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KIRBY FARRELL The Economies of Schindler1s List There is something bizarre about the recreated suffering and evil of the Holocaust "winning" seven Academy Awards. Protesting the honors lavished on Schindlers List, Jason Epstein argues that "a dramatic representation of Hitler's crime should leave us shaken and humiliated on behalf of our species, for the Holocaust raises the most serious questions about our collective sanity, to say nothing of our moral quality. . . . Schindhr's List doesn't face these questions at all, not does it ask its audience to face them."1 To be sure, the film does focus less on Nazi atrocities than on the peripheral Oskar Schindler and a tale ofrescue. But the critic's scorn may be justified and yet complacent too. Aftet all, La Rochefoucauld says, no one can stare directly at death or the sun without going blind. Is it surprising that the idea of annihilation in a century of unprecedented mass mutder compels us to blink? To put it bluntly: is it really possible to come to terms with catastrophic evil? We live by indirection, always compensating for what we finally cannot bear. As Ernest Becker maintains , every culture invests in immortalizing symbols—heroic values— that quiet the fear of extinction and energize creative motives.2 Immersed in the rules and rituals of cultural perpetuity, we compulsively engineer systems of imaginative control. One such system is, ofcourse, the fantasy ofheroic rescue from death and malice, one version of which is at the heart of Schindler's List. To give maximum meaning to Schindler's life-saving actions, the Nazi horror has to frame the film. In effect it subsumes indescribable evil by trying to make it serve honorable narrative ends while preventing Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 1, Spring 1996 Copyright © 1996 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004- 1 6 10 164Kirby Farreíí anxiety and despair from paralyzing spectators. The problem, as Epstein understands, is that the effort to tame death may also domesticate evil, surreptitiously inviting audiences to deny dread through thrill-seeking voyeutism and even identification with the powetfril Nazis. But however perverse the film, we can be sure it is trying to transform unmanageable terrors into heroic values, so it makes sense fot criticism to look for signs of that effaced terror, signs that may tell us about the Holocaust and also about the culture screening the film. Let me take an example from Epstein's protest. "In a famous scene" from the film, Epstein writes, "a beautiful boy is up to his shoulders in a reeking latrine. His expression is troubled and angelic, an expression that denies the experience of being in a real latrine, as the film itself evades the real lesson of the Holocaust" (65). Whethet or not the Holocaust has a simple "real lesson," this summary catches the scene's denial and evasion. But the denial itself is eloquent. For one thing, the "reeking latrine" epitomizes our animal nature. It reminds us that we live by compulsively killing and devouring other creatures and expelling them as disgusting waste, even as we too must finally die and rot away as foul waste. Fabulous rules and rituals usually mask that reality from us, yet the Nazis force the child to "lower" himself into it for shelter. The moment is poignant because it both evokes and, in the child's "angelic" face, denies our animal mortality. Furthetmore , what fuels Nazi viciousness is a horribly perverse struggle for transcendence; the racial fanaticism that scapegoats Jews imagines that by destroying all bestial "filth" the killers can confirm their own deathless purity.3 This is only one of the symbolic inversions in the scene. The demonic alter ego of the "angelic" child in the latrine, for instance , would be the ideal blond Hitler youth immersed in an ideological realm ofsuperhuman purity that is in fact a cesspool ofevil motives akin to the excremental mire in Dante's hell. Schindler's List sees everything self-protectively, not quite in focus. And the distortion applies not only to the things observed but to the observer too. In the moviegoer's imagination, the "angelic" Jewish child in the latrine achieves with the aid of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 163-188
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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