Lost in the Movies: Schindler's List and Munich

Schindler's List and Munich

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

When Schindler's List was released in 1993, it was regarded as a breakthrough, a true turning point in Steven Spielberg's career when the wunderkind director finally became a "grown-up." In fact, the movie is very much a culmination of his previous films, more of a crescendo to his early period than a harbinger of his later work. It is a film of flourishes, grand gestures and set pieces, full of heroism and villainy with a larger-than-life backdrop and clearly delineated moral stakes. For this reason, this extremely popular and widely acclaimed movie had a fair number of detractors on its release. They focused on the sentimentality of certain moments (especially Schindler's tearful plea at the end of the movie) and the selectivity of its focus, choosing to dwell on the positive in such an overwhelmingly negative subject. Stanley Kubrick, a friend and posthumous collaborator of Spielberg, supposedly noted that Schindler's List was a story about success, but the Holocaust was all about failure, and J. Hoberman dismissed the movie with the rhetorical question, "Is it possible to make a feel-good movie about the ultimate feel-bad experience of the 20th century?"

These criticisms could be viewed as footnotes to the film's overwhelming success but they speak to a larger phenomenon, a deep-seated critical and intellectual antipathy toward Spielberg (along with an acknowledgement that he can't merely be dismissed, but must be debunked). They're also important because they remind us of that essential fact - that Schindler's List grows out of Spielberg's earlier body of work - and they are interesting because of what came later, especially Munich. Indeed, that film makes an interesting companion piece to the earlier one, in terms of subject matter, narrative approach, and stylistic inclinations. It comes from a period where Spielberg had overcome some of the critical hurdles that still faced him with Schindler's List, and when a truer break with the early films had been made. I would argue that the real turning point in Spielberg's filmography arrives not with Schindler's List, or The Color Purple, or Saving Private Ryan, any of his other self-consciously "adult" films dealing with real-world historical subjects, but with a science fiction film at the dawn of the new millennium. Beginning with AI Artificial Intelligence, Spielberg's work darkened - or rather the darkness that had always been there came to the forefront, coinciding with a breakdown in the strict discipline Spielberg films always enjoyed. Munich belongs to this new period of uncertainty and messiness; Schindler's List definitely does not although it contains hints of the darkness and maturity to come.

Personally, I find Schindler's List a powerful, fascinating, and troubling film. It is a tour-de-force of filmmaking and this is both its flaw and its strength - on the one hand, the forcefulness of Spielberg's facility can seem in poor taste (the ratcheting of suspense as the Jews are herded into the "showers" only to find out they really are showers), on the other hand our discomfort at being so nakedly manipulated creates a rich and provocative tension, even if this wasn't Spielberg's intention. Where the movie is most troubling is in its attempts to be a "definitive" portrait of the Holocaust, as much a matter of marketing as filmmaking (although Schindler's verite approach and determination to cover so many different aspects of the Final Solution suggest such a motivation in the film itself). This is where the more sophisticated critiques of the movie began - not with the film's sentimental touches or soft focus, but its very ambitions. Yet so much of the film's power can be found in these sequences, and if they sometimes seem too ambitious it is an ambition that works to the movie's advantage emotionally if not historically.

The true heart of the film, however, can be found not in the ghetto re-creations (the Jewish characterizations are remarkably thin) nor even in Schindler's charismatic persona, but the character of Amon Goeth. He is possibly the most compelling character in Spielberg's cinema, and certainly the most fascinating in the film. A complete sociopath - who murders complete strangers at the drop of a hat - he can also be ruthlessly charming and personally conflicted; Spielberg is attracted to his hypnotic personality and horrifying sense of power. The attraction of that power is established in one of the very first scenes, when Schindler shows up at a Nazi shindig shortly after the success of the Polish invasion. One of the notable things about Schindler's List is how it identifies not with the Jews but with the Germans - it quite purposefully makes the Nazis look sexy. This is done for several very good reasons: to set up Schindler's world before he is moved to compassion, to evoke a sense of the time when doing the right thing was overshadowed by clinging to power, and to create a contrast with the desperate, ragged lives of the Polish Jews. Yet I think it also comes from something inherent in the Spielbergian approach to filmmaking, especially in the 20th century: he is drawn to forcefulness, to the clever exercise of power, to flash and glamor, as are most audiences (which is one reason he has proven so popular).

In a way, Schindler's List purposefully unmasks this tendency in Spielberg's style, which is basically a skilled distillation of Hollywood's style - the fascist impulse lurking within all mass entertainment, the appeal of overwhelming spectacle and flashy thrills. I don't know if any of this is inherently fascist - the word gets thrown around a lot, to the point where symptoms are mistaken for the cause - but they are certainly features of fascism, so in a way the narrative's identification with the powerful is only natural. One of the film's strengths is how it uses this conflicted sympathy to draw us into Schindler's moral transformation. Instead of just watching him discover a conscience, we discover it ourselves; after all, aren't we just impressed as he (and Spielberg) with his stylish panache, his wit and good taste, his chutzpah in not just crashing the party, but making himself the life of said party? The way the movie ruptures and makes us question this appeal is not through intellectual dismantlement, but visceral shock: a relentless and unequivocal violence which upsets and unnerves the viewer.

In a way this shock effect, far from being anti-entertainment, is part of the same tradition which glamorizes wealth and power and fetishizes the exceptional individual. Many critics of the film seemed to think so, singling out the film's bludgeoning effect as one of its drawbacks. But I think this may be a strength, by setting one aspect of the Hollywood style - its go-for-the-gut intensity - against another - its glamorous stylization of life. Since both are effective, we are forced to choose, and as Spielberg ratchets up the violence, he leads our reaction towards a rejection of the "sweet life" (for one) in favor of "life itself" (for many). Where the film does stumble, I think, is in its final twenty to thirty minutes where the ambivalence and ambiguity are lost and it becomes simply a story of moral righteousness. Something false creeps into the acting and staging, and here sentimentality really does become an issue; it's an approach that really has no place in a story of grim survival, however limned by hope. Unlike many critics, I don't see Schindler's breakdown as a problem but the particular way the Jews crowd around and comfort him is.

Basically, the film's flaw is that it doesn't go far enough in its exploration of moral ambiguity. It creates a compelling and provocative villain in Goeth (Ralph Fiennes' performance may be the best of the decade), giving him a humanity that does not mitigate but only amplifies his cruelty. But Schindler himself, while marvelously played with authority and charm by Liam Neeson, winds things up too cleanly. His flaws are too easily forgivable and too simply delineated from his virtues. Spielberg hints at ulterior motivations for his beneficence - especially in that speech where he tells Goeth that true power lies in mercy - but eventually undercuts these ambiguous suggestions, with all the (slightly distasteful) heroic shots of a giant Schindler walking amongst the thankful, humble little Jews and all the noble speeches he gives from the factory floor or railroad platform. His moral awakening is powerful as it unfolds but the final break with his selfish and narcissistic past is too clean, too pat, and robs the finale of real drama.

Not to be mistaken here, I do think the film is some kind of masterpiece - a movie that must be grappled with, and appreciated. I think for Goeth alone it would deserve a place in any canon, and it has far more than that disturbing characterization going for it. However, when's all's said and done, Schindler's List might be the more complete film, but Munich is more compelling. I didn't think so when I first saw it - I found the plotting rather messy, the film overlong, and that climactic orgasm-explosion embarrassing. I didn't mind these flaws because I'm a sucker for any political thriller dealing with the 70s revolutionary/international terror zeitgeist, but the claims for it being Spielberg's most sophisticated and mature work seemed greatly overblown to me at the time. Now I'm not so sure - watching it tonight I was deeply impressed and moved; the story, while looser than a Schindler or E.T., seemed sufficiently organized without being overbearing; lately, I've become impatient with the relentless zip of Spielberg's sense of story time, so Munich's breathing space struck a welcome note.

As Ed Howard pointed out in a recent review, part of Munich's power resides in its unique take on a perennial Spielberg theme: the importance of home and family. Virtually every one of his "entertainment" films focuses on a character trying to return home and/or rebuild a family (the major exception is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which the hero quite cheerfully abandons his wife and kids to ride off into the unknown). So does Munich, but it stands these desires on their head: in serving his homeland, Avner (Eric Bana) loses it, and - at least temporarily - must abandon his family. Meanwhile his opponents are also motivated by a desire for home, one which seems irreconcilable with his own. In this particular case, the penchant for sentimentality adds a rich undertone to the complex political realities and disturbing moral decisions that must be made; the moments of warmth and comfort seem few and far between and serve to better draw out the situation's troubling and upsetting aspects.

From his earliest days, there have been two Spielbergs: the humanist and the showman. The two tendencies feed into one another in his best work so that domestic detail offsets the supernatural in Close Encounters, Poltergeist, and E.T., while the power of spectacle creates a great "in" for the human drama in Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan. But there can also be an imbalance - some of the blockbusters have a mean-spirited streak, relishing their violence with almost sadistic glee (most distastefully in The Lost World, where a horribly misconceived animal-rights theme masks a vicious attitude toward many of the human characters). With this in mind, Jonathan Rosenbaum has accused Spielberg of a contempt for his audience, but this misses the genuine warmth that Spielberg can evoke when he respects his material and isn't just creating a big show. Detractors tend to notice those moments of overwrought artificiality (the intro and coda to Private Ryan, arguably the school scene in E.T., perhaps Schindler's final breakdown) when Spielberg goes for the slick effect over a sense of exploration or improvisation. However, those are few and far between; far more common is the lively and convincing banter among suburban teenagers in E.T. or the fantastic marital meltdown in Close Encounters; sequences in which Spielberg relaxes and allows scenes to unfold according to actor's beats and an overall, lived-in ambiance, both so rare in the blockbuster mentalities at work today.

While the performances in Munich are generally nuanced and involving, they don't quite have that same relaxed, almost Altmanesque freedom of the early films (this may be something that Spielberg actually lost in "maturing"). Part of the reason could be that the screenplay - by Tony Kushner - is actually too well-written; all of the character development is on the page and there's less room for it to evolve in minor moments. But that's not to quibble so much as to point out that Munich's humanism is of a different sort than Spielberg's earlier films - less a matter of detail than a general sense. I think it comes from the same place that led Spielberg to empathize with earlier characters who could have just been cardboard cutouts. Yet the lack of antisocial glee or perception of pure evil are entirely new - hinted at in Schindler's List but mitigated by the mystifying rapaciousness of the Nazis and the brutality of the murders (in which Spielberg almost seems to be taking himself to task for treating violence so casually in the past).

Munich is violent too, but the shock of the violence is outweighed by an understanding of where it comes from (the only part of the movie where we can relax into a more casual enjoyment of the action is in the commando raid in Lebanon, which could be the point: for once, the more impersonal war machine is stepping in for the all-too-human assassins). The empathy here is more widespread than in any other Spielberg film I can think of; there isn't one clear-cut villain in the piece, except maybe the anonymously chic Salameh, whose appearance is too fleeting to really count, he's an impression rather than a character. As with Schindler's List, Munich may overstate its conclusions by the end of the movie, making perhaps too direct a statement about war on terrorism (complete with the Twin Towers in the background) and muting its ambiguity somewhat, though not nearly as much as Schindler. In a broader sense, however, Schindler's List moves from chaos to certainty, whereas Munich embodies the reverse.

Of course, the most obvious connection between the two films is their relationship to Jewish history. Many Zionists objected to Munich for seeming to question Israeli revenge, justify Palestinian violence, or create an equivalence between Mossad and Black September. Following the compellingly Zionist conclusion of Schindler's List - an intriguingly, and barely, cloaked political statement (that almost doesn't even seem to know it's a political statement) - Munich could be seen as some sort of reversal. However, in another regard Munich has a much more positive view of Jews than Schindler's List - the trouble Spielberg had identifying with the Jewish characters there, more or less reducing them to kvetching Yiddish stereotypes, is completely absent from Munich in which there is a rich, warm sense of Jewish camaraderie, however challenged from without and within. This is partially due, no doubt, to the Jewish characters taking on positions of power - Spielberg's early assumption of responsibility (sneaking on to the Universal lot until he was hired to direct TV at 23) and natural storytelling instincts always lead him to identify with people who take action. But I think it also comes from growing more comfortable with adult material - something he was anxious about with Schindler.

Speaking of adult material, while Munich's political sensibility is still somewhat elementary (a humanist reduction of motive that generally works to the film's benefit) it's light years beyond the apolitical worlds of previous Spielberg films (with the possible exception of The Color Purple, which I haven't seen yet). The movie has a very rich and fascinating theme, a grand historical irony: the ambiguous ideological orientation of and towards Israel in the early seventies. While the left as a whole is pro-Palestinian, Avner's French information source expresses both anarchist sentiments and sympathy for Israel, while ambivalently feeding both sides information. What's more, the consciousness of the Israelis is one of victimhood (defiant, vengeful victimhood, but victimhood nonetheless), born out of the milieu that Schindler's List presents directly. And the backdrop for their actions brilliantly reinforces this sense of persecution - it is, after all, Europe in which the Jews track down the Black September leaders; and the memory of World War II haunts every street cafe or urban apartment they descend upon. Yet the Palestinians defiantly refuse to be cast in the role of Nazis; instead they see themselves as the modern-day Jews. The sequence in which a PLO group is forced to share a "safe house" with the Israeli hit squad (posing as members of various European revolutionary groups) perfectly demonstrates the confused certainty with which each group views its political identity. This tangled web is one of Munich's most compelling elements.

Yet ultimately, Munich is less self-consciously a "serious drama" than Schindler's List despite its greater complexity and more controversial political overtones. That's because it belongs very much to a specific genre - the political thriller - whereas Schindler's List was almost by necessity an art film first and foremost. I think this is also why many critics who were immune to Schindler warmed to Munich; there has long been a tradition of putting aside (or rather, re-defining) highbrow objections when dealing with genre works, at least since Hitchcock and Ford were canonized. And it works both ways - Munich's genre positioning probably also allowed Spielberg to relax a bit, worrying less about making a statement or living up to a certain artistic standard and more about telling a good story and hitting the right beats. It's one of his best balances between the showman and the humanist, although the showman gets to strut his stuff more in individual sequences than in the whole (for the past decade, as Spielberg's films have grown more exploratory and looser, they've also become more uneven and less tightly controlled, although compared to, say, Peter Jackson, he's still a master of economy).

While it's interesting to tease out the connections and contrasts between the two movies, and while my most recent viewings left me with a more favorable impression of Munich, I think that Schindler's List is the greater film. Despite its troubling aspects (in some cases because of them) it is a dynamo of filmmaking energy and imagination, an overpowering emotional experience, and a fascinating if flawed character study. It displays Spielberg's mastery of the three cornerstones of Hollywood art (according to writer/producer Jon Boorstin): the voyeuristic (in which the viewer is drawn into a perfectly-crafted world, in this case occupied Poland from the German and Jewish perspectives), the vicarious (whereby we identify with the characters and share their emotions, for example Schindler watching the liquidation of the ghetto), and the visceral (meaning the gut-wrenching power of suspense or action, seen in those merciless and random acts of violence, which eventually give way to mass murder of a more impersonal nature but set the tone early on). Because it takes a (revamped) version of the classical Hollywood style about as far as it can go in terms of subject matter and mixture with more self-consciously artistic approaches, Schindler's List remains a hugely important film, one of the central works of the era Spielberg helped create. Seeing it back to back with Munich makes for a gripping (if exhausting) double feature, showing us Spielberg's growth over the years, as well as his enduring strengths.

Tonight: The Searchers


Jon said...

This is a rather tremendous piece and though I don't agree with everything you said, I do find Munich to be better than I initially thought. I knew it was great, but it has stuck with me, interestingly. Schindler's List is also a powerful film as you've noted, and your comments on the sentimentality of the ending do not go unnoticed when you watch the film. I do think, though, that it's nearly impossible to make a film about the Holocaust with severe critiques of the point of view. Every film on the subject comes under fire from someone. I don't know if you've seen Pontecorvo's Kapo, which was basically the first film fictional film to be about the Holocaust in totality. A few came out prior but had limited scope. Kapo is really a fascinating film and one that I struggle with in multiple ways, but I find it essential in the "grappling" category. I wrote about it this year and was struck by it's ability to both frustrate and move me. It's unforgettable for me. As for Spielberg being so critically disparaged over the last few years, I do find most of the argument to be something I avoid. I like his films, love many in fact and do see the "auteurist" element of the family dynamic to be essential in my opinion. He's not always at the top of his game, but he's made several essential films.

Joel Bocko said...

I haven't seen Kapo yet, but I'm familiar with the Rivette article disparaging it. It is interesting how, quite apart from films on other atrocities, Holocaust films come in for severe fire. A long time ago, I wrote an essay on Schindler's List, taking in the book it was based on and analyzing the film and the critical reception. I wish I still had it, but it's been permanently misplaced, alas. I enjoy reading both perspectives on Spielberg - and there is, and always has been, a lot of contention on his reputation - as long as they recognize his technical mastery which puts him in a distinct category no matter what one thinks of the messages or specific choices he makes. I haven't been much interested in his recent films (kind of sad to see him collaborate with Peter Jackson, as I think they represent diametrically opposed instincts in terms of blockbuster entertainment), but if he ever gets to that Lincoln project I'd love to see it.

Anonymous said...

Great piece on two of my three favorite Spielberg's. I have some of the same reservations about Schindler's List that Kubrick and Hoberman do. I also recall Haneke dismissing the shower sequence as gratuitous and morally reprehensible (which I could understand to some extent).

The latest Spielberg news includes the possibility of him taking another crack at Stanley K by directing his script of Napoleon. I've been hoping someone would give that treatment a whirl....Maurizio Roca

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks Maurizio - I'm guessing AI is your other favorite?

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