Recently, when a visiting friend who'd never seen it brought it with him, I watched Schindler's List again. I can report that the marvelous subtleties in Ralph Fiennes's portrayal of the concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth more than reward a second viewing. But Fiennes aside, I have to say that, for me, watching Schindler's List has now twice been a vexing experience.
What irritates me about Schindler's List is that it never goes beyond lamenting man's inhumanity to man and celebrating the triumph of the human spirit, etc., when it could have thrown at least a quick light on something of consequence that apparently still baffles a lot of us—like what the Nazis were really about!
Normally, of course, the absence of serious probing into the psychodynamics of egregious human behavior would no more disappoint me in a Steven Spielberg film—even one about the Holocaust—than it did in a episode of Hogan's Heroes. Spielberg is an enormously gifted filmmaker, but plumbing the nastier depths isn't something he does and you don't go to his movies looking for that. (On the contrary, you go in the hope of retrieving a prepubescent innocence.) So if I have a problem with the film's limitations in this regard it's only because Spielberg happens to get maddeningly close to revealing where the Nazis were coming from. Indeed, you could say that he gets to within just an inch or so of accomplishing this.
I'm thinking of the scenes in which Goeth, upon shooting two prisoners from his balcony, repairs to his quarters and urinates.
In this sequence Spielberg is showing how chillingly casual a man can be in the performance of the most heinous deeds. And he makes this statement nicely. To go deeper, however, to create a juxtaposition of events that actually pointed to what it is that turns a man into a homicidal sociopath, all Spielberg needed to do (what David Lynch might have done) was have Goeth, in place of urinating, sit down and move his bowels.
I'm serious. Urine is relatively innocuous, but it's shit that personifies the hideous fate of decay and dissolution that nature has devised for everything corporeal. Shit approximates, and serves daily to anticipate, the condition our bodies themselves will wind up in. And it's the problem shit signifies, the mother of all problems, the problem of death, that the Nazis and their "Final Solution" were addressing.
Let's, just for a moment, allow ourselves to recognize what Ernest Becker wanted us to recognize: To reduce the terror and panic that constitute the human default condition—and which the fact of being mortal causes us—to, at the very least, a manageable degree of apprehension, is the real objective of virtually all human behavior.
As I've said elsewhere on the subject: "When we invent—for a straightforward and transparent demonstration—the prospect of an afterlife and then adhere to rules of conduct we've determined will assure us of admission, we are handing ourselves a comforting shot at surviving death. But another of the myriad ways we've concocted or seized upon to make living with an intolerable reality possible is to pursue and amass inordinate financial wealth. The god-like trappings great sums of money buy enable us to feel superior not just to the common man but, more importantly, to the common fate. Still another way with which we ameliorate the fear of oblivion is to aim for a kind of symbolic immortality by producing, say, a book or work of art that we can hope will exert an influence on the world after we're gone. And many of the ‘faults' or ‘neuroses' we develop are also intended to cushion us against the specter of death. Procrastination, for instance, helps us to fashion the illusion that we are halting time."
But ways to subdue the dread of death are, as I've indicated, multitudinous. They are built into and played out in every culture. (In fact, the measure of a culture can be taken by the quality and variety of the made up realities it provides to alleviate our death trepidation.) What, for example, are the sports competitions we as fans become so absorbed in if not fabricated opportunities to experience a victory over death? Winning means not dying, which explains the joy that we're filled by. Losing means dying, which accounts for the profound depression that can engulf us—a depression that lifts with the next new season and the renewed chances to win that we're afforded. (And while we're making reference to cultural resources in the service of death-transcendence: what is the push for "freedom" currently taking place in North Africa and the Middle East about if not to enable these populations to access death anxiety antidotes of which they've been deprived?) The innately predatory character of capitalism speaks to the issue of death terror as well. His true motive buried in "practical" considerations, the CEO who downsizes his personnel isn't, at bottom, concerned with saving a company. He eliminates people in order to feel like a survivor.
And then there's genocide.
Blowing away a lot of people is an especially effective death-dread remedy. When guilt and ambivalence are removed from the act—when the act can be rationalized as serving a righteous or noble cause, like the extirpation of an inferior or evil race that's corrupting a divine plan—it's without equal, the ultimate way to feel like a survivor. Mussolini's son, in a state of euphoria while dropping bombs on the Ethiopians and, in an infamous remark, describing the sight of incinerating flesh as "beautiful," was only being honest, candidly acknowledging the ultimate high that murder can yield.
"High" meaning, of course, above the body that nature has assigned to extinction.
When we devote ourselves to the preservation of a rainforest we are performing a service for nature that might, come Judgment Day, earn us a special dispensation. When we bulldoze a rainforest we are getting nature out of our face. But when we are killing, when we are exercising destructive force of a supreme magnitude and manifesting a blunt indifference to the notion of the sanctity of life, to the unfinished business of our victims and to the grief of those who loved them, we become what it truly is to be "one" with nature. And the reward, fleeting and costly as it may be, is, again, unparalleled. Claiming nature's power and authority for ourselves, merging with the source of death, we stop feeling vulnerable to nature. We achieve a sense of immunity to its victimization of us—a sense of immunity that, in turn, relieves us of the burden our finite bodies inflict on us. In the period of killing we get what we most need and want: we experience ourselves as indestructible.
I've conceded that it would have been off Spielberg's spectrum to make even an oblique or passing reference to a reality so repugnant—to step, that is, in shit. But I can still wish he'd been capable of taking the opportunity to maybe, and if only on a subliminal level, jolt and disrupt just a little the reflex of astonishment and incredulity that is our rote response to atrocities. (Our dumbfounded reaction to the Tucson shootings comes to mind here.) We insist that the cause of human evil is elusive, but it isn't. We make it so because we're reluctant to know it. To be conscious of its cause would force us to recognize our own death-denial efforts and would potentially undermine them.
But whether or not we're prepared to handle the idea that it's largely our attempts to mitigate an untenable condition that define our behavior—and that, for all practical purposes, make the world go around—it remains true nonetheless. And it's just as true that a certain percentage of humanity, unable to avail itself of the less malignant death-denial techniques, or finding them insufficient, or seeing through them, will always be willing to become what Elie Wiesel, referring to the Nazis, termed "not human." It will, in fact, have no recourse but to breach the social contract and enter madness in order to achieve respite from the inhuman reality of living under a death sentence.
Robert Levin is the author of When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot: A Miscellany of Stories and Commentary (The Drill Press), and the coauthor and coeditor, respectively, of two collections of essays about jazz and rock in the '60s: Music & Politics, with John Sinclair (World Publishing), and Giants of Black Music, with Pauline Rivelli (Da Capo Press).