Godard’s List: Why Spielberg and Auschwitz Are Number One

Duncan Wheeler. Media History. Volume 15, Issue 2. May 2009.

Godard has consistently voiced his disapproval of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Critics have noted this antipathy yet there is currently no detailed analysis of Godard’s specific objections. This article attempts to remedy this omission. In the first half, the author focuses on the motivation and logic that underpin Spielberg’s film, paying particular attention to the qualms expressed in Godard’s Éloge de l’amour over the moral and philosophical dubiousness of employing witness testimony as a means of recreating the past in the present. Then, in the second half, the author analyses the politics of identification in a selection of Godard’s films to argue that Schindler’s List is made ethically palatable for mainstream audiences through the use of manipulative erotic imagery. There, two critiques are brought together to suggest that Godard’s primary objection to Schindler’s List is that it constitutes an uplifting consideration of the Shoah that precludes a more serious rumination on an event that ruptures the histories of both the cinema and the twentieth century.

At the end of 1994, for only the seventh time in its 60-year history, the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) granted a special award, in recognition of Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘career as critic, proving the art of cinema to the world as a film-maker from Breathless to Histoire(s) du cinéma, exemplifying the passion of sound and image’. As is typical of such affairs, gushing tributes were offered at the awards dinner on 22 January, but atypically the recipient was not present and in characteristically contrary manner, Godard replied only by fax offering a list of nine reasons why he would not accept the award. Number one on this list was his inability to ‘prevent M. Spielberg from rebuilding Auschwitz’. In this article, I will consider some of the factors that led Godard to take such exception to Spielberg’s depiction of the concentration camps in a film that had recently enjoyed great critical and commercial success.

In this regard, it is not sufficient to evoke the much-vaunted notion of Godard as a not-so-young enfant terrible, the doyen of a counter-cinema that opposes mainstream Hollywood movies on principle. This fails to take into account the question of why his objection to Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg) was placed at the top of his list. His decision on this point cannot be dismissed as a passing whim. The vitriol directed against Spielberg in Godard’s most recent films and interviews has refused to subside. His antipathy to the film can be gauged if we compare his only, to my knowledge, more than passing comment on Spielberg prior to Schindler’s List with his more recent proclamations. When discussing the finances of cinematic production with Wim in 1991, Godard was keen to emphasise that Spielberg existed in a totally different artistic, psychic and financial realm from himself, but there is no sense of antagonism when he comments:

I have no desire to think the way that, for instance, Spielberg thinks. Even though I do admire him, because he so seldom makes a mistake. If he makes a film for 20,280,418 people, then perhaps 20,280,416 or 20,280,420 will show up – that’s fine. He knows how to set that up. But I don’t think that way. (Wenders and Godard 22)

Though there is more than a hint of inverted snobbery in his observations on Spielberg’s commercial prowess, there is none of the moral and intellectual repugnance that characterises his post-Schindler critiques. In addition to his comments in the fax to the NYFCC, he has referred to the film as a ‘document falsifié’, and described Spielberg as a ‘not very intelligent’ man engaged in ‘phony thinking’ to produce a film that is pure ‘Max Factor’. This critique has not abated. When publicising his most recent film, Notre Musique (Jean-Luc Godard), Godard observed: ‘Spielberg thinks he’s seen Auschwitz because he reconstructed it, he’s pleased with himself, he doesn’t like to be worried or disturbed’.

From Godard’s comments in interviews, and increasingly in his film and video work, it is evident that he construes the Holocaust as the nodal event of the twentieth century and the cinema as not only the art form of the twentieth century but an art form whose ontology lies in its potential to render the real. As such, cinema is seen to have betrayed its ethical and aesthetic raison d’être when it failed to film and show the camps to the world. Godard construes a bad film on the Holocaust, as he clearly believes Schindler’s List to be, as a further desecration that is indicative of the depths to which his once treasured medium of cinema has sunk.

Though many critics have referred to Godard’s obsessive and heartfelt dislike of Schindler’s List, there is currently no detailed analysis of his objections. This task is not facilitated by the fact that many of Godard’s explicit statements on Spielberg, and American culture in general, have been excessively iconoclastic, coarse and reductive. Nevertheless, acutely intelligent social and cinematic criticism has always been a hallmark of Godard’s work, and I believe that this criticism can be applied to yield a damning critique of Spielberg’s film that is more penetrating and nuanced than some of his more aggressive sound bites may initially suggest. In this article, I will employ specific examples of Godard’s output in print, film and video as a theoretical apparatus through which to offer two separate critiques of Schindler’s List.

The first critique discusses Godard’s commitment to the present in order to question the means by which a traumatic event such as the Holocaust comes to have meaning for a modern-day audience. Here, I am concerned primarily with the motivation and logic that underpin Schindler’s List, paying particular attention to Godard’s concerns over Spielberg’s attempts to appropriate the past through witness testimony. In the second critique, I focus primarily on the actual content of Schindler’s List, using Godard’s repeated attacks on mainstream illusionist cinema to examine how the identificatory regime of Spielberg’s film seeks to eschew an active partnership between the spectator and the screen by overdetermining the viewer’s ethical and aesthetic relationship to the diegetic universe. I will then synthesise these two critiques in an attempt to answer the question of why Spielberg and Auschwitz are number one on Godard’s list of reasons why he would not accept his award.

‘Memory is a complex thing’

Godard claims that recent films on the Holocaust are redundant because ‘You cannot speak the unspeakable; it’s just words’ (Morgue, and Guerand 53). This criticism is not, however, targeted against the image per se and is not grounded in the visual taboo propagated by Adorno and Lanzmann, amongst others; he has no qualms about including images of the camps in his own works (the slowed-down scenes of camp victims in Allemange 90 neuf zéro [Jean-Luc Godard] are far more explicit than anything shown in Schindler’s List). Godard’s opposition is grounded in temporal terms as he does not contend a priori that the Holocaust defies representation but rather that it is an event that cannot be represented through recreation. He believes cinema failed to show the camps first time round when, to use his words, it ‘ought to have made it a point of honour’ (Godard and Ishaghpour 81), and having reneged on this duty, it ought not now try and redeem itself retrospectively through the creation of simulacra.

The primary opposition between the images of the Shoah employed by Spielberg and Godard is in the moment of their creation. Whilst Godard often reuses archive footage shot at the time as part of his consideration on what it means to the present viewer, Spielberg recreates the past in the present without explicitly acknowledging the passage of time, thereby attempting to efface the temporality of his own creation. This is not to say that he does not understand the past as being temporally distinct from the present, but there is a tacit acquiescence in the belief that through such resources as documentary film and witness testimony, elements of the past can be reproduced in the present without any need for us to interrogate our narrative modes of understanding.

In contrast, an awareness of the temporal contingency of the visual image has always characterised Godard’s work. When defending his controversial film on torture, Le petit Soldat (Jean-Luc Godard), he asks:

why not choose something current, why do you have to consider present events as something taboo? A film is out of date when it doesn’t give a true picture of the era it was made in. Quai des brumes or Quatorze Juillet will never be outdated. But I would consider it indecent to make a film today about the resistance.

The effect of time on the image is demonstrated in Godard’s quoting of the torture scenes from Le petit Soldat in Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard). What had been an investigative interest in the mechanisms of torture in the Algerian conflict can, in the space of a few years, become the source of pastiche and, through filmic intertexuality, a trigger for mnemonic recuperation. This approach is diametrically opposed to the attitudes underpinning Schindler’s List, where, according to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski: ‘We wanted people to see this film years from now and not realize when it was made’. According to Godard’s conception, this approach serves to make Schindler’s List both ‘out of date’ and ‘indecent’.

Godard’s commitment to the present has been shown in the last 15 years through his constant allusions to Sarajevo. Though most overt in For Ever Mozart (Jean-Luc Godard), nearly every project he has been involved in has made at least some reference to the Balkan conflict, with Godard observing that: ‘It’s a little like with Vietnam before 1968, when making regular allusions was my way of protesting’. Spielberg has also appealed to the Balkan War in much of the publicity surrounding Schindler’s List, often presenting it as a proof of the need to be reminded of the Holocaust:

I was very aware of what was happening in Bosnia, that that was a Holocaust in microcosm, and all the lessons that I had learnt from my parents and grandparents about the Shoah (the annihilation) – and I thought the world had learned by reading their history books hadn’t been learned at all.

Spielberg believes that, by showing the reality of racial discrimination and ignorance in the past, he can discourage such attitudes from prevailing in the present. However, no argument is offered in support of this claim. It is simply assumed that when people are presented with the dreadful outcome of racial prejudice in the past, they will take a stand against its current manifestations. By teaching us about the past in the blind faith that it will educate us about the present, Spielberg extricates himself from having to address the present in any concrete or specific manner. What is more, his appeals to tolerance and acceptance show the risk that universals have for lapsing into lowest common denominators. Rather than taking such a claim as a given, Godard would use it as a springboard for contemplation. He addresses the past as a constitutive element of the present but embraces it as an arena for negotiation. For example, in For Ever Mozart, we are shown a movie director preparing a film based on the Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo’s claim that: ‘The history of the 1990s in Europe is a rehearsal, with slight symphonic variations on the cowardice and chaos of the 1930s.’ Hence, Godard shows how the past can help forge an understanding of the present but by setting the action in the present and filming an artist coming to terms with his conception of the past, he foregrounds the constitutive role that subjectivity performs in the apprehension of the historical real. For Godard, a film such as Schindler’s List is dishonest not only because it attempts to conceal its own subjectivity but also because through Hollywood’s hegemony it silences other voices.

In Éloge de l’amour (Jean-Luc Godard), a crude, greedy, morally and aesthetically bankrupt production company, provocatively named Spielberg Associates Incorporated, attempts to buy the rights to a film about the experiences of an old couple who fought in the Resistance. Godard’s film is insistent on the need to resist the occupying force of American cinema and is littered with references to American imperialism, from Berthe’s barbed comments on American intervention in Vietnam and Sarajevo to the allusions to Hollywood’s effluvia with its caustic attacks on The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers) and American Beauty (Sam Mendes)Éloge de l’amour focuses on how Hollywood and Spielberg in particular attempt to patent historical moments so that they become sites of appropriation rather than negotiation.

The American production company is gauche and interested in product rather than history. The emphasis of the contract the company signs with the old couple is on the creation of a marketable product; Juliette Binoche, who we are told has just won an Oscar, will play Madame Bayard, and a top American writer has been employed to write the screenplay. However, to carry out their project, the producers still need the memories and, more importantly, the rights to the memories of the old couple. These rights will provide the grounding for a film that will gain its hegemony partly through its truth claims.

Key to the success and credibility of Schindler’s List is the reliance on the experiences of survivors. These experiences are intended to function as a guarantee of historical veracity. By making a serious movie, in opposition to his traditionally fantastical fare, Spielberg envisages a film that uses ‘reality’ as both its justification and its source material. Though he admits certain changes were made to the source material, for various reasons such as dramatic coherence, or moral propriety, he never doubts the objectivity of the source material itself. Hence, his filmic narrative is construed as an artistic transposition of the historical real and is, as such, heavily reliant on what Robert refers to as ‘the central premise of illusionist narrative – the premise of an antecedent anecdotal nucleus or substratum from which key blocks have been extracted’ (138). From the inclusion of extra-diegetic cameras to direct-camera address, Godard’s films have always been characterised by a sustained attack on cinematic illusionism. Éloge de l’amour is no exception and makes problematic one of the key tenets of Spielberg’s historical realism: the objective reality of witness testimony.

In the documentary Voices from the List, Spielberg introduces a series of interviews with survivors by saying that he thinks viewers will find their testimonies at least as powerful as even the best film. In a recent photographic book on the film, Spielberg also defers to the sanctity and authority of their experiences: ‘there is no way that any of the images or any of the scenes in Schindler’s List can possibly capture the true nature of the Holocaust. Only the survivors can claim the experience’ (cited in James 25). Spielberg downplays the subjectivity of his own voice (that of a non-witness and non-survivor) to let the voices of the list speak for themselves. This deferral, however, serves to heighten the status of the voices that help to legitimise Schindler’s List as a factual document.

It is the assumption that any individual can claim an experience, or that there can be any such thing as unsynthesised memory, that Godard systematically undermines. To aid our understanding of his critique, I will appeal to a distinction established by Ernst van Alphen, who questions the common-sense position (adopted by Spielberg) on experience in the following terms: ‘The existence of individuals is taken for granted. Individuals exist, and they have experiences. This assumption precludes inquiry into the problematics of how experience constitutes subjectivity.’ proffers an alternative conception: ‘Instead of assuming that individuals exist, and that they have experiences, we should now envision the following relationship: subjects are the effect of the discursive processing of their experiences’ (25).

Godard has had a long-standing concern with both the strictures and taxonomies that narrative forms impose on memory; and how memory is constitutive of, more than it is constituted by, identity. In Numéro deux (Jean-Luc Godard), the grandfather in a family spends most of his time telling stories of high adventure and espionage. These stories are central to his sense of self and function as a way of him overcoming his marginal position within the present-day family unit. The grandmother has no such recourse as there is no narrative of action that is able to assimilate her experiences. Her husband’s experiences are not used as a medium for communication (nobody shows any real interest in his stories) and are instead utilised as a form of self-identification and satisfaction – hence the grandmother’s reference to how he ‘jerks off’ to his stories. If, as the film suggests, his sense of self is largely dependent on the recollection and recreation of past experiences in the present, it is doubtful whether the subjectivity that supposedly grounds these stories can, in fact, pre-exist their narration. Equally, the grandmother’s almost mute presence serves to efface her subjectivity, thus intimating that the absence of narratable experience endangers traditional notions of selfhood.

Spielberg bypasses the problematics of identity formation by focusing on the autonomous individual as a natural pre-discursive locus of action. In his introduction to the documentary, Spielberg surmises that: ‘These accounts show us how ordinary men and women can transcend circumstance and become extraordinary. How victims, with courage and fortitude, can become victors.’ Through a proliferation of active verbs (‘transcend’, ‘become’), Spielberg attempts to bestow dignity on these voices by appealing to their agency. The problem, however, is that agency in the traditional sense was not available to most camp inmates. Though distinctions can be, and have been, drawn between different categories of prisoner, as Primo argues:

In reality, in the enormous majority of cases, their behaviour was rigidly preordained. In the space of a few weeks or months the deprivations to which they were subjected led them to a condition of pure survival, a daily struggle against hunger, cold, fatigue and blows in which the room for choices (especially moral choices) was reduced to zero; among these, very few survived the test and this thanks to the coming together of many improbable events: in short, they were saved by luck, and there is not much sense in trying to find something common to all their destinies, beyond perhaps their initial good health. (33-34)

In the West, agency is construed as central to subjectivity. This raises the question of what happens to the self in the camps where all traditional notions of agency are removed. This question is eschewed in the vast majority of mainstream Holocaust films, which turn their focus away from the Jews and/or depict an extraordinary scenario in which agency is available. For example, the entire pretext of Sophie’s Choice (Alan J. Pakula) is the eponymous protagonist being asked which of her two children she wants to keep; as the army officer says to her: ‘You’re a Polack not a Yid. That gives you a privilege, a choice.’ Spielberg’s attraction to the story of Schindler’s List can, at least in part, be explained by the ease with which it can be assimilated into traditional narrative patterns. This leads to the oft-cited criticism that he has chosen an unrepresentative story to represent the Holocaust. However, this critique does not go far enough, because it assumes that there is raw pre-narrative essence to be discovered and retold.

What is striking in the accounts offered in the documentary is how central notions of agency are to the exposition of experience. The survivors almost always claim agency for themselves or relinquish it completely to Schindler. Events are never attributed to chance and a guiding subjectivity is always posited. When survivors discuss fleeing the ghetto, they speak in terms of strategy and planning. They generally replicate the impression that they were saved by their ‘courage and fortitude’. However, as circumstances spiral out of their control, they renounce their own agency and instead gain both identity and security from their position on Schindler’s list. One woman notes, ‘He was God for us’, whilst another boasts of how she was saved at the last minute because Schindler personally approved her inclusion on the list. Hence, their experiences are produced through the narrative structure of the autonomous and free agent; a narrative mode has rendered a model through which experience can be experienced.

Éloge de l’amour resists this notion of the subject as an autonomous agent standing outside of history. When Edgar is casting for his film, he asks: ‘Do you understand it’s not Eglantine’s story but a moment in history? History moving through Eglantine.’ Furthermore, it is suggested that Madame Bayard wants to sign away the rights to her memory so that she can regain the celebrity she enjoyed 60 years earlier and recapture a moment in which history moved through her. As in Numéro deux, it is the narrative processing of this moment that helps to produce her present-day subjectivity. This is made explicit in a scene where her granddaughter asks why she has continued to use her code name, Bayard, rather than revert to her birth name. The camera then cuts to an image of the old woman sitting at a table, her ragged features thrown into sharp relief by the light emanating from a diegetic table lamp. She is made visibly uncomfortable by the question and her granddaughter seems to sense this, and instead of waiting for a reply, simply leaves. Sometimes just asking the question is sufficient. It is only when the camera cuts to the elderly lady that we realise she is studying some old photographs. What the question has achieved is to make problematic these images that have allowed her to construct a self-image on which to base her identity. Bayard may once have been a code name to protect her true identity from enemy forces, but it now serves as a defence against any form of self-analysis. The photographic images she studies, alongside the proposed film project, are further means to consolidate this defence.

Godard shows how moments in the past can be appropriated to consecrate present-day notions of the self. Whilst we may assume that recalling the past is painful, its recollection can in fact be anodyne. Madame Bayard remarks on how speaking as ‘the young French student’ in the USA was easy; she just reeled off the same memories. Furthermore, the cultivation of certain memories in the film is a necessary correlative to the present-day relationship between Monsieur and Madame Bayard as, to use Michael’s phrase, ‘two people complicit in lies which lie between them’ (40). The real-life historian, Jean Lacouture, tells us in the film that the husband had betrayed his wife in order to infiltrate the Gestapo. She evades this issue by focusing on her conversion to Catholicism after meeting de Gaulle in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Memory is seen to be as much about forgetting as it is about remembering.

Monsieur Bayard’s identity is also heavily predicated on a present-day relationship to a moment in the past when history moved through him. He aligns himself with the spirit of French Resistance by fetishising a boat that he used to cross the Channel. This is construed as an escape to a foreign country, yet Lacouture informs us that the reason he had to betray his wife was that the ‘English were not very orthodox’. Hence, the English were already implicated and his notion of fighting for a quintessentially French Resistance is, therefore, placed in doubt. As Sofair observes:

The Spielberg film’s crossing of the Channel will recreate an actual event that was always a kind of fiction in that what was enacted as a flight to a separate country was a movement within a common history. (40)

Godard’s objection is not the specific memories that Spielberg chooses but the fact that these memories are insufficiently analysed and are manipulated to yield a film that purports to reproduce fact. After the film’s release, Oskar’s widow, Emilie, complained viciously that the film was wildly inaccurate and that neither Thomas nor Spielberg had made any attempt to contact her. She speaks bitterly of how Oskar showed no concern over her four miscarriages and she argues that he remained in Cracow because he was scared of being called to fight against the Russians.

If we return to van Alphen’s opposing conceptions of experience, it is evident how a more nuanced conception of memory and experience can help resolve discrepancies between Emilie’s experiences and those of the survivors. According to Spielberg’s position whereby ‘Individuals exist, and they have experiences’, one is forced to choose between two contradictory narratives and dismiss one as being false. In contrast, if we accept that ‘subjects are the effect of the discursive processing of their experiences’, we are not forced into making such a black-and-white decision. Instead, we are left with the more Godardian problematic of how the past is mediated differently by the memories and psychological exigencies of survivors and Schindler’s widow. Hence, the point is not to say we ought to replace the stories from the List with those of Emilie, but to embrace memory tentatively and not accept it as a yardstick against which objectivity can be judged. Godard shows how survivors do not have unmediated access to their experiences because all experience is necessarily mediated, and the relationship between narrator and narrative is always one of mutual dependence. As Douglas argues, Éloge de l’amour ‘implies that we can learn not only from the history of resistance, but also from the resistance of history, its fundamental incompatibility with easy solutions and the difficulty of its appropriation’ (123-24).

Spielberg Associates Incorporated ignore this ‘resistance of history‘ in the production of an Americanised version of European history that will allow them to trademark a specific historical moment. This critique feeds into two of the most frequently voiced complaints against Schindler’s List: the Americanisation of the Shoah and the attempt to make ‘the’, rather than ‘a’, movie about the Holocaust. For many audiences, Spielberg’s vision will constitute their sole, or primary, encounter with the Shoah and will, as such, overdetermine their relationship to this traumatic event. In its attempts to conceal its own partiality and subjectivity, the film implicitly signposts its own status as a master text for collective remembrance. Godard evokes the spirit of resistance in an attempt to ward off American imperialists such as Spielberg who attempt to provide the last word on the Holocaust.

By stressing the subjectivity rather than the objectivity of memory, Godard transfers attention to the production rather than the reproduction of meaning. He is less deferential to the sanctimony of individual testimony than Spielberg and his unwillingness to submit to a pseudo-objective collective meaning prevents the viewer from passively receiving a spurious amalgamation of unquestioned historical truths. Hence, he resists the concept of a normative response encouraged by the illusionist universe of Schindler’s List. In contrast, in Godard’s films that address memory and the past, he focuses attention on the spectator as a co-conspirator who must negotiate his/her own historical meanings alongside the film-maker. This approach is most explicit in Histoire(s) du cinéma (Jean-Luc Godard), where the effects of his obsessive montage depend heavily on the mnemonic associations made by the individual spectator. Meaning is always the product of subjective negotiation and not collective acceptance.

By gaining most of its kudos from witness testimony, Schindler’s List bypasses the complexity of memory, thus effacing the subjectivity of its own creation to yield a pseudo-historical document. The avowed aim of the film-makers to produce a timeless document is symptomatic of this belief. Godard believes that such a production is deceitful, legislative and facile. It is deceitful because it fails to acknowledge its own subjectivity; legislative because it becomes the defining, and perhaps last, word on the Holocaust; and facile because it positions the viewer as a passive consumer and therefore precludes a more personal confrontation with the horrors of the Shoah. Memory is far too complex a phenomenon to be evoked as the grounds for a temporal transportation back to a period in history when cinema relinquished its duty to reveal the world around it. By refusing to grapple with the problematics of this transportation, Spielberg seduces the viewer into a world of illusion, masquerading as historical fact, which simultaneously eschews an examination of our relationship with the ills of either the past or the present. It could even be argued that by turning his attention away from the horrors of the present day to create a simulacrum of past horrors, Spielberg is replicating, in microcosm, the moment when, for Godard, cinema committed its original sin in failing to show the camps to the world.

‘It may be true that one has to choose between ethics and aesthetics, but it is no less true that whichever one chooses’

Even during his commercial and iconic zenith in the 1960s, Godard’s two least popular films, both commercially and critically, were those that dealt most explicitly with human sadism and brutality. Le petit Soldat addresses torture as practised by both sides in the French-Algerian conflict and Les Carabiniers (Jean-Luc Godard) tells the story of two peasants who go to war for no other reason than to rape and pillage. Both films are resolutely unromantic: they resist all attempts at audience identification, ethical taxonomy, emotional release or dramatic closure. More recently, For Ever Mozart, Godard’s exploration of the Bosnian conflict, was a commercial failure. Within the latter film, Godard addresses the difficulty in finding a public for such films through the inclusion of a fictional film director shooting a film about bellicose conflict titled Fatal Bolero. At the premiere, a crowd jostle for entry into the auditorium but become progressively disillusioned as they learn more about the content and the style of the film. One patron hollers incredulously, ‘Your movie is full of fucking corpses’, and when the director apologises to a youth that there are no tits, almost everybody marches off to see Terminator 4.

If we believe the hype surrounding Schindler’s List, Spielberg and his studio thought that the film would lose almost every dime of its $22 million budget and yet it ultimately had a worldwide gross of over $321.2 million. This raises the question of how a film ‘full of fucking corpses’ could become so commercially successful. The answer to this question is, I will argue, quite simple: there are a lot of tits. This is not an aspect of the film that is much commented on and this, I suspect, is because the female nudity does not call attention to itself; it is always integrated within the narrative and does not therefore commit common-sense morality’s cardinal sin of gratuity.

In contrast, nudity in Godard’s films is almost always conspicuous. In Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard) and Week-end (Jean-Luc Godard), he subverts the representational norms in cinema for representing female beauty. When Joe Levine, the producer of the former film saw the first cut, he was outraged that he had paid so much to have Brigitte Bardot in the movie and there were no nude scenes. Godard shot some scenes of her naked but completely subverts both the producer’s and the audience’s expectations. As Colin argues:

This highly stylised scene, both in the repetitive naming of the parts of the body and in the use of a very strong primary colour filters, delivers neither the pornographic charge nor the psychological explanation which Levine wanted. (154)

In addition, by placing this scene at the beginning of the movie, Godard subverts the Hollywood convention of presenting the love-making scene as the culmination of a process. As Robert Stam notes, it is as if a ‘narrative orgasm’ were made to precede ‘foreplay’ (60).

At the beginning of Week-end, Corinne offers a monologue about an exotic sexual orgy that involved the insertion of various objects into her anus. Again, Godard subverts cinematic conventions by refusing to supply images to accompany her discussion of the titillating sexual adventures. The actress Mireille Darc was well known for her sexy roles in mainstream cinema but Godard foregrounds the soundtrack as no images are provided to illustrate her description. A few shots later, we see Corinne lying in a bath. Convention would dictate that we ought to see her breasts. Godard signals his awareness of, but disregard for, this convention by cutting to a shot of a nude Renaissance portrait. He mocks the spectator’s desires and expectations, withholding gratification so as to make visible the processes in which we seek gratification. In this scene there is plenty of narrative foreplay but no stimuli for orgasm.

Though there is often a playful element to Godard’s approach to convention, breaking conventions also reveals conventions to be arbitrary rather than natural. By ‘stripping away the conventional veneers that hide unseen forces from view’ (24), Godard forces them to account for themselves and justify their own mechanisms rather than presenting them as inevitable. There is a dangerous sexual dynamic running throughout Schindler’s List that remains largely invisible until we begin to probe the conventional nature of many of the sexual scenes. It is my contention that Schindler’s List is able to attract mainstream audiences by encouraging identification with the good Schindler, and that this identification is largely derived from his sexual relations, which are used to distance him from both the Jews and the other Nazis in the film. Furthermore, even the most extreme moments of Schindler’s List (the scenes inside the showers at Auschwitz and of Amon Goeth shooting Jews from his balcony) are counterbalanced by erotic scenarios that serve to placate the audience and not implicate them in the ethical and aesthetic quagmire that such incidents ought to entail.

In the first half of the film, Spielberg consistently distances Schindler from the crescendo of terror and persecution unfolding in his environs by focusing on a series of erotic trysts. Following a scene in which Schindler Jews are stopped and ordered to shovel snow and one of them is shot for protesting, Oskar is seen in bed with a scantily clad mistress. At best, such sensual scenes allow the audience a respite but their means of doing so are decidedly suspect; is it not morally wrong to use the eroticised female as a means of escape from trauma through fantasy? The most obvious defence lies in the argument that such scenes are justified by their role in the narrative or as a means of psychological explanation, but why is this always achieved by showing the naked female form? As Godard demonstrates, this is only a convention and therefore has to account for itself. Why, for example, does Spielberg not juxtapose Schindler having sex on the soundtrack to the visual track of the Jews shovelling snow?

The most offensive use of female nudity occurs in the shower scenes in Auschwitz, which Omer describes as being ‘more appropriate to a soft-porn sadomasochistic film than to its context’ (49). A group of nude women, whose remarkably curvaceous bodies and cropped haircuts owe more to the catwalk than the camps, are marched to the showers. The camera follows them into the shower room, showing no shame in its voyeurism; we view the scene through a peephole. The lights go out, we hear screams and we wonder (though no cine-literate spectator can really believe Spielberg would go this far) whether they will be gassed. As Gary observes: ‘even as the film presents one forbidden image (the eroticised Holocaust victim) , it teases viewers with the possibility of showing another, more forbidden image, that of Jews dying in the gas chamber’ (178). But then the tension is released as water is released from the shower jets and we are shown the howls of delight from a gaggle of young attractive women; ‘it becomes a moment of relief, an erotic cleansing to behold’ (150). Narrative foreplay has been prolonged through suspense and the gravity of the terror (the audience perhaps feeling pride in being able to stomach such a horrific scene) provides the pretext for a sanctimonious orgasmic relief stimulated through an image of showering women more befitting the world of shampoo advertising than a serious consideration of the Shoah. As Godard has observed in an interview (Bergala 416-17), this relief is particularly irresponsible in that it could be used to support revisionist claims that Jews were not, in fact, killed in gas chambers.

Not only does the French film-maker strip the kind of sexual imagery evident in Schindler’s List of its inconspicuousness and conventional innocence, he also establishes a parallel between audiences’ fervour for such cinematic images and aggressive attitudes towards women in the real world. In Les Carabiniers, Michel-Ange and Ulysses hold a woman at gunpoint; they make her stand on a chair and lift her skirt with a rifle to indulge specular desire. She is then ordered to crouch down on the floor as they ride her round the room as if she were a horse. On a trip to the cinema, Michel-Ange sees an image of a woman taking a bath and, failing to realise that the images on the screen are simulacra, tries to move around the auditorium to improve his view before trying to caress her naked body and, in the process, ripping down the screen itself. Similarly, in For Ever Mozart, we are presented with a cinema audience wanting the bellicose film within a film to contain nude scenes, thus mirroring a sequence in the film set in Bosnia where a rebel turns back to admire the arse of a freshly shot corpse.

The reason we can revel in the water gushing from the shower jets is that these women will be saved, and they will be saved because they belong to Schindler. Throughout the film, Oskar authorises the viewer to take pleasure from the naked female form. Many of the plaudits heaped on Spielberg focus on his willingness to create an ambiguous hero through his depiction of a man initially interested only in profit gradually discovering his humanity. Though Schindler’s character does undoubtedly develop as the film progresses, the audience is always encouraged to identify with his character. To assume that morality is the sole factor in the identificatory economy of cinema is naïve at best. Itzhak Stern functions as the unambiguous moral conscience of the film, but no audience will identify with an emasculated teetotal Jewish accountant. In the first 45 minutes of the film, Oskar’s attractiveness and sexual prowess are foregrounded to encourage the kind of wish-fulfilment identification that is a classic Hollywood staple. Liam Neeson’s imposing physique (emphasised by the camera normally shooting him from below) and real-life reputation as a voracious and successful womaniser only serve to intensify this relationship. A brief analysis of Schindler’s first appearance ‘in a Gatsby-esque sequence’ (49) serves to illustrate this point.

Following some establishing shots of panicking Jews scrambling around Cracow station filmed in the drab mode of Italian neo-realism, Spielberg switches to the more glamorous style of German expressionism to introduce Oskar. The soundtrack features a band playing ‘Gloomy Sunday’; a tune that evokes the glamour and sexuality of death. The song tells the story of a young soldier who commits suicide because of thwarted love, and its reputed capacity to provoke suicidal thoughts in the listener was such that it was banned in Hungary. The song appears in Keneally’s novel but at a much later point in the narrative. Its transposition is indicative of Spielberg’s desire to maximise the sequence’s erotic scope. This scope is further increased by a shot of a fetishised Swastika being pinned onto a perfectly tailored lapel. At this point, the audience still has not seen Oskar. The camera then follows Schindler into a clubroom. Because he is shot from behind, we adopt his viewpoint as he is welcomed with open arms by the maître d’.

In the room, Schindler sits smoking and exchanging looks with beautiful women in the manner of a traditional matinee idol. His gaze leads us towards a fat SS man entering with two beautiful female companions. In the film, Oskar is defined largely in opposition to both the SS and the Jews. Whilst Schindler may wear the Nazi badge, the SS officer wears the Iron Cross and, more significantly, is fat and ugly. Schindler beckons the maître d’ and orders drinks for the SS man and his companions. This is a cunning ruse to separate the SS man from the most beautiful of his companions, who Schindler is then able to ask to dance. As nearly everybody does in the film, she responds to his request with delight. Following a cabaret routine, we cut to a table draped with sumptuous culinary delights. Again, Schindler is contrasted with the SS men; as they lasciviously grope the women and gorge themselves on food, he shows a refined aesthetic sensibility, asking questions about the wines in the cellar. Though distancing himself from the assembled throng, he is always at the centre of the action. There are shots of him leading a communal sing-song and a series of photographs are taken. Men and women alike are desperate to immortalise themselves on film next to Schindler. Throughout these scenes, in contrast to just about everyone else there present, Oskar never once appears drunk. Despite the copious amounts of alcohol he consumes, he showcases the ‘heroic liver’ referred to in Keneally’s novel (242).

Throughout the first 45 minutes of the film, Schindler is always removed from violence and persecution. Though implicated through his profiteering, he never directly witnesses any atrocities. By keeping him separated from such atrocities, Spielberg is able to intensify his aesthetic aura whilst preventing him from being ethically indicted. The first scene where he sees the reality of what is occurring is when he views Goeth’s liquidation of the Ghetto from a hillside alongside his mistress. He is visibly shaken by the extremity of what is taking place. The audience views the liquidation from his omniscient, and safe, position as he functions as ‘a cinematic everyman responding as a decent human being should to the panorama of brutish cruelty unfolding in the city below the hill’ (319). Though there is a period of adjustment where both Schindler and the audience adapt to his transition from playboy to saviour, there is never really any doubt from this point onwards that his ethical conscience will take precedence over his aesthetic pleasure. He may initially be irritated by a woman who comes to see him to ask if he can request that her parents can join his labour force, thereby saving them from certain death, however, a few harsh words from Stern on the extent of Goeth’s persecution of the Jews is sufficient for the parents to be seen, a few scenes later, entering the sanctity of Schindler’s factory.

Though believing the possibility of a worthwhile contemporary film on the Holocaust to be an a-priori impossibility, Godard has consistently stated that if he were to make a film about the Shoah, it would have to be produced from the perspective of the perpetrators:

The only real film to be made about them [the concentration camps] – which has never been made because it would be intolerable – would be if a camp were filmed from the point of view of the torturers and their daily routine. How to get a human body measuring two metres into a coffin measuring fifty centimetres? How to load ten tons of arms and legs on to a three-ton lorry? How to burn a hundred women with petrol enough for ten? One would also have secretaries making lists of everything on their typewriters. The really horrible thing about such scenes would not be their horror but their very ordinary everydayness.

It is the quotidian aspect of evil and the human ability to accustom himself to the suffering of his fellow human beings that interests Godard more than the acts themselves. The banality of extreme violence is explored in Le petit Soldat where torture scenes are interrupted by a girl bringing in a weekly bundle of shirts. This prosaic element is further emphasised by a jar of hair cream being left in the bathroom where torture scenes will later occur. Form mirrors content as the camera refuses to focus on the character of Bruno being tortured. Furthermore, as Wheeler Winston observes, the effect of the flat lighting and photography is ‘that of Nazi concentration camp footage, the gaze that sees all, and yet nothing. It is not so much neutral, as clinical; not so much documentary, as utilitarian’ (27). In a voice-over commentary, even the victim says: ‘Torture is grim and dreary. Hard to talk about, so I won’t.’ The closest to a point of view we have is that of the torturer; the victim’s pain is registered prosaically and appears routine rather than exceptional. Godard even implicates himself in the act by playing the role of a man who provides the equipment that will send electric shock waves rippling through Bruno’s body. It is not the physical violence that is shocking but the ease with which this violence can be assimilated into the everyday. As Godard says of the film:

After seeing it, one can argue about the torture: I wanted to show that the most terrible thing about torture is that people who practise it don’t find it arguable at all. They all end up justifying it. The terrible thing is that, at first, no one ever thinks he might practise it one day or even just watch it being practised. By showing how one comes to accept it as normal, I am showing the most terrible thing about it. (cited in Milne 78)

Spielberg is able to evade ‘showing the most terrible thing’ by encouraging us to identify with Schindler and be shocked, alongside him, by the terrible scenes we are shown. Hence, we assume that if we were presented with such horrific acts, we would adopt the role of the hero, and we are extricated from accepting the violence that we could potentially inflict on others. This Manichean dualism is further emphasised by Goeth having a more pronounced Germanic accent than Schindler, and the reversion to German (in a film in which all the characters, irrespective of race, usually speak English) that occurs during the most violent and sadistic scenes. As one of the teenagers in Spielberg’s documentary comments of the film: ‘It makes you realise the evil other people can do to each other and it personally makes me want nobody to ever have to go through that and to prevent it.’ As Steven remarks:

Schindler’s mirror image is effectively rendered a scapegoat and made to carry the collective burden of human pathology into death. This distorted image suppresses the fact that human civilization was responsible for crimes against humanity, and removes the responsibility of having to look at more ‘civilized’ beings like ourselves. Consequently, Schindler’s List refuses to face up to the problem it purports to address: the nature of good and evil. (207)

Nonetheless, the film has been criticised for encouraging us to identify with Goeth. Two of the most controversial scenes in Schindler’s List feature him controlling the enunciative gaze and directing it towards an eroticised female. In the first scene, we watch a shirtless Amon shooting Jews, apparently at random, from his balcony. After a bout of morning killing, he returns to his bedroom where we see his mistress, topless, sprawled across his bed. He points his rifle at her before going to the toilet, thus associating his ability to kill with his erotic prowess. In another scene, he goes down to his cellar to see his Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch. A visibly intoxicated Goeth has been sexually excited in an earlier scene where they had been in close physical contact, and now he seems to want to make a sexual advance but is held back by his extreme anti-Semitism. He circles her while she is wearing, to use Sara’s words, ‘an inexplicably wet shift which clings to her breasts’, and we are encouraged to participate in Goeth’s desire as the film ‘titillates the viewer with the suggestion that Helen Hirsch, already marked for death, will be sexually violated as well before the genocide is completed’ (127). The sexual dynamic of this sequence is intensified by the rhythm of fast edits, dictated by Goeth’s movements, which cut between a covert Jewish wedding and Oskar being embraced by a glamorous nightclub singer. A shot of the singer caressing Schindler’s mouth cuts to Amon molesting Helen’s breasts. Suddenly, his anti-Semitism overrides his erotic desire and he begins to beat her, chastising her for trying to seduce him.

Susan has observed the reasons why the SS has come to constitute a widespread sexual fantasy:

the SS was the ideal incarnation of fascism’s overt assertion of the righteousness of violence, the right to have total power over others and to treat them as absolutely inferior. It was in the SS that this assertion seemed most complete, because they acted it out in a singularly brutal and efficient manner; and because they dramatized it by linking themselves to certain aesthetic standards. The SS was designed as an elite military community that would be not only supremely violent but also supremely beautiful. (‘Fascinating fascism’, 99)

In these two scenes, a certain relationship is established between an SS officer and eroticism, but Sontag identifies a vital ingredient in the eroticisation of the SS that is largely absent: beauty. Though Ralph Fiennes is a handsome actor, he gained significant weight to play Goeth and appears bloated. Furthermore, in one of the most stereotyped indexes of masculinity, he is not able to take his liquor. Hence, in Todd’s memorable phrase, ‘he’s like a minor-league Roman emperor gone sour with excess’ (39). Even the sheer action of being attracted to Hirsch is a corruption of the serene vision of Nazism. According to the moral codes of both the audience and the Nazis, Schindler’s reciprocal sexual rendezvous in the nightclub is far more wholesome. Similarly, in the scene with his mistress, the purely aesthetic image is corrupted. Oskar would never do anything as crude as pointing a gun at his lover and Spielberg’s camera never lingers on anything as coarsely physical as Schindler urinating.

In the novel, Keneally refers to Goeth as Schindler’s ‘dark brother’ (188), and the film makes repeated attempts to establish parallels between the pair, but they are always heavily loaded so that Schindler is made to appear both ethically and aesthetically superior. Oskar also visits Helen in her cellar and offers a chaste rather than a lascivious kiss. In a humorous segue, we see Schindler in his factory interviewing a series of beautiful women for the job as his secretary. He pays scant regard to their typing skills but is impressed by their physiques and hires them all because they are ‘all so qualified’. When Goeth lines up women in a parallel sequence outside in the cold, he blows into a handkerchief, revealing his frailty, and the women are visibly scared (everybody feels safe with Schindler), and he lacks the flair to choose more than one. In this scene, he also uses expletives, whilst Oskar is always the perfect gentleman.

Spielberg employs one of the most hackneyed of Hollywood tropes – the parallels between the hero and the villain. Such a conception permits a licensed dalliance with the dark side on the condition that righteousness retains the upper hand and reasserts its supremacy. This is achieved in two scenes in the second half of the film. In one, Schindler wants to take Hirsch with him to his new factory and he wins her from Goeth in a game of cards. Elsewhere, at a party in Amon’s villa, Oskar explains his personal theory of absolute power: the freedom to kill and to choose not to. Hence, Schindler incarnates two of the central tenets of Sontag’s conception of the sexual allure of the SS officer: having ‘total power’ and being ‘supremely beautiful’. Schindler’s List, however, recognises the darker allure of the SS officer; and the sexual potency of the SS, and the Nazis in general, operates as a primordial force within the erotic lexicon of the film. Firstly, Schindler’s ethical redemption licenses him to flirt with the fetishised paraphernalia of the Third Reich (the Swastika, German cabaret) and, secondly, the film encourages a vicarious pleasure to be had in Goeth’s violent and sexual actions. These scenes are integrated into the narrative so as to resist the charge of gratuity, whilst functioning as surreptitious ploys to excite the audience and license acquiescence in morbid and sadistic fantasy. The images provide an excellent demonstration of why Godard is so concerned about the libidinal economies encouraged by much mainstream film-making. It is here that Spielberg is most guilty of producing a genuine Holocaust theme park: the simulacra of sadistic sexual control without any of the concomitant ethical repercussions.

Whilst Godard always appeals to the viewers to analyse their relationship to the cinematic image and thus question both their own sexual and sadistic desires, Spielberg attempts to efface this relationship so as to develop an organic narrative intended to produce a normative response achieved in a seemingly paradoxical manner by employing erotically charged images both as a form of release and as a means for identification. This satisfies the viewer’s desire for eroticised images whilst simultaneously establishing an identificatory regime that reinforces the individual’s notions of an ethically wholesome self.


Godard once suggested that ‘[a] good film is a matter of questions properly put’ and that film-makers must learn ‘to put questions differently’. Schindler’s List eschews a series of questions (How does a modern-day film on the Holocaust increase awareness of the event and affect our ethical behaviour in the present day? How can the present-day viewer be reconnected with the past? What are the processes by which we come to commit acts of genocide and extreme torture?) to render a suspiciously uplifting film on the Shoah. The two Godardian critiques I have offered are united in their condemnation of Schindler’s List‘s attempts to create a normative position for the spectator that precludes the kind of active participation and negotiation demanded by Godard’s own films. Spielberg provides a ready-made pocket of history that, packaged for instant consumption, permits cheap thrills whilst projecting evil onto the alien (in this case an SS officer) so as to bypass the ethical dilemmas generated by a traumatic event such as the Holocaust. This submission of the individual to the collective and willingness to demonise the other so as to consecrate identity is, in itself, chillingly reminiscent of National Socialism.

In Notre Musique, Godard is seen agreeing with the claim that totalitarianism became a problem in democratic states when politics was instituted as a separate field of thought. The constant factor in all aspects of the Godardian critique of Schindler’s List is an attempt to politicise the film and to strip it of its inconspicuousness. He does not believe you can divorce aesthetics from the realms of ethics or politics; the claim that you could think Schindler’s List an aesthetically bad film that is nevertheless ethically good because it reminds people of the Holocaust is anathema to Godard. For him, technique is never just technique, and the cultivation of a certain aesthetic necessarily entails a certain ethical standpoint. Hence, in a recent interview, he dismisses the content of Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentaries, arguing that though they ostensibly criticise Bush’s politics, the films are rendered through an aesthetic that reinscribes precisely the political regime that they are attempting to displace: ‘It’s not enough to be against Adolf Hitler. If you make a disastrous movie, you’re not against Adolf Hitler’.

According to this conception, by raising the profile of the Holocaust in the public consciousness, Schindler’s List is not fighting a priori against the attitudes that underpinned the event. In fact, Godard would contend that Spielberg’s film is reproducing many fascist tendencies by covertly coercing us into viewing the world from a certain perspective and imposing a rule on how cinema and social reality are produced. Because ‘[e]verything is in the process of being standardized according to the American model’ (cited in Bonnaud 40), directors such as Godard are pushed to the margins as they fail to satisfy the precepts established for successful film-makers. Hollywood aggressively reproduces its own vision of the world twofold: the diegetic universe projected on the screen is rendered both natural and neutral, and its supposed naturalness then establishes a template for movie-making that serves to ostracise alternative perspectives. As such, ‘the Gestapo of economic and aesthetic structures erected by the Holy Production-Distribution-Exhibition Alliance’ (Comolli, Delahaye, and Naboni 22) controls not only what we see but how we see it: ‘Cinema is an occupied country with a governor, like the Roman governor of Palestine’ (cited in Bonnaud 40).

In answer to the question originally posed over why Auschwitz and Spielberg head Godard’s list, it is not only because Schindler’s List provides a paradigmatic example of Hollywood film-making but also because it addresses precisely the question that it ought to have been cinema’s duty to both reveal and analyse. What adds salt to the wound is that it examines this moment of catastrophic rupture in an affirmative manner and it demands no action on the spectator’s part (either in the filmic auditorium or in the real world), providing an anodyne and reductive souvenir of history that reinforces notions of our own humanity and never makes the viewer complicit in any of the ills of the present day. As such, Schindler’s List fails to pose questions properly put, and provides a seductive answer that makes it extremely difficult for others to put questions differently. Spielberg’s film therefore works to preclude genuine inquiry into the Holocaust, the event that, for Godard, defines the twentieth-century history and marks the moment when cinema relinquished its principal duty.