Bi-Weekly Update: Schindler’s List, Toem, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

What I’m Reading: Schindler’s List

Would you believe I haven’t really seen the movie? I mean, bits and pieces from one time it was on AMC or some channel, but I’ve never really sat down and watched it from beginning to end. I forget where I got the book–probably from the Waco Library Book Sale, which was an incredible affair. It sat unread on my shelf for years and years, and I finally started because it could fit in my bag to read in the mornings on the bus. Embarrasingly, my mother started reading it when I was halfway through, and finished before me.

I was worried it would be maudlin, sensationalist, hero-worshipping, but in fact it’s really quite rigorously researched. It’s less of a story and more of an actual documentary, with cross-referenced accounts from multiple Jews from Schindler’s List, as well as records from the time. The book does not hide Schindler’s philandering ways or his other flaws, but the portrait is still enormously flattering–perhaps a result of the people he helped remembering him as a superhuman figure, or perhaps simply because his reputation molded him into a truly remarkable man.

Madame Tussaud’s did a wax figure of him too, which I think helps see him as more ordinary (though this was probably based on his after-war image)

My strong impression of Schindler, reading the book, was less that he was a man of stupendous moral fibre, and more that he was a man who remained sane while the world around him grew mad. There’s a section where Schindler describes to a Turkish agent about what is going on in Germany, and confides, “I scarcely believe it myself.” Shortly after, Schindler states that he wants no money, no payment for the information he is providing. And there seem to have been no religious convictions, no philosophical underpinnings, behind the risks and expenditures Schindler took. He simply saw neighbors being hauled out into the street and shot, and went to their defense with all the recklessness and con artistry of a businessman–only with no eye toward making money.

Of course, he becomes much more. I think as time went on, Schindler must have changed, under the weight of so many believing in him and the growing knowledge that he was resisting not just some minor insanity but an entire ideology. Schindler may have started as merely a sane man trying to protect his neighbors, but the near-salvific figure he becomes near the end, spending with reckless abandon and speaking in front of SS guards about the end of the war, shows a person who became impressed with the weight of his responsibility.

Oddly enough, the book makes no mention of one of the movies most compelling and famous moments–the moment Schindler begins to fall apart under a sense that he could have done more, saved more. Schindler in real life doesn’t seem to have suffered from this at all.

It’s especially odd because so much, including the ring made out of dentures, is directly from the accounts. And more, this is one of the most profound moments in the movie, the big one that nearly everyone remembers. And it didn’t happen.

Something the book does also quite well is highlighting how there were many other quiet acts of bravery. I’ve often been surprised, reading different Holocaust narratives, how many ordinary people tried in a hundred small ways to help. Old friends knocking at windows, pleading with the Jews to come with them. Farmers at railyards, risking getting shot by giving water to entrapped Jews in cattlecars. Schindler’s List mentions a German police officer who throws away his uniform and runs rather than participate in the slaughter, a quiet hermit who photographs all the camp atrocities for later documentation of what he knows to be war crimes, a Nazi bureaucrat who covers for Oskar, flubs paperwork, works within the system itself to keep Jews safe. Three different soldiers at different points are identified as crying and asking the prisoners for forgiveness, days before asking to be reassigned to the Eastern Front. When people ask, “how could the German people let this happen,” it really ought to be said that a significant portion tried to help in a thousand small ways.

And yet it wasn’t enough to keep 2 million from being killed. One of the sadder moments is a throwaway line in the book–the hermit, it is said, did not reveal his photographs for years after the war ended, because his help to the Allied cause would for years cause his neighbors to hiss at him and call him “Jew-Lover” as he passed. Schindler was honored in Israel after the war, but in Germany he was hissed at in the street, had stones throne at him, and a crowd of workmen said he ought to have been burned with the Jews. After the war ended. After everything was known. People hated a man who saved his neighbors from gas chambers. The mind frankly boggles.

If you watch, ever, the film documentary Shoah, you’ll see interviews with Jewish survivors, with people who observed the camps but did nothing, people who tried to help, former guards who maintain they didn’t know anything before showing up–but most chilling of all are the ones who still think the Jews deserved something of what happened to them.

When the book talks about the attempted assassination of Hitler (itself really a remarkable act, Count Claus von Stauffenburg, the leader, knew it was likely to fail but felt they ought to try anyway just to show history that the Germans were not united behind Hitler), it shows Schindler hopeful, elated, certain that the madness of the world will fade with the death of the Fuhrer. But his Jewish fellow listener is less hopeful. They are aware that Hitler did not arise in a vacuum, and in a way merely took advantage of a narrative and mechanism that had been going on for thousands of years before him.

Stauffenberg had lost an eye and hand in WWII, but I couldn’t find any pictures of the actual man post-injury.

Schindler’s List offers an account that is both personal–told through eyewitness accounts–and mythological, the truth half-hidden behind multiple and conflicting stories of a man that many looked up to as a near god-like patron. It is a fascinating story of one of the worst periods in history, and an entirely ordinary man who rose to the occasion through audacity and selflessness.

What I’m Playing: Toem

I haven’t finished Mad Max yet. I’m stuck on a bad race that I keep having to redo, and I decided to switch over to Toem, a lighthearted little game about wandering through a cute mundane little world and taking pictures, applying filters, taking selfies. It’s a bit like “Instagram: The Game” if that were a thing that existed. (Time will tell if this turns into a permanent “break” and I just never complete Mad Max. It does seem to be a pattern. (EDIT: I did complete it. Ending seemed to reject the whole story’s themes. I’m going to write a fanfiction and fix that.)

You’d think a game focused on picture taking would invest a lot in beautiful graphics, even if they were stylistic or cel-shaded or something. But no; the graphics are extremely simplistic and black and white. The focus is not really on artistry, but rather on moments, memories, objects. Each zone has it’s own life and is full of colorful characters–a man made of socks, a family of balloons, a drag-racing grandma. The joy of the game is found in the environments and the life of each area.

Toem is a cute little lighthearted game, and I finished it in a single sitting (of several hours). It made for a fun little break from the Triple-A ultra-violent game about sexualized explosions and violence.

What I’m Watching: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

I sort of vaguely remember when this movie came out–a memory of it being considered good but very niche. It is certainly still niche–the official term, apparently, is wuxia, an epic of legendary martial artists. I’m not sure it’s my cup of tea. The battles are almost intentionally unrealistic, meant to resemble theater performances than true fights. It certainly does lend the story a mythic tone that makes it feel like something from deep legend as opposed to what it was, which was a serial novel written in the 1940’s.

I always tell my students that if I could have any superpower, it would probably be to understand every language (which probably explains why I gave it to my meta-human Nephilim in my story). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is apparently the second-to-last story in a popular Chinese serialized novel series, Crane Iron, but no English translation exists (except one that goes way off base and is basically a fanfiction). So the movie is basically a glimpse into a story utterly separate from the Western canon, unknown to Western scholarship. I haven’t read anything that so much as references a whole world of fiction familiar to a large portion of the world’s population.

I imagine the movie’s events must have been hugely fascinating as the novel was being released. There is a certain episodic nature to it, fitting both to the serialized format, and various badass characters come and go. I can practically see the “Bandit Romance arc” and the “Jade Fox Ambush” arc. As is often the case, some of the most fun moments are when the badasses of separate plotlines come together and unite for a common cause. I can just imagine breathless Chinese citizens lining up like Englishmen in Dicken’s London, to find what would happen to their beloved Li Mu Bai.

In the movie, this scene probably just seemed like setting up backstory for an antagonist who would be defeated later. But in the novel series it was probably more like the dramatic return of a hated villain, a showdown years in the making.

I have to say I don’t like Yu Jailong, the female protagonist. She’s trapped in a tough situation, true, and her headstrong reckless behavior is very much like what you’d expect of a rebellious teenager. But she’s just so wantonly disrespectful and rebellious, even to people trying to help her. Her romance backstory is fun, but the tale of her trying to be a warrior just seemed… unnecessary. I found the story of the two older warriors much more interesting, and the end of their story much more heartbreaking. My whole reason for researching the movie, in fact, was to find out if things turned out happier for them later (they do not.) I can only imagine how the original readers of the serial novel, having followed the older warriors through four books, must have felt.

I found it fascinating as a glimpse into a whole genre of film and storytelling that I have no real access to. For all that people criticize Hollywood–and there’s a lot to criticize–there’s something very profound about how they’ve managed to bring the world together by making different cultures accessible.

I mean to write about Dr. Strange. I haven’t seen it. I will.

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