Movies and History: Schindler’s List
Marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day
January 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It marks the liberation of Auschwitz by Allied Forces (specifically the Russians) during World War II, and it is also a day set aside in which to remember the 6.5 million Jews who were systematically slaughtered and murdered by the Nazis.
6 million is a number almost too big to imagine. It is a number so big it almost doesn’t have meaning. So how truly to understand that number. 6,000,000. How to measure that number in a way that is meaningful, in a way to understand how many souls were lost to the Nazis simply because of their faith? 6 million ounces equals 375,00 pounds. Still too big. How about this? 6 million inches equals 94.697 miles. About the distance from L.A. to Palm Springs.
That’s an easier number to grasp. That’s how many men, women and children were killed at the Nazi concentration camps. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers, cousins, uncles, nieces, nephews. Gassed, beaten, shot, neglected, starved to death, frozen to death, overworked, underfed, malnourished. Entirely mistreated and abused. For no other reason than their faith.
Their Jewish faith.
That is what you call a genocide.
In addition to the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust, 8.7 million Slavs, 1.8 million ethnic Poles, 220,000 Romani people, 250,00 mentally and physically disabled people, 32,000 Serbs, 1,900 Jehova’s Witnesses, and 9,000 homosexual men. About 17 million people total.
The Auschwitz concentration camp was the largest of all the Nazi concentration camps in WWII. It consisted of 40 concentration and extermination camps built and operated by the Nazis in occupied Poland, and it operated from 1940 until its liberation on January 27, 1945. There is no completely accurate to measure the number people killed there since the Nazis did not see the inmates as people, but at least 1.1 million were murdered there.
That’s 17.361 miles.
How did the populace of Germany let this happen? That is for philosophers and others to debate until the end of time, but it started with a man named Adolf Hitler who separating the people of Germany by dividing them against each other, by creating an us vs. them mentality, us being the Germans and them being the Nazis.
If that causes you to draw a metaphor to the U.S.A.’s current President, then, well, what can I say. I’ll just leave that there.
When Auschwitz was liberated by the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army, soldiers found 7,500 prisoners still alive (1.3 million had served as inmates there), and 600 corpses. Among items found by the soldiers were 7.7 tonnes of human hair. The Nazis shaved the heads of all the inmates upon their arrival at the camp. It’s impossible to image the true shock the soldiers may have felt upon such a gruesome discovery. The next day, military trucks loaded with bread arrived. Volunteers offered first aid. By early February, the Polish Red Cross hospital opened in some of the same blocks at the camp in which the now-former inmates had been housed and tortured and murdered.
There have been countless documentaries made about the Holocaust, and I am sure just as many movies, but the movie I want to talk about is Schindler’s List. Directed by Steven Spielberg, who himself is Jewish, Schindler’s List marked a distinct departure from the movies he had made up until that point. Indeed, his previous movie was Jurassic Park. He finished JP under-schedule and under-budget so he could fly to Poland in order to direct Schindler’s List, leaving the post-production duties to his friend George Lucas.
Schindler’s List tells the story of war profiteer Oskar Schindler, a Nazi, who used the Jews as a form of cheap labor in order to make munitions for the Nazi war effort. By the end of the movie, as Allied forces are moving in and the Nazis have no choice but to admit defeat, Schindler is forced to flee Germany for the crime of being a war profiteer.
I am, of course, leaving out the most important part of this movie. Schindler is a member of the Nazi party, but he doesn’t seem to believe the party’s ideas. He is not a Nazi cheerleader. Over the course of the movie, he comes to think of the Jews who work in his factory’s as “his Jews,” and, as such, he forms an emotional attachment to them. So much so that he will risk his life, his job, his savings – everything – in order to save the Jews from death.
His audacious plan works, and the Jews he saves become known as the “Schindlerjuden.” Schindler Jews.
It is an emotionally wrenching movie. Spielberg, working from the historical-fiction novel originally called Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Kennally, shoots in black and white, which adds to the somber tone of the movie. There are pops of color (the plight of the little girl in the red jacket will move you to tears), but aside from the beginning of the movie (in which a candle to nothingness), and the very up-lifting ending (which informs us of Oskar Schindler’s fate), there is no color, which was a bold move for Spielberg, but one that feels right.
Spielberg also does not shy away from the horrors and atrocities the Nazis visited upon the Jews. More than that, Spielberg forces you to look, forces you to see, to watch, to not be okay with the images on the screen.
The movie is rightly-rated R. Such horrific violence could only earn an R-rating. There is language, and some sex (Oskar had a wife), but it is mostly the violence, for which I applaud Spielberg. It is not violence for the sake of gore, and it is not torture-porn a la Hostel. The violence is presented matter of factually. It is realistic. Yes, this a movie that deserves to be shown in schools to the appropriate ages.
If there is any respite from the horrors of the violence, it is from the haunting score by John Williams, accompanied by famed violinist Itzhak Perlman. It is a beautiful, sad, lonely score that is note-for-note absolutely perfect for a movie about such serious and grave things such as genocide. Put the music on, light a candle, close your eyes, and just allow yourself to feel.
I saw the movie in early 1994 during my first year of college in Cedar City, UT. I remember we were all waiting for the movie Mrs. Doubtfire to leave the one movie theater (Fiddler’s Canyon 3) so we could all go see Schindler’s List. For this reason Mrs. Doubtfire, through no fault of its own, leaves a bad taste in my mouth to this day.
Finally we got to see it, and though most of my friends at that school in Southern Utah were of the LDS faith (for whom R-rated moves tend to be forbidden, for lack of a bette word), we all saw this movie as an educational experience. And it was. We all left the movie theater numb. I do remember one guy, Roger, saying that was the most graphic sex scene he had ever seen. Don’t worry, the sex scene is pretty tame – by today’s standards and yesterday’s.
Schindler’s List is an important movie about a man who looked at the horrors around him and knew he had to do something, and when he figured out what he could do, he did it, with no regard to his wealth or safety.
The final scene of him fleeing Germany, surrounded by the Jews he has saved, is truly moving. His car is loaded with all his material possession, and as he looks around at the Jews who have nothing, he breaks down and cries at all the others he could have saved had he let go of his material possessions. Though he had been around before, this was the movie the introduced the world to Liam Neeson, and we haven’t forgotten him since.
Schindler’s List went on to win the Oscar for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. It deserves to be seen.
And the Holocaust deserves to be remembered. Deserves to be never forgotten so that something like that can never happen again.
Only by remembering can we take the steps to prevent future atrocities.