"Life is Beautiful"
"Life is Beautiful"

Are there some places movies shouldn't go?

MZS: The year 1998 was an important one for big-budget films about World War II. Besides SPR, which was an outwardly very straightforward re-imagining of combat in Europe—one that I'd argue complicated and subverted some of the same cliches that it restaged with such incredible vigor—you had The Thin Red Line, which treated combat in the Pacific theater as a sort of midnight movie theological psychodrama about the effect of war and human civilization on nature. And there were two other films that dealt with the Holocaust in genre terms: Life Is Beautiful, which I think is almost universally reviled now, and Apt Pupil, based on Stephen King's novella about an American suburban boy falling under the spell of an old ex-Nazi who's moved into his neighborhood. Both of those movies were accused of being insensitive to history, and with perhaps distorting or falsifying history in a cheap way.

At various points during that year I read pieces about some or all of those films worrying that films shouldn't even go there, that there's something morally dicey about it. Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman both made similar arguments about Schindler’s List, specifically the shower scene—that even depicting such a thing trivialized it. The argument seemed to be (in part at least) that maybe the best way to honor the horrors of history is not to depict certain aspects of it.

I think this is a counterproductive attitude—that one of the best ways to keep history alive is to let it breathe through popular culture, and take each representation of history as it comes, and judge it in terms of the piece itself, and not just in terms of how faithful it is to the actual record. Historical films aren't just about what happened, or about preserving some facsimile of what happened, or communicating the factual essence of what happened. They are also snapshots of how we the audience—the culture—feeling and think about what happened. I think what we're really seeing when we attend a film like SPR or Schindler’s List or Lincoln, or for that matter, Django Unchained or Apt Pupil, is a different kind of history, a record of how we felt about an earlier era at this particular point in time, somewhat removed.

TC: The "there are some places movies just shouldn't go" argument is one I'm not happy to find myself making, even if it means I'm allied for the nonce with Rosenbaum and Hoberman—two critics I consider Mozart compared to my feeble versions of "Chopsticks."  But Spielberg is the ultimate test case, I guess—and who knows if I'd be taking the opposite side if we were talking about Gillo Pontecorvo.  So I hope it's not weaseling to say that the issue isn't where movies should go so much as how they get there.

For instance, let's take that famous Schindler shower scene. It excruciatingly recreates every stage of death in the gas chambers except the outcome (including the fact that the women are—accurately—nude, a *very* paradoxical declaration of high moral seriousness). In a way, the historical cheat here is the reverse of Spielberg putting paratroopers behind Omaha Beach (there were none) so he can give us Bloody Omaha up top. Not to be a D-Day pedant, but any troop of Rangers sent to rescue Ryan would have started from the much less bloody and spectacular Utah Beach landing instead. So I kind of knew SPR was fibbing for effect from the start.

But Schindler's shower scene, to me, is far more morally questionable. The reason it's there is that, fuck it, Unka Steven was determined to show us Auschwitz—even if the fates of the women we care about turn out to be different than what happened to 99 per cent of the people who got shipped there. For me, Schindler becomes grotesque at the moment the women greet real water coming out of the showerheads with ululations of relief.

That's only partly because they likely wouldn't have known "the showers" were usually a lie.  The celebratory note here disgusts me, making Schindler's Jews "exceptional" in a way I think is vile.  I'd find that whole sequence infinitely more admirable if its ending had been the routine one at Auschwitz—a pile of obscenely dead bodies who had to be shoveled up, checked for gold teeth and carted off to the crematorium, as usual.

Overall, whenever a filmmaker tackles an obvious Harrowing Subject, my magniloquence detector goes on red alert. It's interesting to compare Spielberg's WW2 movies to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The War, because in the latter, the filmmakers aggrandize themselves via the opposite route, the Ken Burns route—by being mournful and stately, not exciting. They’re still putting their version of icing on the cake, but The War does benefit from using the real footage and images, even if it’s got Yo-Yo Ma sawing away on the soundtrack. 

Which is more valuable in instructing us about What It Was Really Like, which is more morally dubious? 

Tom Carson is the movie critic for GQ and the author of the novels Gilligan's Wake (2003) and Daisy Buchanan's Daughter (2011).

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.