Setter’s ‘Spectives: My Problem With ‘Schindler’s List’

ISetter Drawing for Blog 082613 suppose I’m being unfair, but I’ve always had an issue with Schindler’s List in that it doesn’t show the full extent of the torture the Nazis put their victims through.

Don’t get me wrong; cinematically, this movie’s a masterpiece. Yet I have personal reasons for my problem with the film, and it’s because I knew people who survived the Holocaust and told me their story.

In seventh grade, my history class was given an assignment to write about someone who experienced World War II. Initially, I was going to speak to my grandmother about life in the United States during that time, but then my parents suggested another option: interviewing Jack and Bela, an elderly, married couple who worked as tailors in our Manhattan neighborhood.

They had been in Auschwitz.

I’ll never forget this interview. I recorded them and transcribed the conversation to paper. They told me horrifying things, one of which I’ll never forget … not because it was the most violent act the Nazis committed, but because of the humiliation involved. As I recall, I was told that in Auschwitz, if you had to use the toilet, you used it in public, and the Nazis slapped and/or insulted you while you were doing so — you couldn’t do your business in peace. Somehow this affected me strongly; out of all the monstrous events that occurred at Auschwitz, this was the one that bothered me most.

Why?

Perhaps it’s because the Nazis wanted to break the Jews and other victims. They wanted them to suffer as much as possible from a psychological as well as physical standpoint. And I think that’s what disturbed me about this. Their victims never had peace. Even in their most private moments, they were subjected to intrusion, humiliation.

I got a very good mark on my paper. I still have it somewhere. And I like Schindler’s List quite a bit — in fact, I think it’s one of Steven Spielberg’s greatest films. I don’t think it covers everything, though, and to the argument that asks, “How can it?” I say it did attempt to show many of the evils the Nazis perpetuated. It didn’t, however, show all of the humiliation people endured at their hands, and that’s something I feel is missing.

Jack and Bela endured this and survived it. To me, they will always be voices I remember.

Skip’s Quips: Why ’12 Years a Slave’ Should Be Shown in Schools

Blog Sketch 082813I usually look at period movies from a cinematic perspective — justifying and condemning celluloid decisions more with an eye toward aesthetics than accuracy. So it’s rare for me to recommend a film based on its historical content and the manner in which it’s conveyed.

I’m going to do just that, however, with Steve McQueen’s masterpiece 12 Years a Slave.

This picture — the story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man in 19th-century Saratoga, NY, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery — is up there with Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as one of the great silver screen documents of human villainy … and therefore should be shown alongside the latter film in schools to give students an idea of what the extent of our species’ cruelty to each other was like. These movies would probably be most suitable for high school; I’m speaking from experience here, as I was given but a cursory education in those days regarding the lives of slaves in Northrup’s era, and my understanding wants as a result.

I hope students today will not go through the same experience that I did.

Central to 12 Years a Slave is the performance of the great Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup; he is absolutely brilliant and provides some of the most moving moments in the entire film, as does Lupita Nyong’o as the terribly abused slave Patsey, who is treated so horribly by slaveowner Edwin Epps (a superb portrayal by Michael Fassbender) that you’ll want to scream in anger at the screen. Editing and cinematography are expert, and there’s a simple, mournful score by Hans Zimmer that’s very effective. Of course, sharp direction that takes its time but never becomes plodding is crucial, and that’s provided by McQueen. It’s a major film, and there are many things to learn from it.

That’s why I suggest it be shown in schools as part of students’ history curricula. This is part of American history; it shouldn’t be glossed over, and it was in my education. Certainly, only a small part of the slavery experience was documented in the film, but when you see the torture inflicted upon Northrup — a harrowing scene in which he is left to hang from a tree for what seems like an eternity is one example of this — you’ll get an idea of the pain people went through … and why it should never happen again. Adding to the power of the film is the fact that it’s masterfully crafted, so there’s really no reason to avoid it.

We need to treat movies responsibly as parts of our culture. They should share accountability for their effects on viewers. And we should be accountable for not showing what’s necessary to people who need to see it.

12 Years a Slave is necessary.