“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 . . .