For years, Steven Spielberg was Hollywood’s boy wonder. Boy wonder because everything he touched turned to gold, undoubtedly, but also for the irrepressible innocence of his outlook on the world–which revolved around childhood hopes and fears–and the boyish sense of adventure found in his films. For many fans, the touching naiveté of Spielberg films like E.T. (1982) was the attraction, while for others, the director’s seeming immersion in Saturday-morning serials and the romance of the Hollywood studio system revealed an artist willfully blinkered to the adult world.
It was no secret, in the early years of Spielberg’s ascendance, that he was Jewish (his mother was something of a celebrity in her own right in Jewish Los Angeles for owning a kosher restaurant), but his films contained little that would explicitly tie him to his religious heritage. Nonetheless, he was embraced by the Jewish community as a hero as few others have been–a Jewish kid from southern California who had become America’s preeminent showman, and a filmmaker and businessman nonpareil.
Spielberg had occasionally interacted with serious matters in his films, from Robert Shaw’s gripping story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in Jaws (1975) to the Nazi bad guys of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), but his seeming inability to tackle the world’s ugliness with any seriousness made him a whipping boy for critics, who saw him as the root of Hollywood’s new love for brain-dead summer blockbusters over heartier fare. Having emerged at the tail end of the American New Wave film movement of the 1970s, Spielberg (along with his sometime collaborator George Lucas) was offered as evidence of that cinematic flowering’s early demise.
Of course, much of this attitude was unfounded, and simply unfair. Bashing Spielberg for the works he had not made, rather than honestly assessing those he had, was nonsensical, and led to hasty judgments of early Spielberg films like Jaws and Raiders. Demanding seriousness of a born entertainer like Spielberg was missing the point of where his talents lay–or so it seemed.
A Turning Point
Schindler’s List (1993) marked the crucial turning point in Spielberg’s career–the moment when he simultaneously embraced seriousness and Jewishness in his work. Spielberg had attempted straightforward drama before, in The Color Purple (1985) and the underrated Empire of the Sun (1987), but Schindler’s List was the first of his dramas to assume responsibility for the past, and for Jewish history. When Raiders of the Lost Ark had first hit theaters, critics had been puzzled, and sometimes offended, by the jokey, cartoon-villain Nazis on display, and in many ways, Schindler’s List was a long-delayed response to those critics, and a mea culpa for the understandable but still lingering offense of Spielberg’s youthful lack of historical grounding. For the Spielberg of Raiders, the Nazis were conveniently well-dressed baddies available to dog Indiana Jones’ steps; for the Spielberg of Schindler’s List, the enormity of Nazi evil was too great to possibly be contained within a single film.
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.
Based on a controversial memoir by an ex-Mossad agent, Munich details the hunting down and killing of each of the terrorists associated with the Munich disaster by a crack team of Israeli secret agents. Spielberg’s technique in Munich is as fine as it has ever been; there are moments that rival the best of Hitchcock for suspense, and Janusz Kaminski’s photography is exceptionally beautiful. But the movie that Spielberg thought he was making is very different from the one he actually made, and Munich functions far more smoothly as a tense action-thriller taking place on the margins of reality–and plausibility–than a philosophical drama of Israeli and Palestinian cycles of violence and counter-violence.
Munich desires to be taken seriously, to be Spielberg’s equivalent of Schindler’s List for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But some combination of the dubious source material, Spielberg’s shaky grasp of the roots of the violence, and the film’s own unconscious taste for bullets over broadsides makes for a movie more adrenaline-fueled than thought-provoking. Wonderfully stirring, Munich has little at all to say about the seemingly endless battle between Israelis and Palestinians, and the little it does offer is jumbled and tentative. Part of the problem is that Munich takes place in the 1970’s, which may as well be another century for its relevance to the contemporary landscape of the Middle East.
All in all, Munich is more proof of Spielberg’s desire to be taken seriously than impetus for us to actually do so, and it is only a successor to Schindler’s inasmuch as it marks yet another step away from the entertaining but unintellectual adventurism of his early career. In one of the more unlikely and wonderful transformations in film history, the boy wonder has turned himself into the great historical chronicler, taking American film on a guided tour of the past, and leaving no stone unturned in the process.
Pronounced: KOH-sher, Origin: Hebrew, adhering to kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws.
Pronounced: SHO-uh (long o), Origin: Hebrew, the Holocaust.