Balanced Truth: Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List Among History, Memory, and Popular Culture

Looking at the public reaction to it, one might say that Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List is undoubtedly the most successful film about the Holocaust. The film's success in the U.S. and other Western countries can be traced back mainly to the fact that it creates the impression of telling a true, apparently authentic, story. This essay investigates how this impression of historical truth and authenticity emerges in a fiction film. For this purpose the essay reverts to a concept developed by Jorn Rusen, which distinguishes among three dimensions of historical culture, namely political, aesthetic, and cognitive. In addition to the historical context that serves as a specific precondition for the film's success, the essay primarily investigates the strategies of authentication Spielberg applied at both the visual and narrative levels. The investigation concludes that the impression of evidence produced by the movie is significantly a result of the sophisticated balancing of the three dimensions mentioned above. The film utilizes artifacts of an existing and increasingly transnational (visual) memory for the benefit of a closed, archetypical narrative. It follows the aesthetic and artistic rules of popular narrative cinema, and largely recurs to conventions of representation that were common in film and television programs of the 1990s. Although these forms condense the historical course of events, the film manages to stay close to insights gained by historiography. The hybrid amalgamation of history and memory, and of the imaginary and the real, as well as the combination of dramaturgies of popular culture with an instinct for what can (not) be shown-all of these factors have helped Schindler's List to render a representation of the founding Holocaust myth in Western societies that can be sensually experienced while being emotionally impressive at the same time.