Steven Spielberg

From E.T. to Munich, the boy wonder of the movie industry grows up.

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Much has been written about Schindler's List (see here), but perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film is its awe-inspiring rigor--something Spielberg, always intent on pleasing his audiences, had never been capable of before. Naysayers made much of Schindler's List being Spielberg's Holocaust, in which the hero is a Nazi and the Jews all survive, but this glib response misses much of the nuance of the film, which owes more to the searing simplicity of austere French filmmaker Robert Bresson than E.T. Schindler's List finds hope in even the darkest moments of the Nazi genocide, but it also understands the mind-numbing everyday brutality of otherwise placid-seeming Germans, and the ways in which time, and especially money, could be translated into another life saved. Schindler's List grasps the economy of the Holocaust and its frightful trafficking in human lives, and honors high-minded celebrants of the sanctity of human life less than the calculators--men like Oskar Schindler, and his assistant Itzhak Stern--who intuitively knew just what it would cost to save a life.

Following Schindler's List, Spielberg invested his newfound cultural capital in a series of dramas that, like his Oscar-winning picture, were intended to wrestle with history. Boy wonder no longer, Spielberg sought to address American slavery (Amistad, 1997) and World War II (Saving Private Ryan, 1998), and perhaps even more courageously (at least in the eyes of film buffs) took on an unfinished Stanley Kubrick project (A.I.) and brought it to the big screen in 2001. Not all these films were as critically or commercially successful as Schindler's List. Saving Private Ryan was an enormously moving tribute to the wartime Greatest Generation and a remarkably frank evocation of battle, but Amistad lacked the fire of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, and A.I. was a substantial misfire.  At the same time, he also faced Schindler’s critics head-on by funding and overseeing the enormous Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which has now compiled more than 50,000 eyewitness testimonies from Holocaust survivors. This has become an invaluable resource for historians and those interested in preserving a record of history’s horrors.

Twelve years after the enormous critical and commercial success of Schindler's List, Spielberg returned to explicitly Jewish material with Munich (2005), which sought to tell an unfamiliar tale from contemporary Israeli history. Munich begins with a horrifically realistic recreation of the kidnapping of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics, with Spielberg's new footage intermingled with the now-familiar television coverage of the unfolding events. The tense hostage stand-off ends in the death of all eleven Israelis, and leaves the country and its leaders mourning their dead and thirsting for revenge against the Black September terrorists responsible for the athletes' deaths.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.