Sunday, August 9, 2009

Steven Spielberg: The Power (and Limits) of Empathy

The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia announced recently that, on October 9, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg is to receive the 2009 Liberty Medal, awarded “to men and women of courage and conviction who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over.” Upon reflection, Spielberg is a fitting recipient of the Liberty Medal. Many of his best works, including Schindler’s List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan, underscore the triumph of freedom over tyranny. In 1994, inspired by his experience in making Schindler’s List, Spielberg created the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California), which preserves video and oral histories of Holocaust survivors from around the world. Immensely successful and fabulously wealthy, Spielberg has contributed much of his wealth and talent to improve the lives of others.

Spielberg’s work in such films as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan exemplify the best in historical filmmaking. Through the magic of the big screen, Spielberg enables us to visualize historical atrocities and the tragic events of our past in a manner that does justice to the facts, yet permits us to imagine, feel, and in some small way, experience the events. Such is the power of empathy in Spielberg’s films – allowing us emotionally to identify with those seemingly beyond our reach. Spielberg’s talent as a director and producer has touched millions of people, simultaneously entertaining and teaching. While there are many fine documentaries and books on the Normandy invasion, the Holocaust, the barbarity of slavery, and other human tragedies, Spielberg’s movies succeed at getting us to watch and experience on a larger scale. His films force us to live for a moment in the hearts and minds of those portrayed on the screen.

Of course, no film is fully capable of conveying the absolute horror and evil that was the Holocaust. Perhaps because it did not try to do too much – Schindler’s List avoids melodrama and sentimentality and portrays the evil perpetrated in Nazi Germany in a matter-of-fact, ordinary manner – Spielberg succeeded where others failed. The film limits its focus to the story of Oskar Schindler, a flawed German Catholic factory owner and Nazi-party member who, after benefiting from the Nazi war machine and Jewish slave labor, is eventually moved by act of conscience to protect and rescue 1,200 Polish Jews from almost certain death. Spielberg compels the viewer to identify, intellectually and emotionally, with the depth of human suffering that occurred, not abstractly or statistically (6,000,000 gassed to death), but individually; to children and family members, men and women, young and old – to people for whom you cannot help but care and feel a sense of kinship. He does this without explaining the Holocaust, and without forcing us to deal with the grotesquely overwhelming nature of it all.

Although Schindler’s actions are in the end heroic, his transformation into a man of virtue is gradual and ambiguous. His pragmatism and ability to compromise for the sake of profit and self-interest is resistant to his growing awareness that something has gone terribly wrong in his privileged German society. When he witnesses from a hillside, while riding horses with his mistress, the Nazis’ vicious liquidation of the Krakow ghetto – a scene portrayed by Spielberg with a sickening reality – Schindler only then begins to realize that the men and women working in his factory will have no future unless he acts, at no small risk to himself. Such is the inconvenient truth of heroism. Though Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List in black-and-white, in one famous scene, he used red to distinguish a little girl in a coat. The red coat symbolizes Schindler’s awareness – he has finally opened his eyes – of the cruelty perpetrated by the Nazis. Later in the film, the little girl is seen among many dead victims, recognizable only by the red coat she is still wearing.

If the film has any failing, it is the inability to explain how or why someone such as Commandant Amon Goeth, sadistically and brilliantly portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, could kill and torment his victims with such brutal yet ordinary callousness. In one scene, Goeth casually picks off Jewish workers with a rifle from his balcony, betraying not a tinge of moral guilt. The film also fails to explain how so many ordinary Germans and Poles could see, know, and participate in what was happening, yet fail to resist or come to the aid of their fellow citizens. How Nazi soldiers could so cruelly separate mothers from children, picking and choosing among thousands of frail men and women, slave labor in one direction, certain death in another, without any apparent moral or spiritual doubt. (Elie Weisel, survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald death camps, has recalled that the German officers who conducted the daily work of the concentration camp at Auschwitz received weekly communion in the Catholic Parish church). While Schindler’s List portrays the brutality and banality of mass killings and eliminationist anti-Semitism with stark realism, it does not attempt to explain why any of this was allowed to happen. Yet that is all part of Spielberg’s genius. The savagery of genocide and the horrors of the Holocaust so defy our everyday experience, it is impossible for most of us to wrap our minds around it; Schindler’s List enables us, in a small but significant way, to imagine the evil, not as ancient history or mythic tragedy, but as acts of everyday, ordinary people. Such is the power of empathy.

The power to create empathy, however, even for something as unimaginable as the Holocaust, has its limits. One need only examine the decade following Schindler’s List to see that, even a film as empathetic and powerful as Spielberg’s masterpiece fails to influence human behavior and the response of policymakers. In 2002, Professor Samantha Power of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University wrote A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide (Basic Books, 2002), a brilliant book that explains the repeated indifference, ignorance, and failure of imagination that has been U.S. policy in response to genocide in the Twentieth Century. On page 503, she focused her attention on recent inaction:

Despite broad public consensus that genocide should ‘never again’ be allowed, and a good deal of triumphalism about the ascent of liberal democratic values, the last decade of the twentieth century was one of the most deadly in the grimmest century on record. Rwandan Hutus in 1994 could freely, joyfully, and systematically slaughter 8,000 Tutsi a day for 100 days without any foreign interference. Genocide occurred after the Cold War; after the growth of human rights groups; after the advent of technology that allowed for instant communication; after the erection of the Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Power could have added that the genocides in Rwanda and the Sudan, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, each occurred after the release of Schindler’s List to critical acclaim and seven Academy Awards. Despite constant refrains of “never again,” the world has rarely given genocide the moral attention it deserves. The Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915, the Holocaust of 1939-1945, the mass killings by Pol Pot in 1975, the slaughter of tens of thousands of Rwandans in 1994 – in each instance, Americans and the world failed to act. We did so, not because we were ignorant of what was happening, but simply because we lacked the will to act and were not prepared to invest the military and financial resources, and domestic political capital, needed to stop it.

In almost all of the genocides and human tragedies of the 20th century, there existed protesters and screamers, individuals of courage and conviction who spoke out and pleaded for U.S. and world leaders to commit its resources and power to prevent further atrocities. In most cases, the screamers were ignored, or not believed, or dismissed because the facts could not be instantly verified. In her book’s conclusion, on page 516, Power asks some crucial questions:

. . . [H]ow many of us who look back at the genocides of the twentieth century, including the Holocaust, do not believe that these people were right? How many of us do not believe that the presidents, senators, bureaucrats, journalists, and ordinary citizens who did nothing, choosing to look away rather than to face hard choices and wrenching moral dilemmas, were wrong? And how can something so clear in retrospect become so muddled at the time by rationalizations, institutional constraints, and a lack of imagination? How can it be that those who fight on behalf of these principles are the ones deemed unreasonable?

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