First published on 9 September 2022.
Schindler’s List is one of the most compelling moments in movie history. Steven Spielberg took on the daunting task of depicting not only the most evil of crimes in human history, the Holocaust, but also the attempt by Oskar Schindler to save anyone he could from the cataclysm. Schindler’s strategy was to use his power and influence as a member of the Nazi Party to keep Jewish people working through the war as his employees, a fate that would save them from the far worse fate of dying in Hitler’s concentration and death camps. Schindler’s success in saving hundreds from this fate, and the descendants of these survivors of the cruelties of fascism number in their thousands today, is paradoxically a source of deep humility, delivering him from his youthful pride. In Spielberg’s move, scored by John Williams, Schindler is portrayed by Liam Neeson, while Ralph Fiennes portrays Amon Goeth, vicious camp commander and deranged mass murderer, and Ben Kingsley portrays Itzhak Stern who helped Schindler with the paperwork of disguising the crusade to save innocent people from Nazi brutality under the mask of defending the German war effort in the Second World War. The paradox of this move by Schindler and Stern is not pressed perhaps as much as it should be, but the movie is not concerned with the macro-level of totalitarianism, but with the personal level, particularly in the person of Oskar Schindler.
One of the most moving moments in the movie is when Schindler breaks down upon Stern’s baring the gratitude of his people to Schindler for saving so many lives. ‘I didn’t do enough,’ Schindler said. ‘You did so much,’ Stern replies. Ben Kingsley’s performance as the title role in Gandhi bears some similarity to this moment in Schindler’s List, as Gandhi frequently faced moments of incredulous opposition to his moral position which was hard to not internalise. Liam Neeson as an actor went on to play the wise teacher Qui-Gon Jinn in George Lucas’ The Phantom Menace, while Ralph Fiennes is cast as the deranged dark lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter movie franchise. John Williams’ work in these two film franchises echoes his earlier work on Schindler’s List, the defining morality tale of western civilisation. The link between Gandhi and Schindler’s List is perhaps encapsulated in the books Late-Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis and, perhaps more significantly, Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist. The brutality which led to fascism in the heart of western civilisation is linked to the brutality which this very civilisation inflicted around the world in the preceding century. It is hardly surprising that Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Frantz Fannon’s Black Skin, White Masks are frequently compared, nor that Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time is sometimes seen as the most important parallel to Taoism in the western canon. The age of totalitarianism was a global phenomenon, arising from the contradictions among deep structural forces in the world system, forces which bear such relations, symptoms, and dehumanising effects as are depicted movingly and compellingly in Schindler’s List.
Perhaps these links I draw are too varied to be systematic. Or perhaps what is systematic is impersonal, and therefore dehumanising. I am not sure if we can avoid these poles, but I am equally compelled by the importance of balance in politics. But whatever position we take, insofar as it has moral content, we will face opposition. The shadow of totalitarianism lingers over this century just as the shadow of imperialism lingered over the last. We face the prospect of a new colonialism, a new early modern age, or a new Renaissance. We are constantly reminded of the desperation and devastation that the modern world has left in its wake. ‘I didn’t do enough’ was Schindler’s last cry in Spielberg’s retelling of this stark story of light shining in the darkest of places. I hope that we, as a civilisation, can say: we didn’t do enough. For if we do not say this, it is most certain that we have not done enough. For failure breeds pride, but success is the creator of humility. And the success that breeds humility is a success that may initially be material, but must ultimately be moral. I, for one, have not done remotely enough. Time is short. Shall we begin?