A camera trained on hell: Can any feature film portray the Holocaust? Neal Ascherson is moved by 'Schindler's List' but doubts the achievement is possible

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The Independent Online
IN John Donne's 'Nocturnal upon St Lucy's Day', he wrote of '. . . absence, darkness, death: things which are not'. When I came out of a preview of Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List and wandered off down a London street in the rain, those familiar words insisted that they were important.

Cinema is the use of light to produce illusion. In the end, it is never more than that, whether the light is coloured or black-and- white, whether the illusion is acknowledged or disguised by 'suspension of disbelief'. What, then, can cinema have to do with a condition where there is no light, no hope, in the end no life - with absence, darkness, death? How do you make a film about the Nazi murder of the Jews?

This resembles a problem of lighting. You cannot look directly into the sun without going blind. You cannot turn a camera directly at the black sun of the Jewish Holocaust - at its very central event, which is naked men, women and children entering a gas chamber and being slaughtered there - without damaging a cinema audience so badly that its submission to the cinematic fiction breaks up.

Spielberg does not try to look straight into the black sun. Instead, in a scene whose coyness falls far below the quality of the rest of the film, he makes us watch a group of women stumble naked into an Auschwitz disinfection bunker, go tense as the camera moves to the shower-heads . . . and then receive a shower of genuine water instead of cyanide pellets. This is because the film is about those who escaped death, rather than about those who did not escape. These women are 'Schindler Jews', employees of the German industrialist Oskar Schindler who decided to turn his factory into an ark of safety floating on the flood of death. Spielberg's film is not about the absence and darkness that swallowed most Polish Jews, but about this little group which Schindler managed to save.

If film is the use of light to simulate life, and if feature film is light used to simulate the lives and personalities of individuals, then film has problems with the Holocaust. In pitch darkness, batches of shaven human beings almost too compressed to scream are suffocated by gas. They will have no graves; the list of their names is unlikely to be preserved; all those who knew or were related to them will probably soon be dead as well; their homes will be occupied by incomers ignorant of who lived there before. They will be not just dead but absent: a hole of darkness in history. How can film reach them?

Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, the gigantic documentary work on the Jewish Holocaust that appeared nearly 10 years ago, does not even attempt to 'reach' them in that sense. Shoah, which is one of the supreme masterpieces of film, is about memory and not about re- enactment. There are diagrams and models, designed to show very clearly how the main gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz- Birkenau were constructed and precisely what happened to human beings inside them. But most of Lanzmann's film watches men and women go through the experience of 're-living' what happened: camp survivors, Polish witnesses, German railway officials, even SS camp commandants. Shoah is a work of art. It is selective, it heightens individuals, it uses light to register radiations of horror whose sources remain hidden in darkness. But it is not a fiction, still less a 'fictional reconstruction'.

This is where Spielberg has shown such courage. Schindler's List is not, as some people have said, the greatest movie ever made. But it is noble and beautiful and occasionally unforgettable, and it tries, with impressive seriousness, to do two things at once. It is a drama based upon the real story of Oskar Schindler and his Schindlerjuden. But it is also an attempt to 'show what it was really like'. Spielberg, as I have said, stumbles badly at the door of the gas chambers. But most of the film is not about Auschwitz. It is a painstaking, careful, even humble effort to recreate two other environments: the Jewish ghetto established by the Nazis at Krakow in Poland, and the Plaszow concentration camp, to which the ghetto inhabitants were moved in 1942.

Everything is 'right'; the very streets of the ghetto re-used, every bootlace, cigarette pack and enamel basin just as they would have been in the time and place, the huts and fences of Plaszow and even the commandant's villa reconstructed precisely according to surviving plans. A scrap of newspaper glimpsed for a half-second is torn from the authentic newspaper which a middle-class Jew in wartime Krakow would have used to wrap things in. The pen-nibs filling up the forms are the right pen- nibs. It is mad and magnificent, and the fact that Spielberg shot almost the entire film in black-and- white keeps all this authenticity unobtrusive.

Everything can be right, and yet everything can still be wrong. An obsession with authentic detail can make a bad film really crass. But this is a fine film, and Spielberg is after an authenticity that is not just physical. He wants us not just to see but to feel what it was like.

He wants us, for example, to watch an episode in Plaszow when a woman prisoner in charge of building a shed argues with the SS supervisor about how the concrete floor should be poured. Suddenly, she gets on the commandant's nerves. She is taken a few yards off, pushed down in the mud, shot through the skull so that her body spasms like a rabbit's, and forgotten about - all within less than two minutes. Spielberg wants us to have entered his Plaszow world so completely that we take this as a minor event. In this anti-world, a corpse is as common and disgusting as a turd. We see the commandant on his villa balcony picking off prisoners at random with his rifle. He is in close-up. But his targets, who convulse and then lie still, remain distant and insignificant. And that is exactly the point: he matters; they are meaningless.

I do not think that 'we' - a Western cinema audience in 1994 - can enter that world. We can hear about it from Lanzmann's witnesses, or see it simulated by Spielberg's actors. But for all Spielberg's bravery and reverence for fact, his hand-held cameras joggling through the turmoil of some SS atrocity cannot become our eyes. And, finally, the film suffers from a growing discord between the Schindler story, which is about good winning against evil, and the sheer power of Spielberg's evocation of the background: the extermination of the Jews.

Donne also wrote what might be a motto for Spielberg's passion over this film:

All other things, to their destruction draw,

Only our love hath no decay;

This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday. . .

Perhaps. But what really happened there was not redemption by love. It was the victory of absence, darkness, death; things which are not, and conditions to which no camera can find the way.

'Schindler's List' will be reviewed by Quentin Curtis, our film critic, when it is released next month.

(Photograph omitted)