Schindler’s scripting slants movie’s history

The Oscar nominees will be announced today. But the Academy Awards are not always the best indicators of a film’s quality. For instance, even “Schindler’s List,” perhaps the least commercial of past major winners, has a serious gap in its historical message, one which is clear when compared to the Thomas Keneally novel.
One of the most vivid memories from my Soviet school years was the proliferation of war imagery in Russian cinematography. It seemed sometimes that every second movie, and all of socialist realism, the dominant Soviet art style, was about World War II. Although many, if not a majority, of these films were made for the propagandistic purposes of portraying the leading Soviet role in carrying out the burden of the fight and final victory over Nazi Germany, nevertheless some of these films, due to their broad humanistic messages, were true masterpieces.
It is an irony of history (and geography) that almost simultaneous to the post-perestroika disappearance of Soviet cinematography and its replacement on Russian screens with the new monopoly of Western, primarily American, products, the theme of war atrocities has found its way to Hollywood. Thanks to Steven Spielberg’s highly acclaimed “Schindler’s List,” many American viewers for the first time were exposed to one of the darkest experiences of this century, the Holocaust.
In the film, after Oscar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) announces to his imprisoned workers that they are free, tearful farewells follow, and Neeson departs. As a Soviet officer arrives on horseback the next morning, he finds the workers waking up near their factory building. Decorated with medals, cheerful, clean and relaxed, the officer looks absolutely out of place. “You have been liberated by the Soviet Army,” he says with an exaggerated Russian accent. After the previous “liberation” scene with Schindler, his words sound ridiculous. No one rushes to thank him. Ironic questions and an awkward pause are interrupted by a former prisoner, who demands, “Where should we go?” The officer advises, “Don’t go east, that’s for sure. They hate you there. I wouldn’t go west either, if I were you.” The prisoners say, “We could use some food.” Instead of offering them help, the officer points at the horizon. The scene ends with the prisoners walking on the horizon accompanied by a folk song.
All of these moments in the movie are in sharp contrast to the original novel. There, after Schindler left them, his Jews are simply afraid to leave the camp. The camp is liberated only on the third day by a single Russian officer. “He seemed to be bringing a personal, hard-won deliverance, for his uniform was worn, the leather strap of his rifle so withered by sweat and winter and campaigning that it had had to be replaced by rope. … As he dismounted he was kissed by Mrs. Krumholz [one of the prisoners].” Then he indeed delivered a standard liberation speech. After that, “he got down from his chair and smiled, as if saying that now he had finished as a spokesman and was prepared to answer questions.” When the prisoners realized by his accent that he himself was Belorussion Jewish, the conversation took on a new intimacy. The film certainly dropped the officer’s question, “Is there anything I can do for you?” and his thought that he could get them a cartload of bread and perhaps some horsemeat (indeed, the Russians brought to the camp a butchered horse).
Yet the most noticeable manipulation of the novel concerns the question about where the Jews should go. “I don’t know,” [the officer in the novel] said, looking them in the face. “I don’t know where you ought to go. Don’t go east — that much I can tell you. But don’t go west either. … They don’t like us anywhere.”
There is a considerable difference between “they don’t like us anywhere” (the novel) and “they hate you in the east” (the film). As a geographer, I was shocked by this privileging of the east with regard to who used to “hate” the Jews. The clear eastward directionality of this implicit accusation was at least puzzling: What is meant here by east? The conversation with the Soviet officer was taking place in Czechoslovakia, where Schindler’s Jews had been relocated from Krakow (Poland). Yet east of Czechoslovakia lies Belorussia and Ukraine, the westernmost republics of the former Soviet Union. Why have they (or the entire Soviet Union) been privileged in this dialog? Wasn’t anti-semitism a universal phenomenon characteristic of both the east and west (and north and south)? Why has this message of hate been assigned only to the east?
Having paid homage to the aesthetics of Soviet war cinematography, “Schindler’s List” also has absorbed some of its unfortunate ethnical features. Whereas the Soviets, guided by their idea of internationalism, in general tended in their war movies to downplay ethnic, including the Jewish, dimension of war atrocities, Spielberg’s film ignores the Soviets. Whereas the socialist realist war films credited victory over the Nazis to the collective efforts of seemingly powerless people (unknown soldiers), “Schindler’s List” is an example of capitalist realism figuratively embracing a powerful individual, certainly an entrepreneur and egoist.
Despite the morally doubtful manipulation of the novel, the screenwriter Steven Zaillian was awarded Oscar for the best adaptation of original text. The awards should not be taken religiously as a final indicator of films’ quality, just as it should not disable our ability of independent and critical thinking.

Dr. Dmitri Sidorov is a geographer in the Department of Geography.