I saw Schindler’s List again over Christmas, for the first time in some years. It’s a flawed movie – exactly how flawed is a subject deserving of its own post – but gets a lot more right than wrong and remains, I think, mainstream Hollywood’s best attempt to portray the Holocaust.
While the film is rightly remembered as Liam Neeson’s big break, for my money the standout performance is Ralph Fiennes as SS officer Amon Goeth. The story of Schindler himself, while portrayed to a high standard, is a very familiar screen archetype: the amoral man who redeems himself in a time of crisis.
Goeth is something much more unusual: a character study of a villain with no redeeming features whatsoever. Fiennes’ performance achieves an unlikely combination of pathetic and terrifying, a snivelling, vain, pot-bellied psychopath who never shows a glimpse of humanity yet remains compelling, rather than the stock comic-book villain those traits should add up to.
The high point of the performance, perhaps of the whole film, is the scene where Goeth goes down to the cellar to terrorise his Jewish slave/maid, played by Embeth Davidtz. Everything about the scene suggests he’s going to rape her, and the audience unconsciously steels itself for this. What actually happens is almost worse (TRIGGER WARNING: the following video contains disturbing images):
It’s a truly chilling piece of cinema, very nearly unbearable to sit through. The first time I saw it, I was shell shocked, but on subsequent viewings, I came to think of this scene as the history of anti-Semitism in microcosm. Fiennes is the eternal Jew-hater; in a position of absolute power over the object of his hatred, yet bizarrely projecting onto her, and all Jews, this mysterious sense of power.
Crucially, her half of the conversation takes place entirely in his head. Even as the actual, living Jew in front of him is shivering in terror and merely hoping to escape with her life, he enacts an elaborate psychodrama in which he is the one being seduced or bewitched. Not only does he terrorise her, but she is held responsible for provoking it, even though she barely moves and never speaks. Finally, it ends with an outburst of extreme violence, just as anti-Semitism always has in history. To underline the point, this is intercut with a scene of actually-existing Jewish life – something Jew-haters have never troubled themselves to learn about – a makeshift wedding in the labour camp barracks.
It’s all there, in a scene less than four minutes long. The key element here is the caprice of bigotry; the oppressor’s actions are entirely independent of any action taken by the oppressed. This is why Israelis are right to be wary of putative peace deals, since a large element on the Palestinian side hates the Jewish state simply for existing. It is also why Jews, nearly 70 years after Hitler’s death, can still never entirely relax. The beast is always there, coiled like a lamprey and ready to strike again on any pretext or none.
When American friends expressed alarm about the rate of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe, I used to reassure them. Yes, I’d say, it’s very worrying, but it’s hardly the 1930s all over again. The bigots are still a tiny and isolated minority with all of civil society ranged against them and sanity will prevail.
This belief has been badly shaken by recent events, as touched on in two previous posts. It feels like each day brings new and worse portents. I urge you to read this account, by the Independent’s own John Lichfield, of a performance/rally by Cameroonian-French “comedian” Dieudonné M’bala M’bala:
Dieudonné’s world view is as follows: the Jews run the world; they are responsible for the suffering of blacks and poor whites. Why? Because they have created a global monopoly of pity by manipulating the Holocaust.
A crucial line has been crossed here, for this man isn’t some fringe ranter from an Islamist or neo-Nazi sect, but a popular entertainer with a large following. Dieudonné is also responsible for the “quenelle”, a quasi-deniable alternative to the Nazi/Roman salute. This is risibly claimed to merely be an “anti-Establishment” gesture (the socialism of fools, remember?), but this is belied by the countless online images of Dieudonné fans making it at the gates of Auschwitz and other unmistakably provocative contexts, and most of all by the man’s own words.
All this was preying on my mind when I came across this story a day or two ago, which finally convinced me to write this. The text is disturbing enough, but please, whatever you do, watch the embedded video. This is really happening: massed crowds baying for the Jews on the streets of Western Europe, in 2014. This is a sight I hoped never to see in my lifetime.
What do we do about it, then? I wish I knew. I’m just a sympathetic gentile with a blog, hardly in a position to rally the troops. But what can’t be done is nothing. The Jews of Europe and the world must know they won’t stand alone this time, that decent people are still the majority.
Of all the tarnished weapons in the arsenal of the old Left, the noblest was solidarity, a human bond transcending nations, classes and creeds. Whether we show it on the streets, in print, online or in Parliament, this is the least we can do. The fightback must start now, before it’s too late, or we shall never forgive ourselves. Nor should we.Tagged in: anti-semitism, antisemitism, bigotry, Dieudonné, Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, Embeth Davidtz, fascism, israel, Jews, Liam Neeson, nazism, quenelle, racism, Ralph Fiennes, Schindler's List, solidarity, Steven Spielberg
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