Recalling Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (a classical defense against Barthes and Sontag)

The task of comparing atrocity documentary and atrocity art is wonderfully demonstrated by Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. For much of the film, as you may recall, Spielberg cinematically recreates Nazi-era photography. Therefore, especially in the era of Holocaust-denial, what ethical censure could be brought against Steven Spielberg, whose work gives new meaning to the interplay between art and atrocity. Leaving the phenomenology of photography aside, we know that Western culture is accustomed to the concept of art’s pedagogical practicality: that mimesis (creative imitation) is more educational than the dry chronicling of historical events; that watching a tragedy unfold amongst actors on a stage (or the dramatic portrayal of atrocity on the silver screen, as it were) purges the audience of the sadistic impulses in a pedagogical-catharsis is a philosophy Aristotle preached in 4th century Athens. However, given, perhaps the degree of ruthlessness in the Nazi atrocity, there are humanist camps, impervious to Aristotle’s timeless echo. Firstly, the phenomenon of atrocity mutates art – makes it unsettling, unpleasant; perhaps, inappropriate to recreate. The other moral objection is specific in terms of the genus of media elected (namely, by Spielberg) to create atrocity-art; this is a post-modern school of humanism not only offended by war, but by war photographs. Inspired by French philosopher, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag, an American woman of letters with a hyper-sensitivity to photojournalism, this school holds that photographs, not necessarily art, but staunch, mainstream realism dehumanizes the victims of atrocity and desensitizes the masses to it.

The film critic, Alex Diaz-Granados proposes, “Working from Steven Zaillian’s [screen writer] adaptation of the fact-based novel by Thomas Kenneally, Spielberg chose to film Schindler’s List in black and white because most of the documentaries, records and photographs he had seen were in black and white.” Another reason for this aesthetic liberty was to realize the pathos. For instance, Spielberg told film critic Susan Royal during an interview: when shooting the scene, recreated from a photograph, about the infamous ‘selection process’ when female inmates were forced to shower and then run naked around the camp, “I couldn’t look at it, I had to turn my eyes away, I couldn’t watch. It was easier to see it in black and white than it was in color, actually.” Either way, watching Spielberg’s interpretation of the Shoah in black-and-white is more evocative of the phenomenon of looking at photographs than experiencing the atrocity first-hand. Apropos, the

director goes to painstaking lengths to recreate the scenes in his film to resemble actual photographs. For example, he has his actors pose and angles his camera in a manner to recreate certain famous photographs. Some examples are a wheelbarrow of corpses, SS commander of the Plaszow camp, Amon Göth, shirtless, holding a rifle, Polish Jews boarding an Auschwitz-bound train, the gate of the Kraków ghetto, and most famously, Nazi soldiers taunting an Orthodox Jewish male in the ghetto, to name a few.

Whereas Spielberg, in memorializing a tragedy, can only work with testimony and photographs – a strict sense of realism – and in doing so honors the victims and the immensity of the atrocity, Roland Barthes interestingly sees therein an affront to the victims; an exploitation of their fates. In Camera Lucida he writes:

I observed that a photograph can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look. The Operator is the Photographer. The Spectator is ourselves, all of us, all of us who glance through collections of photographs—in magazines and newspapers, in books, albums, archives…And the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object, which I should like to call the Spectrum of the photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relation to “spectacle” and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.

In her essay, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes, “For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war.” Though, her thesis stresses otherwise. She makes clear, however, the effect of the photograph, certainly underscoring what Spielberg saw in them, as value. She writes:

Nonstop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite. The memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image. In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorizing it.  The photograph is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb. Each of us mentally stocks hundreds of photographs, subject to install recall.

However, in agreement with Barthes’ disdain for the medium, making a “spectacle” of the unfortunate-fated, she decides to make instant recall from mental stock of:

…the most famous photograph taken during the Spanish Civil War, the Republican soldier, “shot” by Robert Capa’s camera at the same moment he is hit by an enemy bullet, and virtually everyone who has heard of that war can summon to mind the grainy black-and-white image of a man in a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves collapsing backwards on a hillcock, his right arm flung behind him as his rifle leaves his grip; about to fall, dead, onto his own shadow.

Sontag’s point is that studying atrocity photography will not prevent atrocity; and in this particular case it was almost as if what Barthes calls the “operator” is killing the

Robert Cappa: Spanish Civil War. Spanish Republican warrior shot by bullet and camera, simultaneously.

“spectrum” for the sake of the “spectators.” And so there is an exploitation of both victim and atrocity. However, Sontag, an outspoken pacifist and humanitarian is less concerned with honoring the dead than she is with censoring the gratuitous for the sake of preventing future atrocity. Sontag goes so far as to recall the Socratics:

Indeed, the very first acknowledgement (as far as I am aware) of the attraction of mutilated bodies occurs in a founding description of mental conflict. It is a passage in The Republic, Book IV, where Plato’s Socrates describes how our reason may be overwhelmed by an unworthy desire, which drives the self to become angry with a part of its na

ture. Plato has been developing a tripartite theory of mental function, consisting of reason, anger or indignation, and appetite or desire—anticipating the Freudian schema of superego, ego, and id, (with the difference that Plato puts reason on top and conscience, represented by indignation in the middle).

And Sontag’s point is that even Plato “appears to take for granted that we also have an appetite for sights of degradation and pain and mutilation.” And she continues, “Surely the undertow of this despised impulse must also be taken into account when discussing the effects of atrocity pictures.”

Aristotle sought to defend art against the attack of the Socratics by denying the existence of a tripartite psyche and by lecturing on the merit of mimetic-catharsis as a means of both therapy and education. The more aesthetic the mimesis – the further from reality – argued Aristotle, the stronger the cathartic (therapeutic, pedagogical) upshot. Whereas Athenian rhapsodes wore masks to separate their mimesis from reality, Spielberg uses color, sporadically to make what usually appears as photographs, seem increasingly real. In a post-Aristotelian world, such aesthetic embellishment can only strengthen the pedagogical and therapeutic catharsis. In the midst of a three-hour film shot in black-and-white, Spielberg shoots certain images in color. They are: the opening scene of a Jewish family saying the Sabbath blessings, (all is color, then as the camera zooms in on the Shabbat candle the background fades to black-and-white and the candle remains in color; then fades into the first scene in the story sequence.

When the Shabbat candle returns, it is again seen in color with a black-and-white background; this is the scene where Herr Direktor, Oskar Schindler, gives permission for his factory workers to make a blessing for the Sabbath). And most famously, a little girl in a red-coat, hiding during the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto; and later stacked in a pile of corpses. The screen is only completely in color during the first scene (as mentioned) and the final scene, in which the real-life characters have returned to pay the story’s protagonist, memorial. If the photographer makes a spectacle for us, the viewers of the photographs, to gawk at the pain of others, Spielberg manages to bring us out of such insensitivity, using color to emphasize the pathos. Certainly, given his choice to shoot Sabbath candles and what seems like the specter of a child, in color, is proof that Spielberg means to give his cinematography a spiritual dimension – one which war photos, according to Sontag, are devoid of (ironically Barthes is terrified by just this, photographs being for him, the return of the dead). If Barthes is correct that war photography and photography in general is macabre, his chagrin is somewhat alleviated by Spielberg’s cinematographing of photographs:

… the Photograph’s noeme deteriorates when…[the] Photograph is animated and becomes cinema: in the Photograph, something has posed in front of the tiny hole and has remained there forever (that is my feeling); but in cinema, something has passed in front of this same tiny hole: the pose is swept away and denied by the continuous series of images: it is a different phenomenology, and therefore, a different art which begins here, though derived from the first one.

Therefore, Spielberg is giving eternal life, and a spiritual dimension to the historical images he is recreating. The director’s use of aesthetics is justified by Barthes’ reckoning, for he writes:

Mad or tame? Photography can be one or the other: tame if its realism remains relative, tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits…mad if this realism is absolute and, so to speak, original, obliging the loving and terrified conscience to return to the very letter of Time: a strictly repulsive movement which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call, in conclusion, the photographic ecstasy.  Such are the two ways of the Photograph. The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality.

According to Susan Sontag, at one extreme, photography dehumanizes victims and causes the viewer of the photograph to observe people as merely objects. On the other pole, photographs, namely atrocity photographs do have an emotional impact on us, and they help us to learn of historical atrocity. For instance, the mention of Nazi-holocaust, conjures in our mind photographic images taken at the camps and in the ghettos. The mention or thought of this atrocity and the sight of the images are in many minds inseparable, and this does have pedagogical significance for understanding the degree of the Nazi-atrocity; however, as Sontag argues, we view the photographs 70 years after the fact, from the safety of another government, another continent and in the comfort of our living-rooms. Therefore, according to Sontag, photographs do little to prevent atrocity from happening in our own lives. However, Spielberg cannot be blamed for exploiting photographs of Auschwitz or the Kraków ghetto. Nor can photojournalism, despite Sontag, be held responsible for the deviant behavior of some. As a Jew, Spielberg is a victim of the Shoah who has the right to express himself artistically.




































About the Author
Scott Krane has been blogging for The Times of Israel since 2012. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Tablet, The Jerusalem Post and the Daily Caller, among others.