Steven Spielberg: America’s Most Important Historian?

Since the mid-1980s, Steven Spielberg has increasingly moved away from films about sharks, aliens, and gun-slinging archaeologists and turned his hand to historical drama films, re-enacting key events in American and world history. From Schindler’s List to Bridge of Spies, it’s these films that have bought him Oscars and critical acclaim aplenty, offering up evidence that the one-time entertainer and slick showman has matured into a serious artist.

In the process he has accidentally become America’s most important historian. Not its best, that’s for sure. But his work reaches a far wider audience than the work of any reputable scholar buried in a dusty archive. His pictures have seared themselves onto our collective memories, giving us a shared experience of a past we did not live through. Just as John Ford mythologized the American West and the spirit of Manifest Destiny more than a half-century ago, condensing half-truths and legends into iconic images, so too has Spielberg mythologized World War II and America’s legacy of slavery—for better or for worse.

What’s the first image that comes to your mind of the fighting in World War II? It probably isn’t too far off from Saving Private Ryan’s famous Omaha Beach sequence: utterly covered in blood, guts, and the muddy sand of the cold Atlantic ocean. Even today, with all the film’s flaws—its patriotically over-the-top flashback framing device, its emotionally bludgeoning music score, the cliff-height corniness of its “inspirational” monologues—that opening sequence remains a towering achievement of action filmmaking. The film’s influence went beyond the world of movies. Saving Private Ryan had a profound effect on the games industry and the generation of people my age raised on PlayStation and Xbox, becoming the primary cinematic inspiration for the myriad Medal of Honor and Call of Duty games that flooded the market back in the early-to-mid 2000s. Medal of Honor: Frontline’s celebrated opening level was little more than an exact videogame replica of the Omaha Beach scene; a legendary piece of game design that would not exist were Spielberg not there first.

Similarly, I would argue that for most people, the first images that come to mind when thinking about the Holocaust come from Schindler’s List. Spielberg’s films on American slavery (The Color Purple, Amistad, Lincoln) haven’t had as much success at producing iconic historical imagery—but with Schindler’s List, Spielberg created not just a Holocaust film, but the Holocaust film. It’s the one shown in history classes, the one we can all call up an image from. Even most hardcore film geeks haven’t sat through all nine hours of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, but most of us have seen Schindler’s List. Unfortunately, Spielberg is a great filmmaker, not a great thinker. And that’s the problem.

In picking his projects, Spielberg’s interests tend to lie in stories that speak either to his identity as an American (and a lifelong liberal at that) or as Jewish person. This is a director who has an intense love of detail and drama, with near-limitless storytelling capabilities, but also one who consistently fails to grasp the issues he’s dealing with in their context. His attention to detail leaves nothing to chance, and the factual accuracy of his films is, as far as Hollywood goes, generally on the money. He struggles, rather, with the philosophical, emotional truths of the subject matter. Spielberg manages to gets his facts right in films that nevertheless feel false.

Few Spielberg films, if any, have villains that are psychologically fleshed out. There are plenty of great villains, but not many complex ones: the shark in Jaws, the Tyrannosaurus and velociraptors in Jurassic Park, even the aliens in the much-maligned War of the Worlds. This isn’t a problem in Spielberg’s pure entertainments, where we’re perfectly happy to watch Indiana Jones beat up hundreds of Nazis; here, the villains are symbols meant to arouse fear, operating on a purely emotional level. But when Spielberg tries to tackle the ideological horrors of Nazism in Schindler’s List, he fails, because of his inability to conceptualize and comprehend evil beyond the emotional. With the sole exception of Ralph Fiennes’ terrifyingly icy depiction of German SS Captain Amon Göth, the Nazis in Schindler’s List are distant, faceless monsters. They ruthlessly murder thousands upon thousands of innocent people throughout Schindler’s List motivated purely by racism. We see that they have an intensely organized system of killing with extermination camps, in which Jews are stripped down and either sent to work or sent to death.

These depictions are all factual. These horrible crimes did happen, and they happened like this. The problem is that these crimes are not situated in any larger context. They are crimes against humanity, nearly abstract in their pure depravity. Every single Nazi soldier is merely a hateful killing machine, with only Oskar Schindler, our good German with a conscience, to balance things out. There is no notion of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” maxim here. We now know that the Holocaust was not a matter of pure, murderous anti-Semitism whipped up amongst the German population; it was a systematic, mechanised, bureaucratic system designed to kill millions of Jews and other persecuted peoples. The killing was designed in such way that it did not matter whether you were anti-Semitic or not; you still became complicit unless you actively fought against the system, in which case you would join the murdered masses. We, the audience, are engineered to hate the Nazis reflexively, but we are never asked to consider how the Nazis came to be—surely the most important question for future generations to try to answer.

The terrifying thing about Nazism’s anti-Semitism was that it was not just an aimless hatred. It was rooted in what was then believed to be concrete scientific evidence. Nazism was thoroughly rooted in the scientific theory of the day: The fact that it has since proved to be bunkum does not change the fact that Hitler and other leading Nazis saw themselves as rationalists, part of a tradition of German intellectuals. Schindler’s List offers no notion of the historical roots of Nazi anti-Semitism, nor of how the state structures that Hitler put in place during the 1930s helped lay the psychological groundwork for what came later.

Spielberg opts instead for a film that pulls the heartstrings, and in doing so turns the Holocaust into a spectacle. Nowhere is this more clear than in the famous scene in Schindler’s List where a trainload of Jewish women arrive at Auschwitz and are ordered to strip and shave their hair, while being told they will be treated well and are simply undergoing de-lousing. They step into a massive shower room, and the doors lock behind them. Panic sets in as many of the women fear the worst—that they have been corralled into a gas chamber. Spielberg, it turns out, has been fooling us all along: it is just a shower after all.

Why does this scene leave such a bad taste in my mouth? Because it’s a case of blatant emotional manipulation on a topic that needs no emotional manipulation. Spielberg decides to step past the godforsaken circle of hell into the gas chamber—but until the dead rise from their graves, neither he nor anyone else will ever be capable of comprehending the gas chamber. “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” wrote Theodor Adorno. Spielberg teases at the abyss, but in trying and failing, he produces wonderfully crafted but emotionally insulting cinema.

In Schindler’s List, the Holocaust is presented as a past event, an aberration, a mistake in history. The Nazis in the film aren’t humans but mutants, genetically engineered to murder. Never mind that most of them were once average people, like you or me, who—by a state-led process of conditioning, terror, and propaganda—were turned into murderers. Spielberg’s version of the story manages to be historically accurate enough while offering the audience a reassuring whisper: Look at these monsters, look at their awful crimes, thank God we could never be like that. It shelters us completely from the fact that the Holocaust came from somewhere, and it comforts the audience that such atrocities could never happen again.

Maybe I’m just cynical, but in a world where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are viable presidential candidates; where a democratically-elected government has (at time of writing) just been illegally overthrown in Brazil, one of the world’s largest democracies; where the far-right is creeping into power once again across Europe, this time suited rather than booted in the form of Marine Le Pen and Front Nationale in France; where a young progressive politician was just murdered by a white supremacist in the UK; where people shrug at the ever-increasing deaths of human beings trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe in search of a better life; where, in my native Serbia, the acquittal of war criminal Vojislav Šešelj (a genocidal murderer only two decades ago) is greeted with celebration by the far-right, his ultra-nationalist/fascist party obtaining 8 percent of the vote just a few months ago in Parliamentary elections—well, in this world, the subliminally reassuring message that Schindler’s List offers is absolutely poisonous. Spielberg positions his audiences as the ones in the right, the good ones, the ones who could never have been Nazis. Precisely because Schindler’s List suggests Nazism was an aberration, the audience is blinded to present realities. The death of six million people was no mere mistake: suggesting it is absolves us from future responsibility.

Yugoslavia, Rwanda, East Timor, Darfur. One need only take a brief look at world history since 1945 to see that the lessons of the Holocaust have not been learned. Granted, each of these tragedies had different contexts, roots, and causes, all separate from the Holocaust. But they all involved acts of genocide. Those who support Trump, Šešelj and Le Pen—they too position themselves as the good ones, as the guardians of true moral values. I’ve spoken to many people back home who fully support Šešelj and consider him a hero. The concept of genocide does not occur to them, and neither does the wide-scale burning out of Croatian and Bosnian homes in the 1990s in the former-Yugoslavia; they see him as a defender of Serbian homes (and it is true that many Serbs were turned into refugees or victims by reprisal attacks, most notably in 1995 in Operation Storm, where Croatian forces, in a single swoop, turned some 150,000 or so Serbs into refugees overnight). They see him as a warrior-bandit who fought for Serbian national interests. It is the Bosnian Muslims and Croatians who are the “Nazis” and the “fanatics.” Facts do not matter here, only gut feelings based on the knowledge that we are in the right.

The moral stance of these people and that of Schindler’s List are not so far apart. The nationalism and wars that engulfed Yugoslavia twenty years ago were tragic, and the reappearance of genocide on European soil shocked many (as if the Global South was the only place “backward” enough to be genocidal), but the fact of the matter is that those who genuinely believed that Serbia was being attacked saw themselves as the only truly moral force left. Schindler’s List was released in 1994, at the height of the war, and the moral structure of the film makes it not inconceivable that each side saw the other as the Nazis of Yugoslavia.

Schindler’s List has its heart in the right place, but an audience member does not come away from with a concrete understanding of why the Holocaust happened, only that it happened. Spielberg simply rearranges the facts to craft a moving story. But his simplistic rendering allows the undereducated in his audience to believe such an atrocity could never happen again. Spielberg obviously isn’t directly responsible for the rise of Donald Trump or war in Yugoslavia. But the subtle implications and readings of history in his films are certainly part of a wider public conversation about history, and lest we forget, it is his films that frequently reach the widest audiences. Schindler’s List gives the audience a security blanket. In history, a security blanket is the most dangerous thing.