Bruce R. Magee
July 1997


August 1997

|Home Page |Introduction|The Apocalypse in Seneca and Schindler's List |Voices in the Chorus | Heroes, Villains, and the Senecan Self| Amon Goeth | Oskar Schindler | Conclusion|


February 23, 1997. I walked into my bedroom, turned on The X Files, and began reading Seneca's Thyestes, a macabre tale of paranoia, betrayal, ghosts, malevolent furies, human sacrifice, dismemberment, and cannibalism rivaling anything The X Files can offer. After The X Files, I began changing channels to see what else was showing, and came across Schindler's List; I had forgotten that it was on that night. NBC was presenting it without commercial interruptions, with the Ford Motor Company paying for the broadcast. I set aside Thyestes, or at least thought I did, to watch the rest of the movie. I was not the only one watching: twice as many people saw the broadcast than saw the movie in theaters (Bianculli). Rep. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, saw the movie too, and he was not pleased. On Tuesday, February 25, he stated that NBC "sank to an all-time low" in running the film, the broadcast of which "should outrage parents and decent-minded individuals everywhere" (Bianculli, Nye, Copeland).
I cringe when I realize that there were children all across this nation watching this program. They were exposed to the violence of multiple-gunshot head wounds, vile language, full frontal nudity and irresponsible sexual activity. (Bianculli)
Coburn promised to use his position on a subcommittee that writes communications legislation to push for stricter ratings guidelines. Coburn's resolve withered, however, when he was faced with a rising wave of criticism (including some from Republicans like Alfonse D'Amato and William Bennett). Coburn apologized on Wednesday, February 26, for "appearing insensitive" to the Holocaust (Bianculli).

The Coburn incident illustrates some of the problems of dealing with the Holocaust. One problem is that anything that addresses the Holocaust is controversial; even those who are more thoughtful and less clumsy than Rep. Coburn receive their share of criticism. Stephen Spielberg, director of Schindler's List, has been criticized for breaking Elie Weisel s dictum that the Holocaust should not be represented dramatically, as well as for the particular shortcomings of his work (Sharrett). Thomas Keneally is the author the non-fiction novel that served as the basis for the film. Originally entitled Schindler's Ark when published in 1982, the name of the novel later became Schindler's List (Brecher). In an interview given in 1994, Keneally voiced his own reservations about having written the novel and speculated that he would not attempt to write the novel today.

"I wrote it primarily for Gentiles, but of course I wanted the Jewish community to approve of it. I wanted them to say, `Well, this goy does understand.' But I didn't realize the reverberations it would have in the Jewish community. Now, I know more about the Jewish community, and I know some people consider it a heresy for anyone who hadn't been through it to write about it." (Brecher)
Yet in writing the story, Keneally was responding to the request of a Schindler Jew. At 81 years of age, Leopold Pfefferberg (Leopold Page), had been trying for thirty years to interest someone in writing the Schindler story (Keneally 9, Gleick). Had Keneally not written the story, it would have probably remained a largely unknown footnote. To let the story be lost would violate another post-Holocaust dictum: never forget. So the story needs to be told, but to be told in a suitable manner. "What should not be represented remains a moral decision; a choice that does not have to be aggravated by a quasi-theological dogma with the force of the Second Commandment" (Hartman).

 The problem remains of what it means to deal with the Holocaust in a suitable manner. People tend to bring their own preoccupations to the Holocaust, with what they carry away from the Holocaust reflecting what they bring to it. One extreme example of this tendency is the Holocaust denial movement, made up of those who dismiss the evidence of the Holocaust, often because they started with sympathy for the Nazi movement. Rep. Coburn started with another agenda, that of a Congressman wishing to address the issue of what is shown on television. His original implication was that Schindler's List is a product of Hollywood, and that the broadcast of the movie is another example of the entertainment industry's disregard for the traditional values, a cause for outrage for "parents and decent-minded individuals everywhere" (Bianculli). Objecting to how Spielberg treated the Holocaust, Coburn soon found himself apologizing for how he himself treated the Holocaust. To be more precise, Coburn apologized for how he treated Spielberg's representation of the Holocaust. People objected to his protest as if he had denied the Holocaust itself.

"I just wonder if Congressman Coburn is aware that there was a Holocaust, that millions of people died and its not something anybody should ever forget," NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer said. (Copeland)
The movie itself encourages the confusion of the representation and what is represented. Spielberg chose to film the movie in black and white and graphically replicated scenes recorded by the Allies in 1945 as they chronicled the Holocaust; the movie thus has a documentary feel that tends to blur the distinction between the event of the Holocaust and the Spielberg's depiction of it (Bruning). Yet if Coburn was mistaken in not thinking of Schindler's List in terms of the Holocaust, he was correct in thinking of the movie in terms of Hollywood. Spielberg's career as one of the most successful directors in history made its mark on the movie. "But the movie has also brought accusations that Spielberg put a Hollywood sheen on the Holocaust. One thing is for certain: Schindler's List is a genuine Hollywood creation" (Kenny). What Spielberg carried away from the Holocaust reflects what he brought to it, just as what I carried away from Schindler's List reflects what I brought to it. And on February 23, what I brought to Schindler's List, albeit inadvertently, was Seneca.

As I watched Schindler's List, the thought occurred to me that the movie has several close parallels to Senecan drama and even Senecan philosophy. What first struck me was the drunken pardoning scene where Schindler plays Seneca to the Nero of the Nazi Commandant, SS Hauptsturmführer Amon Goeth. Schindler echoes the argument that Seneca made in De Clementia to the young emperor that true power is refraining from killing, pardoning even those who may deserve to die (Seneca 1. 5. 6-7, Spielberg). Sadly, both Schindler and Seneca ultimately failed to transform their pupils.

Such echoes, intriguing as they may be, are inadequate to establish a major influence of the Senecan heritage on the movie. As a philosophy, Stoicism has provided "one of the permanent moral possibilities within the cultures of the West" (MacIntyre 158). Dramatically, the Senecan tradition endures through Seneca's influence on Renaissance dramatists such as Shakespeare. According to Braden, the way to measure the impact of the Senecan tradition on a drama is not just through the occasional rhetorical flourish, but also through the "particular style of selfhood" of the characters (66). In addition to the occasional Senecan-style speech and the stoic influence on its definition of the heroic (and villainous) self, Schindler's List also bears a resemblance to Senecan drama in its apocalyptic imagery and in its chorus. While not the dominant influence on Schindler's List, the Senecan heritage does provide a background important to understanding the movie.


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|Home Page |Introduction|The Apocalypse in Seneca and Schindler's List |Voices in the Chorus | Heroes, Villains, and the Senecan Self| Amon Goeth | Oskar Schindler | Conclusion|