The List

“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a)

My son is in his second year of German, and his grades have started to slip a bit. He’s just not making the connection between the language and the culture. When words are just ink on a page, or something we recite from memory, they lose their meaning for us as individuals. They lack context and become boring. So, after a discussion with his teacher, I’ve decided to start exposing him to some German movies.

This sort of cultural immersion, physically detached though it may be, helped me endured my first year of college-level Spanish several semesters ago. It is one thing to know the words, and yet something altogether different to hear the language spoken by people who knew it first and roll in it every day. I fell in love with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros. A friend of mine suggested I watch the movie, and in the years since it has become a springboard over and over again into the swiftly moving river that is the language of Spanish. My Spanish movie phase also introduced me to the extremely talented America Ferrara, long before America knew her as Ugly Betty.

But, German?! With a translation in hand, and a healthy respect for irony firmly intact, I could weed through enough German to bake Die Eier Von Satan. And doing the whole guttural, low-pitch snorting thing isn’t a stretch. But while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it gets one nowhere closer to understanding the relevance or power of the language. So I’ve once again pulled out the Blockbuster card, popped the microwave popcorn, and sat down in my favorite spot on the couch to immerse myself, and my son, in the world of German movies. So far, we’ve watched Bruno Ganz’s riveting and frightening performance as Adolf Hitler in Der Untergang. It took two sittings, but he managed to make it through the exquisitely subtle Das Leben der Anderen, the 2006 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. And to prove to him that not all German movies are about politics or Nazis, we watched the whimsical Lola Rennt, a film that won several German film awards in 1999 (in a ceremony hosted by Katarina Witt, by far one of the most attractive and talented Germans alive). There are more to come in the days ahead. And suggestions are welcomed.

But our movie watching took a turn back toward the real this weekend. We watched Schindler’s List. For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, it tells the story of Oskar Schindler, an opportunistic yet largely unsuccessful Czech businessman who, practically by accident, saved the lives of over 1,000 Jews by employing them in his enamelware and munitions factories, thus keeping them off the trains barreling toward the Nazi concentration camps. Based on the controversial novel by Australian author Thomas Keneally (Was it fiction enough to win the Booker Prize? You can explore the controversy here . . . ), and directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie broke new ground in the world of feature film making; for the most part, it was presented in black and white, and made prodigious use of hand-held cameras, foregoing such modern movie staples as cranes and steadicams. It felt more like a documentary, lending weight to the material.

And weight is what I needed this weekend. In my last post, I left off seeking reality, and one need look no further than the excruciatingly horrific story of the Holocaust to find an anchor to the real. Whether it is through movies like Schindler’s List, or the emotional true story of a group of Tennessee middle school students and their efforts to collect six million Paper Clips, one is dealt an uppercut of reality that, if allowed to penetrate through the fog of apathy that surrounds us, can make a lasting scar.

I am left feeling small.

And yet this is perhaps why I love this movie so much. Oskar Schindler wasn’t a genius. He went bankrupt following the war. Despite his good intentions, his marriage fell apart. And yet, for one moment in time, surrounded by people so much smarter than him, he allowed the miraculous to happen and became a part of history. He made history possible for so many others. Herbert Steinhouse, a writer who interviewed Schindler in 1948, poignantly concluded that “Oskar Schindler’s exceptional deeds stemmed from just that elementary sense of decency and humanity that our sophisticated age seldom sincerely believes in. A repentant opportunist saw the light and rebelled against the sadism and vile criminality all around him. The inference may be disappointingly simple, especially for all amateur psychoanalysts who would prefer the deeper and more mysterious motive that may, it is true, still lie unprobed and unappreciated. But an hour with Oskar Schindler encourages belief in the simple answer.”

The simple answer. Perhaps I’ve been over-thinking things too much . . . and need to make a new list . . .

[photo credit]


18 thoughts on “The List

  1. You know, you hit a nerve in this family.

    I bought Schindlers List and wanted to watch it. It was too painful for my husband, he begged me not to.

    I’ve yet to see it.

    His father was in a labor camp; his paternal grandmother in a concentration camp.

    They were freed by the allies and made it to America.

    One day he asked about the tatooed number on his grandmother’s arm and was slapped….

    they weren’t jewish.


    I never knew there were others besides jews that Hitler went after until I finished high school.

    but more than that- your post speaks of an awesome dad, what a way to get your son into a language!

    I’ll bet you’ll pick up some of it soon…

    and then you can order us a bratwurst and beer!

  2. I see you’re running with “The Film Club” idea…..

  3. My father never forgave the Germans. He fought them in hand-to-hand combat with a frozen rifle in WWII. They – and the Japanese – were his enemies until the day he died, never got over it. Films like Schindler’s List are amazing (though hard to watch) and show that there were some very decent people who weren’t swayed by Hitler’s charisma and iron fist.

    Another great movie of that same period (though it is in Italian) is “Life is Beautiful.” I cry every time I watch it.

    Peace (and I mean that) – D

  4. Occam’s Razor. We often ignore simple decency.

    As for the language…well, that is what I do. My favorite part about learning a new language is that I get a new way to think the world.

  5. Jane – Thank you for your contribution to the discussion. I did some digging and found this statistic, cited from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website ( “Between 1.8 and 2.1 million non-Jewish Polish citizens perished in German hands during the course of the war, about four-fifths of whom were ethnic Poles with the remaining fifth being ethnic minorities of Ukrainians and Belarusians, the vast majority of them civilians. At least 200,000 of these victims died in concentration camps with about 146,000 being killed in Auschwitz.” The Nazis hated the Poles, an understatement if ever there was one . . .

    Nursemyra – Just making a more concerted effort. I’ve always loved to use movies as conversation starters with my kids, but this is a deliberate intensification with a definite goal. And, yeah, I still need to get that book. Maybe tomorrow . . .

    River – Life is Beautiful is a fantastic movie. Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning performance was only slightly better than his acceptance speech.

    Heather – Being a philosophy major, I’ve done a bit of studying regarding Occam’s Razor. Simply stated: “All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.” Philosophers like to get all wordy and high-brow when they expand further. I never get it. End up scratching my head for a bit. I’ll stick with the simple explanation. As it should be. Thank you for chiming in . . .

  6. The Tin Drum is a decent German movie, though it was a better book. And what was the other one…. Crikey, getting old. Memory slipping.

    Good idea though, helping to connect the language and the culture.

  7. Run Lola Run and The Lives of Others: good choices! (I studied German in school, yay for me. Or not so yay).

    Schindler is a great example of how you don’t have to change the whole world to make a big difference.

    I just finished this (awful) book about WWII and the Japanese “comfort” women. The things the Japanese did to these women, to hundreds of thousands of these girls, to all their POW’s: it’s skin-crawling. I find it curious that we have less of a cultural connection to those atrocities, though, than we do to the Germans and the Holocaust.

  8. cdv1971 – Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll add it to my queue . . .

    Gwen – I found a beautiful poem titled “Comfort Woman’s Gold” by Scott Wood. I’m sending you a copy so check your email. Isn’t it sad that there are so many atrocities related to WWII that some of them only merit the occasional footnote? Thank you for your reminder . . .

  9. Totally off the movie subject (sorry), I spend approximately a 3 weeks a year in a little old place called Pforzheim, Germany…

    I took German in an effort to make my life easier these weeks I spend over there….

    No can do. It’s like here… there are waaaay too many dialects to be able to nail such a language by class experience… which, I understand is where the movie came in.

    I gave up on German after 2 semesters. I suck.

  10. Brian, Does your son have more interest in learning German after seeing these movies? It would be interesting to hear back on this topic…the initial reason you ventured into these movies.

    A favorite filmmaker of mine is Werner Herzog. He’s done about 40 movies and some are the most bizarre and disturbing movies I’ve ever seen! I won’t recommend those as I don’t think your son would say “Hey, let me study these verbs a little more!” after seeing them. However, some of his movies, probably only accessible through Netflix, unless your Blockbuster is better stocked than mine…might be worth it. He recently did a documentary called “Grizzly Man” about a man who went to live “wild” with the grizzlies and met a very nasty fate. His movie, “Fitzcarraldo” filmed years ago about a crazy visionary guy who wanted to build an opera house along the Amazon river was totally amazing. He dragged a steamboat up and over a mountain as part of this film. Klaus Kinski was the actor…and he was clearly as crazy as Werner and I’m telling you it is a movie like none other. Herzog went on to do another documentary called, “My Best Fiend” about his relationship with Kinski. His documentaries might be more interesting for your son, in fact.

  11. Cat – Yeah, watching a movie gets one no closer to being capable of surviving in the culture if that’s where you end up. Just as I imagine I’d fail miserably on the streets of Mexico City, despite having seen movies filmed there, my son wouldn’t make it in Berlin either. But at least there’d be a modicum of familiarity . . .

    Pat – His grades are picking up. Not sure it has anything to do with the movies as much as the time we’ve taken to talk about upcoming homework/tests so that prep time can be accounted for. That’s the main thing for him, studying. But he does seem to be learning ways the language works. Hearing it spoken, and fast, is good for him. He’s always asking me to pause so he can translate some phrase or practice a word. So, yeah, I think it’s working.

    Regarding Herzog, what a fabulous suggestion. We’ve seen Grizzly Man (he loved it, even though he found it frustrating emotionally), and I particularly enjoyed Rescue Dawn, with Christian Bale. I may have to dig back in his catalog and see what strikes me . . .

  12. Yes, black and white until the end, and the image of that little girl in the red coat that I will never, ever erase from my brain.

  13. Rules are made to be broken. Lists are made to be changed.

  14. I think anytime we create a way for structured education benchmarks to be achieved through things we live, experiences we enjoy (or not), then we get closer to organic success.

    I think when parents take this sort of interest, well the thing of it is I don’t think it happens that often. So as a daughter, I can say with a wicked lump in my throat, this is powerful. Truly.

  15. Interesting and thoughtful; nice blog…

  16. Yeap … the little girl in the red coat ….I wept!!!! And I weep for all the people on this earth dressed in red coats, 25,000 children will die this day ….

  17. I’ve taught English to Spanish speakers and Spanish to English speakers. I always recommend turning the target language on if possible when they watch DVDs. It makes such a difference to hear the language when you are learning it, so I’m with you on watching the German movies.

    I watched Schindler’s List when it was in the theater but was with my teen son. We had discussed it before going in and had agreed that if either of us felt it was too much, we would both leave. He was about 15 and a little over half way through the movie he leaned over and whispered that he wanted to leave so I never got to see the rest of the movie. A few years ago, I bought it on DVD and finished watching it. I have since watched it a couple of times a year. I feel it’s one of the most important movies for all of us to watch, for many reasons.

  18. Thanks for sharing, but I think you’re missing humor. Granted, the Germans aren’t known for humor, but Enlightenment Guaranteed really hits the spot. It’s funny as hell. You can’t understand a culture without laughing with it.

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