Sunday, September 12, 2004

WATCHING SCHINDLER'S LIST: IMAGES OF THE HOLOCAUST

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it
-Santayana


The Third Reich was born on January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany. He said it would endure for a thousand years. It lasted twelve years and four months, but during the period of that time, a mere flicker as History goes, brought a rain of ruin and carnage that the earth has never seen. In its calculated butchery of human life and the human spirit, this reign of terror outdid all the savage oppressions of the previous ages. In May 1945, the Reich passed into History. We only hope that its memories do last for at least a thousand years.

Watching the much-awaited Schindler’s List yesterday was a kind of act of cleansing and purgation for me. I wanted to watch the great epic movie for a long time but for some reason, could never summon up the time, or the frame of mind to do it. I don’t intend to write an extensive review on it here for a couple of reasons. First, because almost everyone has already seen it, and more importantly, because I don’t think I can do justice to it’s general ethos in words. A third reason is that there are some emotions which should be kept private in order to preserve their sense of purity, so to say.

The movie itself is surely Spielberg’s magnum opus. He himself calls it the most satisfying experience of his life. The performances are stunning; by Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes as well as all the other cast. They have never displayed an iota of melodrama. They don’t need to. The theme brings to them strength from within. Portraying the movie in black and white was the wisest thing Spielberg did. The three scenes which are in colour are very aptly chosen. The musical score (actually a piece by Frederic Chopin) will haunt me all through my life whenever I hear it.

I was quite stoic for the entire length of the movie. The moment of deliverance for me came at the end. Oskar Schindler had done his duty. He had saved the lives of eleven hundred Jews, and, being a member of the Nazi party, was preparing to flee. The Jews hand him a ring of gold, fashioned from the gold teeth fillings from one of them. Schindler clutches the ring, and that’s when he says something which would be unforgettable for me. He says that he could have saved more lives. He appears heart-breakingly desperate. He points to his car and wonders how many lives it could have bought. He holds his Nazi epaulette in his hand and breaks down, thinking that it could have bought the lives of two, at least one Jew. What is the cost of a man’s life? In what way does it make sense? That was when I too could hold it no longer.

The rest of the day passed for me in a sense of surreal bereavement. I felt the same kind of emotion one feels when a close one passes away. I am sure all of us have felt it some time or the other. Its memory is fresh in my mind, because I felt it when my grandfather passed away a few months back. I was alone in the U.S. that time, but knew for sometime that it was going to happen, because he was suffering from a serious illness. Still, when it actually happens, you feel something which is quite inexplicable. It’s a strange feeling. In a way, you have been prepared for it mentally. But not emotionally. It’s this incongruence of feelings and thoughts that your mind tries to reconcile with itself, again and again, in the wake of the event. It’s a jabbing, depressing, thorny feeling.

But this feeling was different. I tried to decipher why it was not leaving me. One reason was clear. For many years, I have been reading several books about the Holocaust, and those memories just swept over me when I watched the movie. Those memories are just too much for the mind and heart to handle. But the real reason was deceptively simple. It raises a question which has no answer for me. I have a gut feeling that it has no answer for the best historians of the time either. It’s one of incomprehensibility. That is what was disquieting me again and again yesterday. There is a difference between explanation and understanding. Tomes have been written over the years, works of scholarly elegance, trying to explain why mankind was driven to such unspeakable acts during that time. Great authors like William Shirer, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock have swept their sweeping erudition and intellect over those happenings and have come out with poignant juggernauts chronicling our very own recent dark ages. But I don’t think that even they can actually understand, at an emotional level, how something like that could happen. Sensible, mature and developed people, at the height of their powers were suddenly possessed with a barbaric instinct, at the whims of an evil demon. Their sheer obedience to authority was so blind that even after the war, when they stood on trial as war criminals, they always pointed their finger at a higher level of authority and sought to redeem themselves. How could this happen? The famed political theorist and historian Hannah Arendt, who interviewed the infamous Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, called it the ‘banality of evil’, a contention that many 'normal' people's moralities would be twisted under the 'appropriate' condtions. I understand, from a psychological sense, what she is saying. But it still does not sink in.

This is the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust, a kind that does not exist at the levels which I was talking about earlier. When a loved one passes away, you come to terms with it because you know it was inevitable. When there’s an accident, it takes more time to do so, but sometime sooner or later, you realize that what happened was exactly what it was; an ‘accident’, something which happens purely by chance. But the Holocaust was neither inevitable nor an accident. And what about the scale? Six million Jews. That’s an incomprehensible number itself. There are various levels of incomprehensibility. I felt tangled in them, not being able to understand even a single one.

The feeling persisted for half the night. I woke up two times. But then, when I woke up this morning, I was feeling better. Not because I had forgotten what had happened. But maybe because this is the way it should be. No matter how traumatic History is, of what use is empathy when it cannot be put to constructive use? That History should make us a better person is almost a cliché. But like many clichés, it is a cliché because it is true. That’s what I felt when I woke up. We don’t know whether History will forgive what happened. We do know that History will never forget, hopefully. And we do hope that History will always be a constant mentor to us. We need her, because we have a long way to go towards becoming civilized. And we also have a long way to go before a few hundred words on a web log could possibly express what we feel.

2 Comments:

Blogger Nikhil K said...

the most poignant scene for me was that of the little girl in the red frock. She is shown twice and the sheer magnitude of the disaster is conveyed through her persona. I ought to confess that it is the only movie whcih has really made me cry.

6:30 AM  
Blogger Nikhil K said...

As regards your incomprehensibility to grasp that humans can sink to such depravity, it reminds me of the time when I had met a survivor of the Gujarat riots.
Now this poor lad had got such a severe case of paranoia after that, that the mere mention of Gujarat made him hysteric. The taels he recounted cannot even be retold by a civilized person. That made me think about the innate nature of mamn. Is he good or evil? Or a little bit of both? Maybe, it is the group dynamics that come into picture. Itsalways the mob that riots, never an individual. Can the theory of self-organisation and agglomerative species explain this?

6:35 AM  

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