Biography 23.1 (2000) 49-70
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"Herr Direktor": Biography and Autobiography in Schindler's List
Clifford J. Marks and Robert Torry
"I aspire to be Oskar Schindler."
--Steven Spielberg (McBride 429)
Schindler's List (1993), Steven Spielberg's first attempt to narrate a topic as historically unwieldy as the Holocaust, tells the now famous story of a German entrepreneur, Oskar Schindler, who through a series of events transforms himself from a practical capitalist into a savior. In the film, Schindler trades in his wealth to protect his Jewish workers from the gas chambers at Auschwitz, in the end bankrupting himself and his business. Often construed as the most significant cinematic statement on the Holocaust, 1 Schindler's List has already made the leap from popular culture to historical and educational material. A major television network has broadcast the film with little or no commercial interruption, and it is often shown in high schools to teach students about the Holocaust. Receiving an Oscar for the Best Film of 1993, Schindler's List was a remarkable commercial and aesthetic success. Most mainstream critics lauded Spielberg's storytelling abilities, and his Hollywood brethren held up the film as an unparalleled achievement. 2 Though a few writers, journals, and newspapers checked in with some critical commentary, 3 none of it has relegated the film to anything less than its epic rank in American culture.
But why a German hero, and a Nazi one at that? This essay explores the role of biography and autobiography in Schindler's List. By autobiography, we mean how the film not only tells the story of Oskar Schindler, but in a metaphoric way tells the story of Steven Spielberg as well. 4 Though the level of Spielberg's accomplishment is significant in terms of bringing the issue of the Holocaust to public attention, the movie--particularly in its biographical elements--says quite a bit about how the director envisions his [End Page 49] role and contributions to art and culture. In our discussion, we mean to distinguish history from biography (and autobiography). History attempts to tell the objective story of past times. Biography tells the story of a person's life in relation to the times in which he or she lives. And autobiography of course tells the same story through the subject's eyes. In our view, Spielberg unconsciously invokes autobiography to write biography and history. This invocation is the palimpsest over which Schindler's List was produced.
First we offer some caveats. Spielberg does not see himself as a reconstructed Nazi industrialist. He publicly identifies with the Jewish victims, and many of his charitable efforts since the film have been devoted to Holocaust survivors and their relatives. Nor did he raise his arms in triumph and declare that he was "the king of the world" when he received Oscars for best director and picture. The Holocaust is a subject sacred to many, and Spielberg attempted to respect that sacredness. Despite some pointed criticism that he did not, in the process he accomplished something that many thought was impossible to achieve: he brought to popular culture a feature-length film that did not shy away from Nazi genocide. While making the film Spielberg noted, "I'm making Schindler's List because I have the ability to make it. Most everybody else wouldn't have been allowed to make it because it's just not commercial." And yet, at the same time he affirmed that "no matter how this movie turns out," more than any other film he had made, Schindler's List "reflects who I really am" (Salamon 194). To achieve his goals, Spielberg relies on the subject he knows best--himself--portraying Oskar Schindler, and more subtly, Itzhak Stern, in ways which, at least for us, strongly parallel the life and career of the director.
It is important to distinguish among the three dominant representations of Schindler: the historical Schindler, the figure Thomas Keneally portrays in his book, and the version Steven Spielberg creates in his film. All three confirm that Oskar Schindler was...