Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Historian discovers that films are fiction

Historian David Crowe has published a new, academic biography of Oskar Schindler wherein he claims that Schindler's persona and legend have been hyped up. His actions were actually more ambiguous than courageous, and his efforts to save Jews only a small part of a self-indulgent life. The film portrayed him falsely as a hero.
"Steve is a very wonderful, tender man," Mr. Crowe said of Mr. Spielberg, "but 'Schindler's List' was theater and not in an historically accurate way. The film simplifies the story almost to the point of ridiculousness."

I have questions about why Crowe has taken on Schindler and the film. One of Schindler's List's major themes was the man who rises above his pettiness just once in order to become the hero. Crowe makes the same argument himself, but makes it seem as if the film turned him into the classical hero. Crowe's argument goes into pettiness itself, focusing on minutiae and criticizing it for not reaching standards of "truth" that films, in general, don't promise.
He dismissed some scenes in the film and book that are part of Schindler's legend. For instance, in the film Schindler is shown riding with his mistress on Lasota Hill in Krakow and watching the clearing of the ghetto in March 1943, when he sees a little girl seeking shelter. The scene depicts Schindler's moral awakening, but Mr. Crowe called it "totally fictitious." He said that it would have been impossible to see that part of the ghetto from the hill, and that Schindler never saw the girl. Schindler's transformation was more gradual, Mr. Crowe said, and even before the ghetto was cleared he was appalled by the mistreatment of the Jews.
Attacking the narrative devices of film is a straw man. Is it so important that Schindler had a moment or months of revelation? Certainly historians are not immune to this problem: even Thucydides inserted the legend when he had experienced the real events.


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