is a mixed cocktail." But I will not join in the hozannas either. Manipulative, melodramatic, and offensively self-important, Schindler's List pales in comparison to other movies about the Holocaust -- not just the documentaries, but (for example) Europa, Europa, Agnieszka Holland's 1991 picture about a Jewish boy passing as Aryan in Nazi society. Where Schindler's List offers simple lessons, Europa, Europa gives us moral dilemmas and psychological complexity. Schindler's List poses the audience a question: Would you give up your riches to save thousands of lives, or would you selfishly serve the Nazis? And we all allow ourselves to believe that we would be as noble as Oskar Schindler, and pat ourselves on the back. (This must be the first feel-good movie ever made about a genocide.)

Europa, Europa, by contrast, asks its audience how it would behave if faced with the double-binds its protagonist confronts; whether we would be willing to suppress our identity, deny our community, and inflict tremendous physical and emotional pain on ourselves to survive. The answers are not as easy, and the story does not lend itself as neatly to the Spielbergian treatment.

It takes more than a weighty topic to make a weighty movie. By taking on the weightiest topic of all and fumbling it, Spielberg has demonstrated that he will never move beyond directing fluff. There's nothing inherently wrong with this: he's made a couple of reasonably good movies (Duel, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), one superior thriller (Jaws), and a decent kids' flick (E.T.), along with his fair share of garbage (most recently, the cretinous Jurassic Park). He should stick to empty spectacles and stop pretending to be a serious artist, let alone a man whose work will edify the world.

And we should not encourage him. If a filmmaker makes a middlebrow message-movie, we should not call it a masterpiece. If he fondles an issue, we should not say he engages it. And if he shows signs of self-importance, we should be quick to puncture his balloon. Three and a half years is a long time for an undeserved halo to glow.