The Screening Room: Staring into the Face of Evil

By Pittman, Frank | Family Therapy Networker, March/April 1994 | Go to article overview

The Screening Room: Staring into the Face of Evil


Pittman, Frank, Family Therapy Networker


Moral heroism may require arrogance, rather than virtue

THE HOLOCAUST REPRESENTS THE GREATEST EVIL OF which human beings so far have been capable. Most of its atrocities were committed impersonally by people just doing their jobs, while others stood by minding their own affairs, refusing to challenge the moral judgments of the moment. The Avenue of the Righteous, at Jerusalem's Holocaust Museum, is a row of trees planted by survivors in honor of the gentiles who did not robotically acquiesce to evil, but risked their own lives to save others. Who were these people and what makes them different from those of us who play it safe? Two important new films examine this question. One looks at the character of a virtuous man who remained blind to the evil around him, while the other examines the enigma of a corrupt man who sacrificed everything he had to fight the evil he finally came to see.

MOST OF THE GREAT FILMS ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST THE Diary of Anne Frank, The Pawnbroker, Sophie's Choice, Europa, Europa have had as their subject the helplessness of victims and survivors. However poignant, human helplessness is nowhere near as instructive as the dilemmas of ambivalent souls struggling with moral choices in the face of great risks. Moral heroism may have little to do with day-to-day, rule-following, good behavior. Propriety and conventional virtue may even inhibit those who challenge widespread, collective evil. Moral heroes must be free to defy the values of those around them. The boldness of their actions requires defiance, even arrogance, as we see in the case of Oskar Schindler, whose tree grows on the Avenue of the Righteous even as his widow cries loud and long about his pathetic deficiencies as a husband.

Schindler's List may be the most emotionally effective, dramatically ambitious and impassioned movie ever made. For over three hours, director Steven Spielberg holds the audience by the throat and the tear ducts. The Holocaust harrowingly, suffocatingly, heartbreakingly real is the background for an extraordinary true story.

Oskar Schindler (Irish actor Liam Neeson, last seen as Ethan Frome) is a Nazi opportunist, black marketeer and war profiteer. He is also an adulterer, alcoholic, bon wvantwd sociopathic capitalist. Schindler makes his fortune by borrowing Jewish money to buy a formerly Jewish owned factory in which he "employs" (for no pay, but for the hope of protection from death camps) Jewish slave labor from the ghetto of Krakow, Poland. The factory makes pots and pans for the Nazis. The business is run by his clever accountant, Itzakh Stern (Ben "Gandhi" Kingsley), a self-effacing Jew interned in the camp, while Schindler wheels and deals among the Nazis, bribing and seducing them into fat military contracts and protection for his workers.

Schindler is a shallow man of great personal charm and confidence, but no overriding ethical or philosophical beliefs. While the Nazis round up "unessential" Jews and shoot anyone who protests or moves too slowly, Schindler's only concern is to make money and have a good time, both of which he does to excess.

Stern, a charmless, joyless, unbendingly moral man, is the only person Schindler can't seduce. He runs Schindler's business, hiring (and thereby rescuing) artists, intellectuals and people of character whom he can easily train to work machines and make locks. As he makes Schindler a fortune and becomes essential to him, he gradually becomes Schindler's conscience, seducing the ultimately seductive Schindler to a noble purpose by refusing to approve of him. Schindler's main job is to keep the careless Stern, dedicated to everyone's survival but his own, from forgetting to carry his papers and getting shipped off to Auschwitz.

Schindler's world begins to change in a morning of horror, as the crowded Jewish ghetto of Krakow is suddenly emptied by the Nazis. Out riding with his mistress, Schindler watches the scene from horseback. …

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