"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Schindler’s List

In German-occupied Poland during World War I, Oskar Schindler spent millions to save 600 Jews from the death camps. In the 1993 film, Schindler’s List, the gradual transformation of the luxuriant capitalist is evident as the film unfolds. At the end,  he comes to an emotional realization as to the worth of money as compared with human lives. He realizes that had he not spent so lavishly, he could have saved even more lives. He realizes, in effect, his selfishness that had blinded him even to the obvious severe suffering of the Jews around him. The story is thus not simply that of greed giving way to compassion. 

In the film, the greed of the capitalist is in tension with the power of a labor-camp director, Amon Goeth. The latter luxuriates in shooting the Jews almost wantonly, while Oskar Schindler luxuriates in spending the surplus profit made off slave labor in his factories.  Simply put, shooting such cheap laborers harms the efficiency of the plants and thus reduces the profits. So Schindler attempts to convince Goeth that real power is exercised “when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.” 
For example, when a Roman governor pardoned a man guilty of stealing, real power was applied.  It is easy to shoot a defenseless Jew in a labor camp in which the state sanctions such an act de facto and de jure, but pardoning evinces power because the granter goes above, or contrary to, the law. In another sense, Goeth needed little self-discipline to shoot a Jew for screwing up on a task, but, given Goeth’s pleasure from killing, he had to draw on self-restraint in pardoning a boy for not having cleaned Goeth’s bathtub enough. As Nietzsche points out in his philosophical writings, the richest pleasure from the exercise of power comes from overcoming urges within. There is more power, in other words, in resisting an intractable urge than in overcoming a foe on a battlefield.
In one scene, Schindler attends Mass. His faith, which is barely touched on in the film, is in a sort of power, that of meekness, that turns the typical notion of power on its heels. Not only are the last, first, and most of the first, last; the very notion of a suffering servant suggests that standing up especially for unjustly suffering servants such as the Jews in Nazi Germany, partakes of power more than does putting those Jews to death. This comes through in the scene in which Goeth and other Nazi officials watch in bewilderment as Schindler takes off his nice suit-coat in order to help shoot more water through an expended hose into the train-cars, which are filled to the brim with Jews heading to a death camp. People drunk with the power esteemed in culture like that of the Nazi Germany are at a loss, even stunned, in witnessing another, qualitatively different, sort of power. The two powers are that different. Accordingly, the world would be much different were the predominant sort of power relegated and the more subtle power highlighted.
Whereas for centuries money or wealth was assumed in Christianity to be indicative of greed, Christian writers during the Italian Renaissance wrote of good use. If wealth is spent on good causes, the wealth itself that is spent is surely not of greed, for the heart is in a good place.[1] At the end of the film, Schindler realizes that all his wealth had been of greed because he had not used it on good causes, such as in saving people even of a different faith. Facilitating the exercise of another faith—as in Schindler encouraging one of his workers, who is also a rabbi, to say a prayer at sunset on a Friday at the plant—evinces the deeper, more ultimately satisfying sort of power, whereas acting to enrich one’s own religion can be said to be too convenient, or easy, to do so. Using wealth can thus be in sync with the sort of power that so perplexes the Nazis in the film.

1. See Skip Worden, God’s Gold, available at Amazon.