Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Twentieth Century

When I was eight or nine or so, I discovered The Twentieth Century, the CBS documentary TV show on Sunday nights. Walter Cronkite was the host, and. Well. What a contrast. I mean, Cronkite in his day and at this point in time was regarded as one of the most trusted men in America. But he would show newsreel footage of the most horrendous and disturbing things.

There was a lot of war footage, particularly World War II. And I was horrified occasionally to see film of the concentration camps. Film showing Jews who were still alive after liberation. A lot of film showing Jews who were dead in the camps. Other film related to the Holocaust. I became so upset that I would routinely turn off the TV in the middle of the program. How could this have happened? How was this possible? Dead people stacked like distorted, emaciated dolls on carts or on shelves. Living people so malnourished that they looked more like animated skeletons out of a horror film than real live people.

I felt. Oh, I don’t know. I felt like crying, but I couldn’t. I felt cruel looking at these people in their misery in my comfortable suburban home. I felt like I was doing something evil. Unforgivable. I felt like Walter Cronkite should be ashamed of himself for showing these horrors to us and should be prevented from doing this ever again.

And so when I watched Schindler’s List, I felt some of those same emotions. I won’t go through the plot in any detail. If you haven’t seen it, you should, but to understand this post, you might look it up on Wikipedia and read the plot summary.

So Schindler’s List is about a corrupt business man that becomes a Nazi to profit from World War II. He buys a factory in the Krakow area, which is also the location of the Plaszow Concentration Camp. The camp is run by Amon Goth, a madman who personally kills certainly many hundreds and perhaps thousands of Jews. A man who as I say does this personally. Many other Jews are killed at the camp and in Krakow, but he is personally responsible—with his own handgun—for killing perhaps thousands of people.

Oskar Schindler buys a factory and then arranges to use slave Jewish labor to operate the factory. Initially his objective is to make a great deal of money from manufacturing war goods for the German government. He bribes people left and right. He becomes a darling of the SS. But then he witnesses one of the Krakow roundups of the Jews in the ghetto there, in which Goth murders many, and his attitude toward his factory workers changes. They become human. And he decides to protect them.

The rest of the movie is about his work to protect the 1100 or 1200 people who work in his factory. How he bribes Goth, members of the SS, and anyone he needs to bribe to keep these people safe. Keep them from being murdered or shipped back to Germany for extermination.

By the end of the war, Schindler has run through all his money to save the workers in his factory. The ending of the movie shows the actors in the movie with many of the real people who Schindler saved. Art and life, fiction and fact, in a sense, come together.

In real life, Schindler went on after the end of the war to start a number of businesses that failed. He ended up penniless, on the dole. And he died that way, alone.

There are some interesting similarities and differences between this film and It’s a Wonderful Life. Schindler is like George Bailey in that he is faced with moral decisions that have significant consequences. They both make good decisions, and the outcomes of their decisions benefit their communities. The benefit in Schindler’s case is life for 1200 people who would otherwise have been murdered. The benefit in Bailey’s case is the economic well-being and moral character of the community of Bedford Falls.

George Bailey is fictional through and through. Oskar Schindler is real through and through. He really happened. Speilberg—the producer and director—and his writers didn’t so much make him as brought the real Schindler through an actor to the screen.

But it’s odd. Schindler almost makes himself up, in a way similar to the way that Bailey makes himself up. There is strong motivation pulling George away from community and toward making money, and there is strong motivation pulling Oskar toward treating the Jewish community in his factory as merely a colony of ants and toward using them solely to make money. But then there is something in both characters that works against this greed motive that enables them to rise to the occasion. Many occasions, as it turns out. To make of themselves something more interesting and salvific.

For both, this resistance comes with a substantial cost. It literally costs each a comfortable existence to listen to their hearts. To act in accordance with what their hearts are suggesting they do. Both are forced into personal economies that are quite iffy. Quite marginal. Quite contingent. Neither becomes comfortable. The choices they make take all economic cushions away and leave them both vulnerable. And in the case of Schindler, he constantly runs the risk of being murdered himself.

Oh, and then we have Amon Goth and Mr. Potter. The personifications of evil. In Potter’s case, this is what George might look like some number of years hence if he allows his ambition and his cupidity to get the better of him. In the case of Goth, here we have someone who does not see the Jews really as people. They are more like ants to him, and he enjoys his life-and-death power over them in the way a boy might enjoy life-and-death power over a colony of ants.

What drives Goth is certainly money. So in that way he is quite similar to Potter. He sucks Schindler dry almost single-handedly, he is so greedy. And one can imagine that if Potter were given the legal and moral latitude given to Goth, he would become a profligate murderer as well. But his cultural and legal context does not allow him that. It only allows him bigotry and economic oppression. And so that is what he exercises. He will be as evil as his cultural and legal context allows.

So what we have in both cases is a character doing extraordinary things but doing these things in an ordinary way. Making one decision at a time. Choosing to divert, one step at a time, from the path he begins on. The choices the two characters make are moral choices, but these are not so much motivated by the characters thinking that something is right and they therefore should do it. The choices seem to arise more from their hearts rather than from an idea about what is right and wrong. Choices their hearts make first to love someone, to care for someone, to take care of someone. And then the action—their behavior—follows this choice their hearts seem to have made independent of their minds or their wills.

Both are comedies, then. Oh, I know. Schindler’s List isn’t a laugh a minute. Let me tell you, it’s not at all fun. It’s serious stuff. And throughout watching it, I have a horror and sense of dread and enormous grief that sits in the back of my eyes and in my throat and in my insides like an alien that is trying to tear me into ragged, bloody, little pieces. Like I did back in the days when I watched Holocaust newsreels on The Twentieth Century.

But unlike the newsreels, Schindler’s List shows us what one quite flawed and ordinary man can do, if he let’s his heart have its way with him.

He can save lives. Real human lives. Nothing at all pretend in this. When in fact he’s just an ordinary Joe or Oskar putting one foot in front of the other, doing what his heart asks him to do.

And this choice. These many choices a person can make to follow the heart. When strung together through actual and simulated life. With their many not so happy consequences and the many possibly happy ones as well. Become like a string of gemstones, a glittering and beautiful thing. One weeps or wants to weep, this is so beautiful. So fragile. And so possible.

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