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March 1994


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Robert Withers <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 8 Mar 1994 12:49:37 EST
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
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This is to report on the response of my Intro to Film Class to seeing
Schindler's List.  I thought it might be an interesting contrast to some of
sophisticated critical commentary here.  This is a class of education majors
who are also taking a course in Teaching Literacy that is paired with my
course, and which deals with issues of whole language, multi-culturalism and
literacy, etc.  One of the issues raised in that course was the question of
how much realism, or harsh reality, children can/should be exposed to in
children's books.  Some of the class read (not as an example of a children's
book) Elie Wiesel's "Night" about his experiences in the camps.  (By the way,
Wiesel mentions several instances of showers that were showers with water for
cleaning prisoners, including at Auschwitz.)
     In the theater I attended in New York City there was weeping in the
audience during and after the film.  My students reported on this also.
Students responded to the film by writing short commentaries during the class
period that they then each read to the group.  They were all moved by the film,
and many said they had heard about these events, but had never really
understood them, comprehended them, believed them the way they did now.  They
talked about the girl with the red dress as a symbol and a turning point for
Schindler, they talked about the ashes falling from the sky, about the children
hiding, about the "realism" of the black-and-white photography that increased
the impact of the film.   Some called it the greatest film they had ever seen.
     It was interesting that several remarked on Schindler's breakdown as he
is leaving the factory as especially moving and meaningful to them. Interesting
because most of my friends and others I've talked to about the film found it
excessive and unrealistically melodramatic.
     This class includes young adults from working class neighborhoods in
Brooklyn, including Jews, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Russian-Jewish
immigrants, two Chinese immigrants, and two young people of German descent.
Students talked about other genocidal events they compared to the holocaust,
including the Japanese invasion of China in WWII and the African slave trade.
An African-American woman raised the question she had heard discussed of
whether the holocaust could be compared to the horrors of slavery, which was
greater.  There  seemed to be a sense that such horrors were comparable, and
couldn't be rated on any numberical scale, though after-class discussions
suggested some uneasiness about this.  Several students talked about how the
stories they had heard in their own families had been made horrifyingly real to
them.  The German students talked about how difficult it was for them to
imagine that their own nation, or even ancestors had participated in this,
and also about schoolyard prejudice and hazing they had experienced in the US.
One mentioned her particular horror at seeing female Nazi soldiers taking
children away, and at seeing one actor/Nazi that physically looked like her.
The Russian students talked about films they
had seen in Russia that had portrayed Nazi extermination of Jews in occupied
    After class, the Russian students asked, "Why have we never heard of
Schindler in Russia, when reading about the holocaust?"  They indicated that
they had heard in their community and in Israel people who said that Schindler
was no great hero, that he was really looking out for his own interests, and
was looking to avoid trouble after a German defeat.
    For my part, I brought up Spielberg's stated intent to reduce his usual
kit of filmmaking tools to the essentials -- giving up cranes, color, dolly
shots, etc.  I mentioned that I'd felt my own strongest emotional reactions
at moments of release -- when the old couple is allowed to enter the factory,
when Stern finally allows himself to drink with Schindler, when the children
were returned to their mothers at Auschwitz. It seems to me that the whole
affective strategy of the film is based on this -- that we can perhaps only
only look at these events -- at least in the form of narrative fiction --
through the lens of an act of hope, of humanity, that permitted some to live.
The events are otherwise too numbing, and permit horrified contemplation, as
in "Night and Fog," but not the kind of involvement we need to engage with a
fictional or fictionalized narrative.  Wiesel's book, non-fiction, ends with
the image of himself looking into a mirror and seeing the eyes of a corpse.
No fiction, no poetry, is possible in that gaze.  Who was the poet who said
that poetry was no longer possible after this?  Still, it seems that
the succeeding generations always make that attempt, after such calamities.
Robert Withers
Film Department              That was zen, this is tao . . .
Brooklyn College
Brooklyn, New York 11210     Bitnet:   [log in to unmask]
(718) 951-5664               Internet: [log in to unmask]