There are Holocaust films — a whole lot of them — filled with good looking actors playing German soldiers with evil intentions, and actors playing emaciated Jewish prisoners. There are Holocaust films where Italian actors try to make children laugh, where Jews fight back, and films with Nazi doctors that are just downright campy gore. From X-Men to films that have been hidden from public view for reasons only the director and lead actor understand, the Holocaust and Nazis have been used and reused to the point where one of the greatest actresses in the world can joke about the sheer number of these films and the bounty they sometimes yield.
There are Holocaust films, and then there’s Schindler’s List, which was released 20 years ago this weekend across the United States. The film, which won both the Oscar and Golden Globe for the best film of the year can be looked at as both a bane and a boon for the Holocaust genre, in that it was, and still is, considered both a great film by many as well as a film that communicates the horrors and heroics of one of history’s worst periods.
I saw Schindler’s List a few months after my bar mitzvah on a school field trip. Our history teacher thought the film was historically significant enough that getting a bunch of noisy teenagers to see a film that is nearly 200 minutes long and was shot in black and white was worth the headache of a noisy bus trip to the theater. And while I — as both a human being with empathy for people and their suffering, as well as the relative of people who died and were otherwise directly affected by the atrocities committed by the Nazis — understood why the film moved people so much, even as a teenager I still felt uncomfortable watching it. It felt exploitative, since every acclaimed film I’d ever seen up until that point about Jews had to do with the Holocaust. I wasn’t really able to offer constructive criticism about the film itself, other than it felt heavy-handed and moved too slowly for my teenage mind, and I walked out of the movie theater feeling more angry than in awe.
Something that I have to pause to say to this day: When I was younger, I didn’t like Schindler’s List, but I did love Seinfeld. I had become a fan of the show a few seasons prior, and to this day it remains one of the few things I will watch on television whenever reruns comes on. And the season which coincided with the release and public award crowning that Steven Spielberg’s film featured a slight reprieve from all the people telling me how important the film was in the form of “The Raincoat,” the two-part episode that features an subplot involving Jerry and his girlfriend going to see Schindler’s List, and making out with reckless abandon since Jerry’s parents have been staying with him for too long, giving the couple no time to themselves. Of course, it’s Seinfeld, and there are consequences; namely in the form of Newman, Jerry’s enemy/neighbor, lurking a few rows behind, watching the whole thing. Newman, of course, rats on Jerry to his parents, and awkward hilarity commences.
To me, that joke meant more than any lesson I could learn from a a historical drama. They weren’t making fun of the Holocaust, instead they were using this heavy film as the set up to a joke. They weren’t poking fun, rather, the show was making this point that Schindler’s List was just a film, not the real thing. The way people were holding it up as something close to holy didn’t sit right with me, and Seinfeld‘s acknowledgement of that without really making fun of the film made it a little easier for me to re-watch the movie a few years later, and understand why it received the acclaim it did. Schindler’s List is indeed a fine film, and Spielberg’s treatment of the subject is thoughtful. I know that now, but it took alleviating the tension a little through laughter in order for me to appreciate its impact.