So as I was talking with my Friend Jill recently, I realised that almost all my entries so far have referred to “fantasy” films (though The Fisher King is a fantasy set in a pretty real world). Needless to say, I don’t think fantasy is Jill’s ‘thing’. Thinking about it, and glancing through my library, I do prefer the fantastic, the myth, the parable, as I would almost always choose the Metaphor over the actual “thing” – because our brains are just designed to respond better to Metaphor, mine more than most, admittedly. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t like realistic films set in a real world, it’s just that for me, they have to be pretty powerful, thought-provoking, and really, really speak something to my soul in order to catch my eye and make their way into my affection. Most of the films based in the real world that attract me are also “true” stories, not sure what that says about me.
Take “Schindler’s List” for example. Jill’s daughter is going to Poland next year – I am extremely Jealous! – and will be visiting both Aushwitz and Schindler’s factory. I don’t know whether she is a little young for this experience – back to what I was talking about last time – but it’s certainly an experience we should all consider undertaking. Visiting the real life places, being able to touch the ground where so many people suffered, died and also triumphed is something, for me, pretty important. I’d definitely recommend both the book AND film – Liam Neeson’s performance is jaw droppingly brilliant.
The fact that we know Schindler’s story, and the story of so many who suffered in that dark night that shadowed Europe and the world is a testament to the courage, character and belief in hope of the survivors. The very hope that one day they would be called upon to tell their stories, the hope that one day there would be a reckoning, the hope that even in the face of hell, there was a way out. In the Film, this is directly contrasted with the attitude of those who don’t care whether there are witnesses, as they don’t think those witnesses will survive. For Amon Goeth and those like him, there was only going to be one outcome – the complete extinction of the Jewish race. Even when Amon enjoys a mild fantasy where after the war he would carry on employing his Jewish maid, he knows it is a fantasy, because in his version of the end of the war, Helen would be dead. But opposed to the certainty of extermination is the undoubted and undiminished hope of the inmates of Plaszow and Oskar’s factories at Zablocie and Brunnlitz.
It was hope that led people to hide; it was hope that led them to hide others; it was hope that kept the women eating in Auschwitz – when all logic told them they’d been abandoned. And the hope gets fulfilled – the scene of Oskar coming to find the Women at Aushwitz is an amazing one, if only to see that his mask of annoyance tells you how afraid for them he was. His rescue is almost Godlike – The women trapped in a literal hell are inexplicably saved by the gruff but gracious Oskar. If you only come away with one thing from this story it should be the power of Hope.
But there is so much more…..The quote “He who saves the life of one man saves the world entire” is the one which first prods Oskar down the path of his destiny and is the sentiment that lies at the heart of the story. The sentiment appeals to Oskar’s pragmatism, the pragmatism that saves him from the despair which destroys others who cannot deal with the fact that they can’t save everyone. Oskar simply saves the ones he knows about. With such a pragmatic approach he saves so many, and it’s an example we would all do well to follow. Don’t lose yourself to the despair of your action not making any difference. Making a difference to one person is all you ever need to do. And make it count.
This is a heartbreaking and at times dark story, opening our eyes to dark pits within the human soul – possibly even our own. It’s not just a Jewish story (the book makes that much clearer than the film), it’s a story of all of us. It’s not just a story of Hate, it’s also one of integrity. It’s not just a story of thoughtless violence, it’s also full of gentleness and simple joy. But it’s a real story, and important in its telling and re-telling. We can say to ourselves never again, but without stories like this holding a mirror up to our own darkness within it may well happen – it IS happening. It is the stories of survival, integrity, courage and justice, stories like Oskar’s that give us a glimpse into what our own path could and perhaps should be. Don’t watch or read Schindler’s List thinking, what would I have done back then? Read it thinking, what does saving the life of one man look like right here right now in my neighbourhood? And then go and DO it. Stories exist to teach inspire and motivate, to shape character. What character will Schindler shape for you?