With all do respect to Claude Lanzmann, the director of the revered Holocaust documentary "Shoah," which gets re-released this Friday, I don’t like his attitude these days. In an interview with The New York Times published today, Lanzmann criticized mainstream Holocaust movies like "Schindler’s List" and "Life is Beautiful." And on Spielberg’s decidely un-populist project to record thousands of survivor testimonials to be archived at the Shoah Foundation Institute at USC, Lanzmann said, "Who will see this?" (Short answer: Historians and researchers.)
It has been an fashionably erudite opinion for some time now to speak lowly of films like "Schindler’s List" and "Life is Beautiful," and I admit that I’ve done a fair bit of it myself. But let us all be honest for a minute: there is nothing fundamentally wrong with these films. Critics are absolutely right to attack their effectiveness as works of art, but they are not morally flawed. Misguided perhaps, but not mean-spirited. Too many dissenters often forget to mention that if it were not for these "easy" films, as Lanzmann says of "Schindler’s List," there would be no alternative for the great many people who are simply turned off by more intellectually challenging, higher-brow fare.
Certainly Lanzmann’s "Shoah," which clocks in at nine and a half hours, is in that camp. There are others like his that I have found devasting, fascinating and entirely worth watching: Marcel Ophuls’ four and half hour "The Sorrow and The Pity" (1969), for instance. I would hope everyone would see it. But recently, I’ve been less concerned if everyone does. So long as they see something that tries to engage with the Holocaust in an earnest way, I’d be satisfied. Critics should never lower their standards for the sake of difficult subject matter, but they should also not so glibly dismiss fare that falls short. Lanzmann works for some, Spielberg for others. Their artistic standards differ, but their moral seriousness does not.