Heart of Darkness

Ghosts in their millions haunt Steven Spielberg's powerful Schindler's List

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Life rushes on. We are distracted. We forget things. And sometimes we will ourselves to this forgetfulness, especially of those aspects of the past that pain us deeply. Or shame us greatly.

American movies mostly cater to this amnesia. If their primary task is to help us escape our trials of the moment, one of their secondary goals is to ease the burdens of the past. These days, history in the movies is essentially set decoration, something shimmering and elegant to place behind the well- spoken characters of a Merchant-Ivory film once a year, a Martin Scorsese film once a lifetime. The past is almost never seen as a tragic force. Or as something that contains a certain few shattering, shaping occurrences with which each generation must come to terms anew if it is to retain its moral footing.

The Holocaust is such an event. It is a topic -- the systematic destruction of European Jewry under Nazism -- that American movies have taken up gingerly, and only occasionally. It has been left mostly to the documentarians and to Europeans like Agnieszka Holland, who made the devastating Europa, Europa. But these are art-house films with small audiences.

That's why the release next week of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List is a consequential event. It is a high-profile, big-studio film, produced and directed by the most popular filmmaker of our era, possibly of all time (four of the top 10 grossing movies ever are Spielberg's, including the biggest of them all, this year's Jurassic Park). These factors alone would grant it an access to the mainstream public consciousness that no other movie on this subject has enjoyed. The fact that it is a very good movie means it has a chance to lodge there instructively, and perhaps permanently.

"The movie simply needed my clout to get it made," Spielberg says, and he is not being immodest. Since no filmmaker has a track record like his, none has his power to encourage both a studio and the young mass audience to take a risk on a movie the subject of which is inherently repellent, not to say terrifying.

At the same time, Spielberg says, "this movie didn't need my strengths as a storyteller because the story's already been told." Here he is being too modest. It was surely the screen storyteller in him who responded to the compelling narrative strength of Thomas Keneally's novelized life of a German- Czech named Oskar Schindler, who came to Poland to make money out of its - occupation by the Nazis and stayed to preserve 1,100 Jews -- workers in the enamelware factory he established -- from the death camps.

That storyteller must also have understood that even though Schindler, a hypnotically ambiguous character -- he was a drinker, womanizer, black marketeer and con artist -- was operating in a charnel house, he was finally that classically empathetic, inspirational figure, the lone individual doing good in a desperately dangerous context. If you could get an audience to accept that context, you could involve them with a man who, though antiheroic in some of his behavior, was in his essence a movie hero of quite a familiar, beloved kind.

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