Illinois Wesleyan is pretty big on theater, and I ended up seeing a few plays for English classes. I can’t remember at all what the last one I saw was called, but I can vividly remember what it was about. A Jewish family from Poland is separated before the second war when the father moves to America with the younger of the two daughters. Their plan was to wait for him to make enough money to bring over the mother and other sister and her husband, but the war breaks out before that can happen. The play is set after the war, when the older sister is found alive and comes to America to live with her sister in the city.

Some of my friends loved it to death, while a few others agreed with me that there seemed to be something not quite right about it. I think most of my problems came from acting and directing decisions, but I didn’t know how to articulate it at the time, so when my friend asked me how it didn’t tear my heart open, I said something stupid like “There’s been tons of things about the Holocaust. What is there left to say about it?” My friend immediately said “everything.”

Now she was being kind of emotional and dramatic, since we had just seen the play and that’s just her, but she was basically right. When it comes to something like the Holocaust, there’s a massive amount of stories that haven’t been told and never will, but I think I kind of had a point too. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify making stories about the Holocaust since they’re likely to tread on all of the same ground that has been covered many times before, and to try to do the same thing over again is being kind of presumptuous. But, that doesn’t seem to have stopped tons of people from writing books and making movies covering Jewish ghettos, labor camps, and Auschwitz. Something else has to justify their existence, and that’s where I think there’s the most important distinction between “saying about” and saying with.”

All these movies and books are definitely “about” the Holocaust in that they show us all the horrible things that happened and why they happened, but I think the multitude of movies and books is justified by how you can also use the Holocaust to make broader statements about people and the world–saying things “with” it rather than “about” it. This is also why we have tons of movies set in the civil rights movement at the great depression. That kind of profound struggle is easy to want to learn about, but it’s also easy to use as a platform for exploring “the human condition/experience.” This is what made me watch Schindler’s List again recently; I wanted to see if it, being probably the most famous Holocaust movie and definitely Spielberg’s best, justifies itself by using the Holocaust to make deeper statements.

As far as just evaluating it, I think I have the same problems with Schindler’s List as I did with the play whose name I can’t remember. They both kinda seemed like they had “get emotional reaction out of the audience” as an end goal rather than a natural byproduct. I mean, this is entirely Spielberg’s thing, which is great for things like The Terminal, but I think it might make him badly equipped for a movie like this one. When it comes to any sort of serious drama, I have a super low tolerance for anything I find manipulative. Schindlers’ List is not anything like James Cameron’s Avatar in this respect (I could, and might, do a whole post about how frustratingly manipulative Avatar is and how District 9 is the perfect foil to its crap), and it really isn’t any more manipulative than most other pleasantly straightforward movies. But the fact that it’s about the Holocaust made me super sensitive to unrealistic character actions that were obviously played for laughs or tears, and it even made me roll my eyes at things like camera angles meant for melodrama. Something like this doesn’t need help from a clever script or shot framing techniques to be more dramatic, it just needs to be perfectly honest.

If you’ll let me go on a little tangent, this is why I got really interested in learning about this movie’s history when I learned that its success apparently caused Stanley Kubrick to give up on his own Holocaust movie project. All through Schindler’s List, I kept thinking about how I would find scenes much more emotionally effective if it was just a super tense, long shot at a flat angle, exactly like Kubrick did, rather than all this Hollywood cinematography crap. The only thing is that Kubrick might not be great at getting those emotions of fear and despair and brokenness to come across as clearly as Spielberg did. But, man, if this movie was jointly directed by them with Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsly answering to those two, it probably would have literally ended my life with euphoric heartbreak. (I also learned recently that Spielberg and Kubrick kinda had a back-and-forth about directing Artificial Intelligence, with both of them thinking the other should do it, and then Spielberg finally did it after Kubrick died. That’s another movie that was definitely good with Spielberg, but would have killed me if the two collaborated.)

Regardless of how good it was, I was interested in whether Schindler’s List could justify itself, because obviously Stephen Spielberg needs my approval before his movies are allowed to exist. I’m still not sure if it had an overall thesis it was trying to say with the Holocaust, but there were at least two scenes that got me. The first was early in the movie, and maybe a good example of “saying with,” where Oskar Schindler invites Itzhak Stern to his office to thank him for his work as an accountant/administrator type person. Schindler pours him a drink, makes a brief but generous speech about how he couldn’t have achieved his success without Stern, and then waits for him to respond, but he doesn’t. It’s not that he’s made speechless by shock or anything. It’s more that he completely lacks any context for understanding what this could even mean between an Aryan German member of the Nazi party and a Jew. He just sits there staring at him like Schindler said gibberish. The movie uses the Holocaust to show how deep, terrible, culturally ingrained racism can create a barrier between people who should be friends. Of course this is just a three minute scene in a three hour movie. I’ll have to think more to come up with some bigger examples, but I have a feeling they’re there.

But the greatest example of all that I could possibly ever think of for “saying with” in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s a similar sort of setting in that it’s “about” the Spanish civil war, directly preceding the second world war. But this entire book is about the humanizing and dehumanizing of people in war. Even in a conflict between the pretty obvious evil of fascism against the pretty obviously good republican rebels, it wants you to know that the soldiers fighting on either side are just people who are trying to be people. They have family, they have values, and they believe what they’re doing is right whether for ideological reasons or just because they want to get the war over with and go back home. But it also wants you to know that war can turn even the “good guys” into monsters. I’ve read this book once, and I’ve read the first quarter about three times, because every time I get to the chapter in which Pilar describes the rebel’s capture of her home town and the brutal execution of the fascist party leaders there, I just have to take a break, and then I never get back to it. It’s set in the Spanish civil war, but I basically learned nothing about the war from this book. It is 100 percent out to use that war to make a bigger and much more important statement.

In light of Schindler’s List and that one play, I think it’s best to finish with the Holocaust and what it itself might have to say, and I’m going to go there by quoting Professor Chapman again, who at this point will probably be really embarrassed if he ever reads this blog.

Nothing is more important or powerful than stories. Nothing is more powerful than the urge to tell the story. The urge to tell the story is, I think, the most fundamental urge of human life. A few weeks ago I went to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, and I was struck there, before I broke down and became incapable of thinking this rationally, by the importance and the limitations of storytelling; the victims of the concentration camps, as well as the soldiers who came to liberate the camps, all had a story and needed to tell it.

…In the Holocaust Museum, after seeing thousands and thousands of faces of the dead and the suffering, after seeing the human traces of communities of Jews–some hundreds of years old–utterly destroyed, after seeing picture after picture of corpses piled like firewood, long rows of people, shot by firing squads, toppling one after another like a grim chorus line into an already full mass grave, the shriveled skeletal bodies of the survivors, the cold-blooded films of medical experimentations, the assembly line of victims killed in the gas chambers, bags of human hair and thousands of pairs of empty shoes, what finally reduced me to crying was a green toy butterfly, made out of wood and painted, manufactured right in the concentration camp, by what heroic measures and at what cost I can’t imagine, and smuggled over to a child on the other side of the camp.

As I stood there in the Museum, weeping uncontrollably, no longer caring if the crowds around me saw, all I could think to hope for was not that parent or child survived, both possibilities seeming too unlikely to merit hope, but simply that the butterfly got to its destination, smuggled under a laborer’s rags or slipped between barbed wire or passed by a guard moved by the bribe of a gold filling or even simple humanity, and that the story told by that toy butterfly, a story simple and eloquent enough for anyone to understand, was heard.