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Exorcizing Wars Demons BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN SCHINDLER’S LIST Directed by Steven Spielberg HEAVEN AND EARTH Directed by Oliver Stone THE DAY FOLLOWING its Washington debut, President Bill. Clinton announced at a press conference: “Last night I went to see Schindler’s List._ I implore every one of you to go see it.” Ronald Reagan chose a broadcast of The Sound of Music over cramming for a summit, but to find another occasion when a mere motion picture became the object of executive awe you probably have to go back to 1977, when Jimmy Carter attributed religious majesty to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Schindler’s List shares at least one credit with Close Encounters director Steven Spielberg, who has made a career and a fortune out of awe. Virtually every Spielberg film is an exercise in astonishment, a primal WOW! engraved in celluloid. We respond with child-like wonder to radiant frames that suddenly illuminate a stray extraterrestrial or an animate triceratops. Did Indiana Jones really survive all that? Oskar Schindler made a career and a fortune out of war, and the screenplay that Steven Zaillian adapted from Thomas Keneally’s 1982 nonfiction novel about Schindler’s exploits during World War II inspires richer awe than Hook or Jaws. What kind of human being was Schindler? And what kind of species is ours that includes both the brutes and the saints that we see on the screen? “In order to see the light,” Spielberg told interviewer Connie Chung, “you’ve got to see where the dark is.” A study in chiaroscuro, Schindler’s List recounts the astonishing tale of how a profligate Moravian businessman snatched more than 1,000 Jews from extermination. Before the Nazis began their experiment in genocide, more than three million Jews lived in Poland. Today, though Polish anti-Semitism is thriving and a concern, it feeds on fewer than 4,000 Jews left in the entire country. More than 6,000 descendants of Schindler’s Jews survive throughout the world. “They won’t soon forget the name Schindler here,” boasts the flamboyant entrepreneur, intent on making a killing in Krakow. “He did something extraordinary.” Steven Kellman teaches comparative literature in San Antonio. What makes Schindler’s name so unforgettable and his accomplishment so extraordinary is that he somehow managed to make the ruthless killing pass over a remnant of a hapless people chosen for annihilation. When we first glimpse Schindler, arriving in Krakow in 1939 just after the invading German troops, he is a vulture sniffing carrion, an industrial opportunist determined to take advantage of economic distressthe confiscation of Jewish property and the conscription of its owners as virtual slaves. With limited cash, he takes over an enamelware factory and reaps huge profits by supplying mess kits to the German army. The British edition of Keneally’s book appeared under the title Schindler’s Ark, and more interesting than any of the Jews on the list of protected workers at Schindler’s plant is the arc of the man’s career. Nimrod turned into Noah, hunter into conservationist. In the final six months of the Third Reich, Schindler, an avaricious hedonist and button-bearing member of the Nazi Party, spent $16 million to shield his Jewish workers from slaughter. If successful Spielberg films recreate the experience of a theme park, a roller coaster ride with Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, the visit to a paleolithic Six Flags and the most successful film ever made, was the ultimate Spielberg work … until Schindler’s List. Here the Holocaust becomes a fiendish theme park, an infernal Disneyland where Uncle Walt is a pederast and Mickey Mouse has rabies. Extreme closeups with a hand-held camera take us into the Krakow ghetto during its savage liquidation. We wander the Plaszcow labor camp while inmates beside us are randomly shot through the head. The culminating ride takes us by freight car to the infamous gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 300 Jewish women are sent by error. Desperate to retrieve them to his factory, Schindler is told that he can have 300 fresh “units” instead. The dreadful dilemma of deciding between the Jews ups the ante on old Sophie’s solitary choice. What salvages all this from morbid kitsch is the gravity of tone that Spielberg manages to maintain for most of the lengthy proceedings. Except for its conclusion, the film is shot in black and white, endowing its images with the conviction of documentary witness and with the dusky shadows of moral ambiguity. However, the final scene at Schindler’s factory, in which the survivors crowd about their benefactor in silent grat itude, seems choreographed, no longer faithfully recorded. At the end, when the liberated Jewswondering where to go and told they are detested in the East and not much loved in the Westmarch across a verdant meadow, the palette fills with color, as though the world beyond Poland were uniformly clear and bright. We jump to Jerusalem, where the actual, aging survivors file past Schindler’s grave, accompanied by the haunting ballad “Jerusalem of Gold.” Composed by singer Naomi Shemer in 1967 when, following the Six Day War, Jews could enter the ancient city for the first time in two decades, it has become an unofficial Israeli anthem. Except for an attempt to raid the lost ark of Moses and his role as executive producer of An American Tail, the animated account of immigrant mice who flee Russian feline pogroms, Spielberg has avoided foraging among his Jewish roots. There is surely a connection between Auschwitz and Israel, but the Zionist moral to Schindler’s List seems a bit too abrupt, as if the eminent director finally decided to exhibit his circumcision. “A certain panache, that’s what I’m good at,”. says Schindler, “not to work, not to work.” Playing Schindler with appropriate panache, Liam Neeson works. He is the embodiment of capitalism with a human face, except for the fact that Schindler’s stake was expropriated from others and his business acumen so feeble that he bounced from bankruptcy to bankruptcy after the war. As Itzhak Stern, the Jewish accountant who saves the wayward Schindler’s financial empire while his boss saves his life, Ben Kingsley is an effective foil. Ralph Fiennes is Amon Goeth, the monstrous commandant who uses Jews for target practice yet is willing to risk his career to save his Jewish maid. For a generation, filmmakers maintained dishonorable silence about the century’s most egregious atrocity. The Holocaust is now acknowledged with The Pawnbroker, Au Revoir les Enfants, Shoah, Europa Europa and dozens of exercises in the pornography of horror. Schindler’s List arrives months after the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, but a year after a Harris poll revealed that only 62 percent of Americans could identify Auschwitz. When Spielberg, responsible as director and/or producer for seven of the 20 highest grossing movies, dons a yellow Star of David, attention must be paid. 20 DECEMBER 24, 1993