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"Schindler's List". Hollywood’s representation of the Holocaust

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2013 25 Seiten



I. Introduction

II. The historical background: How the idea of Schindler’s List emerged.
II.1. The perception of the Holocaust in American society during the 20th century
II.2. The Holocaust mini-series as a precursor of Schindler’s List
II.3. Previous initiatives to film Schindler’s List
II.4. How Steven Spielberg came to Schindler’s List and the production of the film

III: Schindler’s List – A typical American Hollywood movie?
III.1. Spielberg’s “Americanization of the Holocaust”
III.2. Story, film structure and suspense
III.3. Authenticity
III.6. Summary: Schindler’s List – a typical Hollywood movie?

IV. The Controversy: Critical views on Schindler’s List

V. Conclusion



I. Introduction

Schindler’s List is certainly one of the most famous works about the Holocaust that has ever been created so far. Since the 1970s the memory of the Holocaust became more and more integrated as an important element not only of Jewish American culture but of American culture in general. The film that was published in 1994 by one of Hollywood’s most famous directors can be seen as a milestone in this process of the “Americanization of the Holocaust”. Other very successful projects preceded that aimed to preserve the memory of the Holocaust in American culture such as the TV series Holocaust or the opening of the National Memorial Museum in 1993.

This process of integrating the Holocaust as an essential part in American culture is described in Peter Novick’s study The Holocaust in American Life. I will try to analyze the film as part of this process and raise several questions about its meaning in this context. I will at first examine the historical background of the time when the film was published. I will try to find out what makes Schindler’s List typical for an American Hollywood movie and how the film “Americanizes” in this way the subject of the Holocaust. Before that I will examine how the idea of Schindler’s List emerged and how it became possible that this delicate topic was chosen by Spielberg who was rather known for his spectacular entertainment movies up to this point. To answer these questions I will also analyze elementary elements of the film: suspense structure, characters, technical aspects and also shortly deal with the reception and critics of the movie. Finally I will discuss the question which impact the movie had or could have for the viewer’s perception of the Holocaust and in which way the movie shaped what Novick calls the “collective memory” of the Holocaust.

There is already a wide range of publications about the movie, many of them dealing with the different receptions and critiques. Especially the questions if it is appropriate at all to make a fictional film about the Holocaust and if the film contributes in a desired way to the memory of the Holocaust are frequently discussed e.g. in Yosefa Loshitzky’s Spielberg’s Holocaust – Critical Perspectives on Schindler’s List, A Reel Witness: Steven Spielberg’s Representation of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List by Frank Manchel, Der Gute Deutsche edited by Christoph Weiss (a collection of reviews and newspaper articles about the film) and Schindlerdeutsche edited by the Initiative Sozialistisches Forum. In terms of technical aspects and analysis I refer mainly to the publications Schindler’s Liste - Authenzität und Fiktion in Spieberg’s Film by J.M. Noack and Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s Liste” by Markus F. Stahlecker.

II. The historical background: How the idea of Schindler’s List emerged.

II.1. The perception of the Holocaust in American society during the 20th century

The public perception of the Holocaust within American society made remarkable progress during the 1960s and 1970s. Directly after World War II, the Holocaust was not seen as a unique, separated event but rather as a part of Nazism and thus part of the war atrocities committed by the Nazis. The Jews were mostly seen as an impersonal mass of victims with which no personal identification was possible for Americans. Additionally, the optimistic feeling in society, caused by the victory over Nazi Germany, suppressed any efforts that aimed to see the facts in a more realistic (and thus frustrating) way. The thinking that America had won the war, freed the oppressed people and had brought everything to a happy end predominated in society. This perception radically changed some decades later when the Holocaust was more and more seen as a unique event that could be regarded as the ultimate evil of the 20th century, incomparable to anything that had ever happened before. The event was brought into public consciousness because of events like the Eichmann trial in Israel 1961, the war atrocities committed by the USA at the end of the 60s in Vietnam, the 6 Day War that posed a threat to the state of Israel and finally the fact that the Holocaust was deliberately treated in various publications, books, films etc. which lead to a personalization of the victims and as a consequence to a higher public interest in the topic in general. One of the first film productions that was seen by a large number of people that referred to the Holocaust in this way was the TV mini-series Holocaust (1978).

II.2. The Holocaust mini-series as a precursor of Schindler’s List

In 1978 the NBC miniseries Holocaust was published in the US which was a special event as it was one of the first representations of the Holocaust in a fictional film presented to a mass audience. The series showed 10 years of the lives of two different fictional families, one of assimilated German Jews, one of a highly placed official of the SS (cf. Novick 1999: 209). It covered most of the important historical events of World War II and the Holocaust. The program was very successful as close to 100 million Americans watched the full series. It had been promoted by NBC but especially by Jewish organizations that had big influence in the US media scene. The promotion was directed to both Gentiles and Jews as well, a Jewish magazine claimed that for Jews watching the series was some kind of religious obligation (cf. Novick 1999: 210).

While most of the Jewish organizations that promoted the series in advance were highly enthusiastic about it when it was published the program provoked a number of very critical reviews as well (cf. Novick 1999: 206). The problematic aspects that were seen in the miniseries Holocaust were similar to those that critics claimed later when reviewing Schindler’s List. The question was “if the Holocaust was to be presented to a mass audience, what were appropriate and what were inappropriate modes of representation?” (cf. Novick 1999: 209). Thus not everyone was satisfied with the mode of representation of the Holocaust mini-series or Schindler’s List respectively.It Thesdopfkpsodkf After the publication of the series the debate about this matter had always continued and culminated after the publication of Schindler’s List. But I will come to that point later when I write about the different receptions of Schindler’s List in the US and Germany. Before that, I will examine how the idea of creating Schindler’s List was born.

II.3. Previous initiatives to film Schindler’s List

The idea of making a movie about the Holocaust and even about the story of Oskar Schindler was not new when Steven Spielberg decided to realize the project. Already in the 1960s the Hollywood studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer planned to produce a film about Oskar Schindler. Richard Burton was supposed to play the main character, Gregory Peck and Romy Schneider were nominated for further roles. When the German consul general in Los Angeles heard about the planned film he made an approach to Karl Carstens, state secretary in the foreign office who later became president of Germany. They both were very concerned that the image of Germany in the USA would suffer when it came out that Oskar Schindler had never been officially honored by the Federal Republic of Germany for his good deeds during World War II and that his claims of compensation were not yet fulfilled (cf. Noack 1998: 35). When the minister-president of the German state Hessen heard about the issue the process was accelerated and within 2 years Schindler was granted a special pension by the state. However, at that time Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had already dropped the idea of making a movie about the event.

Also German filmmakers had already tried to realize the project, e.g. the producer Artur Brauner from Berlin. Brauner, himself having lost 49 relatives in the Nazi concentration camps, saw in Oskar Schindler an exceptional movie hero and planned to make a film about him in 1984. He had already chosen Klaus Maria Brandauer for the leading role. But the FFA, the Berlin film agency for sponsorship, refused to grant the necessary credits as they did not expect an economical success. Brauner did not immediately give up and tried again to get financial help from the FFA in September 1992, shortly before Steven Spielberg started the shooting of Schindler’s List. He strongly consisted that there was a high public interest in the topic and that the story of Oskar Schindler was an event that was in the meantime well known, not only in Germany but also worldwide. He could hope for success as the FFA had already granted financial help for similar projects about Nazi Germany like Hitlerjunge Salomon or Eine Liebe in Deutschland. Nevertheless his requests were finally rejected by the FFA and it was the Hollywood giant Steven Spielberg who overtook the project and it was once again up to an American to come to terms with the German history of World War II (cf. Noack 1998: 37).

II.4. How Steven Spielberg came to Schindler’s List and the production of the film

After the novel Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally was published in 1982 and had become a bestseller the Universal studio boss Sidney Sheinberg bought the film rights to offer Steven Spielberg the project. Spielberg immediately accepted the offer. He later on said that he had never before decided so quickly and definitely to take an offer for a new film subject (cf. Stahlecker 1999: 18). However, he did not find the desired screenplay author for the film. This part was an extremely challenging task as Spielberg wanted to make a movie that could both contain as much historical information about the time as possible and at the same time keep the force of the subject to make it an interesting movie that would address a large number of people. Because this did not seem to work out (even Keneally’s own screenplay was not satisfying) Spielberg thought about leaving the project to another director such as Billy Wilder, Sydney Pollack and finally Martin Scorsese who overtook the film temporarily. In the end of 1991 Scorsese found the screenplay writer Steve Zaillian whose screenplay seemed to fulfill the expected criteria. Spielberg then offered Scorsese to direct the movie Cap Fear in exchange for directing Schindler’s List. With the help of Steve Zaillan, Spielberg could create a screenplay that was satisfactory for him and the studio. Another problem was the development of Schindler’s character in the film, it was essential to find a credible way to show the complete change in Schindler’s personality from a carless economical profiteer to a savior of hundreds of innocent Jews (cf. Stahlecker 1999: 18).

The shooting of the film could begin on May 3rd 1993 in Cracow and ended after 72 days (4 days earlier than planned). The budget was $23 Million (Stahlecker 1999: 19). Spielberg hired mostly European actors and also the other crew members were mostly Polish or of other European countries. (In this respect one could even argue that the film was rather a European production and not an American one.) Spielberg encountered some difficulties when shooting the film. Originally it was planned to shoot certain parts of the film in Auschwitz but there were many who were concerned about the possible - one could say “desecration” - of the location. Among them for example the central Jewish committee who feared that Spielberg could turn the place of grief into a place of spectacles. Even the Universal film studios had doubts as they were concerned about possible financial losses.

However, Spielberg made clear that he was absolutely determined to finish the film and that this was indeed a very personal matter to him. Spielberg said that - contrarily to when he made his other films - he did not care very much for the reaction of the audience this time. Furthermore, he pointed out that he did not want to gain any money from the film until the costs were completely balanced (cf. Stahlecker 1999: 19). What made Schindler’s List for Spielberg so personal was the feeling that the film could “liberate him for the first time of [his] life” (Manchel 1995: 90) because he felt that his Jewish heritage was a burden for him to carry: after the film was published Spielberg said “I was so ashamed of being a Jew and now I’m filled with pride.” (Manchel 1995: 90).

III: Schindler’s List – A typical American Hollywood movie?

III.1. Spielberg’s “Americanization of the Holocaust”

Steven Spielberg was surely not the only American of Jewish extraction that thought of the Holocaust as something very personal that was elementary for his identity even though he was not a very religious person. Many American Jews thought the Holocaust was something that was closely linked to Jewish identity in general and that it needs to be dealt with in American society more intensively and therefore should be treated in a way so that as many people as possible could become more aware of what happened back then. Furthermore, there were many Jews in America who worked at important positions in the media and could use their power to influence the public e.g. by promoting everything that had the Holocaust as a subject like the TV-series Holocaust or by supporting political initiatives for their cause.

As I mentioned before the Holocaust had already entered the awareness of American society more clearly since the 1960s for various reasons and since then continued to be treated in various works that aimed to make the Holocaust more tangible for the general American public. Of course, many American Jews enforced this development and Spielberg’s film was so to speak a culmination of the process. This development is also often called the “Americanization of the Holocaust”, a term that also very frequently is used by the critics of Schindler’s List who argue that Spielberg (or more generally: America) is dealing with a subject that is actually not an American one but rather a European one, German or Israeli, and is therefore “Americanizing” it. In other words, the critics argue that the Holocaust should be treated in the countries or by the people who were directly affected by the Holocaust rather than in America which has its own history that it should elaborate on.

But before I talk about the different receptions and critiques of the movie I will try to analyze how Spielberg tried to realize his project. In which way he really made a typical American Hollywood movie? What are the most important differences to his other movies and which aspects were especially important to him when making the film?

III.2. Story, film structure and suspense

Despite its unusual length of 195m and a high amount of details the film is quite clearly structured and keeps to a chronological order. It can be divided in eight different parts (cf. Korte 169-172)[1]. Although the film is much longer than an average Hollywood movie the viewer never gets the impression that the film has passages that are not relevant or boring. The viewer is rather confronted with a high level of suspense throughout the whole film. This is what makes the film suitable for a big audience and distinguishes it from long-winded documentaries.

In the beginning the protagonist Oskar Schindler is introduced and the viewer is step by step informed about his motives. In the first few scenes when Schindler is introduced and befriends with high SS officials in a restaurant he seems to be a mysterious person and we cannot yet estimate his intentions.

The second part begins with an element of suspense when Schindler asks for Itzhak Stern in the Jewish council everybody in the room immediately falls silent. In the following conversation the motives of Schindler become more and more evident to the reader. He is still a man who is looking for his own profit and trying to take advantage of the war for his financial situation.

Itzhak Stern tries to smuggle people in Schindler’s factory that are actually no skilled workers in order to save their lives; here the tension is kept on a high level. When the one-armed metalworker Löwenstein is killed by the Nazis (the first death in the film) the tension is rising again. The next element of suspense is the arrest and nearly the deportation of Stern when Schindler stops the train at the last minute.

The central part of the film is dominated by the tension between the characters Amon Göth and Oskar Schindler. The confrontation of good and evil is represented by the two characters and the film derives its energy from this conflict. Especially Göth’s sadism and the situation of the Jews that gets continuously worse create a high level of suspense. This begins with the evacuation of the Cracow Ghetto and continues through the rest of the film. The viewer feels with the Jews that have to fear more and more to be killed by the Nazis in any given moment and with total arbitrariness. Additionally, Schindler’s conversion from a self-oriented business man to a generous savior of the Jews is the substantial theme of the middle section.

The evacuation sequence of the Cracow Ghetto is in many ways represented in a very authentic way that has clearly documentary character. Despite its length the level of tension is continuously high, increased by the special montage and camera shots. The scene with the girl in the red coat stands in contrast to the other scenes as it is the only (partly) colored scene of the main film.

In the Plaszow camp Göth wants to execute the metalworker Levartov but in the moment he wants to shoot him his gun fails several times. This scene creates again an extreme suspense as the viewer is expecting Levartovs death at any moment. The last shooting of the film takes place when Göth shoots his Jewish servant Lisiek from behind after forgiving him for his presumed incompetence. At this point the immediate danger for the Jews is that evident for the viewer that the tension stays on a very high level even although there are no more people killed in the movie.

An additional subject is the parenthetic “love story” between the Jewish house maid Helene who is employed by Göth. He is torn between his racist ideology, the Nuremberg laws and on the other side his affection for Helene. When Göth approaches to Helene the viewer does not know how Göth will behave. This tension is dissolved when Göth finally beats her to the ground. Oskar Schindler on the other hand tries to comfort Helene and helps her. Schindler himself on the other hand gets in conflict with the Nazi officials when he kisses a Jewish girl on his birthday party but thanks to his relations this has no further consequences for him.

The selections in Plaszow show the humiliation of the Jews that are checked for their health status, the elder and unhealthy are send directly to the extermination camps. At the same time the children of the camp inmates are captured by the Nazi soldiers and driven away on trucks. In this part the tension is raised by the representation of the little boy Olek who tries to escape the evacuation. He is looking for different hiding places only to realize that everywhere that he is looking there are already other children hiding. At the end, the viewer does not know if Olek could escape the children’s deportation successfully; only some time later in the film the tension is dissolved when we see Olek again on a train together with Stern.


[1] As an orientation, a summary of the story and structure, divided in eight parts, can be found in the Appendix (p.27)


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
518 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
2014 (November)
schindler list hollywood’s holocaust



Titel: "Schindler's List". Hollywood’s representation of the Holocaust