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Schindler's List: A Fecal Matter
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Robert Levin
[March 2019]
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Schindler's List: A Fecal Matter
Robert Levin

(This piece was written in 1993.)

Recently, when a visiting friend wanted to rent it, I saw "Schindler’s List" again. I can report that a second viewing of Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of the concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth yields even more layers and subtleties. But Fiennes notwithstanding, 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 gets 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 people—what the Nazis were actually about.

Normally 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 film maker, 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 I’d have no cause to make an issue of the film’s limitations in this regard were it not for the fact that Spielberg comes maddeningly close to giving his audience a glimpse of where the Nazi’s were coming from. (You could say, in fact, that he gets to within just an inch or so of accomplishing this.)

I’m thinking of the scenes in which Goeth shoots two prisoners from his balcony and then returns to his apartment and urinates.

In this sequence, Spielberg is demonstrating that the most monstrous deeds issue from men just like the rest of us, and he makes this point very nicely. The trouble is that everyone’s known as much since the Eichmann trial. To keep this statement and illuminate what it is that turns the ordinary man into a homicidal maniac, all Spielberg needed to do was have Goeth, in place of urinating, sit down and move his bowels.

I’m serious. It’s shit, after all, 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 of which
shit is emblematic, the mother of all problems, the problem of death, that the “Final Solution”
was, of course, addressing.

Let’s, just for a minute, try to acknowledge something that ought to be common wisdom—certainly after the work of Otto Rank and Ernest Becker. What makes the world go around is, purely and simply, the fact of death. The real, if usually unconscious, purpose of virtually all human behavior is to mitigate the terror and panic the anticipation of death induces; to, at the very least, reduce the trepidation that derives from the very terms of existence to a manageable degree of fear.

When, for a relatively straightforward and transparent example, we invent the prospect of an
afterlife and then adhere to rules of conduct we’ve decided 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 given possible is to pursue and amass financial wealth beyond the requirements of our organismic well-being. The god-like trappings great sums of money buys enable us to feel superior not just to the common man but, more importantly, to the common fate. Many of the “faults” or “neuroses” we develop are also designed to cushion us against the specter of death. Procrastination, for instance, helps us to fashion the illusion that we are suspending time.

And then there’s mass murder.

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, say, the extirpation of an inferior or evil race that’s corrupting a divine plan—it’s even better than especially effective. Mussolini’s son, returning to Italy in a state of euphoria after bombing the Ethiopians, and, in an infamous remark, describing the carnage he’d wrought as “beautiful,” was only being honest, candidly acknowledging the ultimate high that murder can afford.

“High,” meaning, of course, ABOVE the body.

When we devote ourselves to the preservation of a rain forest, we are performing a service for nature that might, come Judgement 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 is extraordinary. 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 the fragility of our bodies inflicts on us. In the period of killing we get what we most need and want, we get to experience ourselves as indestructible.

Murder kills death.

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. But I can still wish he’d been capable of taking his opportunity to toss a wrench into the mindless reflex of hand-wringing astonishment and incredulity that is our rote response to atrocities. The truth of the matter isn’t elusive. We make it so because it sits in shit. 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 termed “not human”; will, in fact, have no recourse but to violate the social contract, cut the tether to civilization and look to the resources of what we call “madness” in order to achieve respite from the inhuman and uncivilized reality of living under a death sentence.

If anything should astonish us it's that this percentage isn't markedly higher.



"This is deep but here is a point to relay...what is happening in the Middle East with the philosophy of pre-emptive strikes! This requires no evidence just a belief that a enemy can strike you if you don;t strike it first! The results has been thousands killed. In this country there are many who supposrt such a draconian method! Is killing without justification justified just because one thinks he could be killed? Is this killing no more than murder if not?" -- e. rocco caldwell.


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© 2003 Robert Levin
November 2003

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