Upon its release, at a mall a 25-minute drive from my high school, I found seeing Steven Spielberg's much-garlanded and much-criticized 1993 Holocaust epic Schindler's List two parts wrenching to one part corny. The film was touched by its director's genius for capturing complex process and chaos onscreen, but it also was one mangled by clumsiness and naiveté. Surely, the final speeches given by Liam Neeson, playing the German munitions manufacturer Oskar Schindler, should have been cut!
But unlike several brilliant film critics who I was reading at the time, and whose arguments I found stimulating, I never doubted that Spielberg had crafted a work of towering significance. Adults I knew in small-town Kansas were never going to read Elie Wiesel or watch Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. But they damn sure saw Schindler's List. Spielberg accomplished nothing less than forcing the world to bear witness to the worst of what humanity is capable. By focusing his camera so often on that terrible process, on the step-by-step logic of systemic brutality and murder, Spielberg constructed the imaginative framework through which the unthinkable -- 6 million dead! -- becomes concrete.
Revisiting the film, the moments I found false in '93 now moved me to tears. One knock against the movie has always been that Spielberg, that sentimental man-child, somehow found the one Holocaust story with a happy ending -- and one with a hero who is a Gentile. But today what moves me is Schindler's outsiderness. Schindler understands the simple truth that to ignore injustice is to sanction it, a conviction that maybe seemed simple-minded in '93, when fascism was on the ropes. Today, it's radical.