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Steven Spielberg

David Roche

Spielberg & Identity Politics

Movie Mensch: An Exploration of Spielberg’s Universalist Jewish-American Sensibility

Michael Lipiner et Rocco Giansante

Texte intégral

1Throughout his career, Steven Spielberg has depicted America as a haven for minorities with considerable onscreen patriotic sentiments, while garnering criticism for having often (and conveniently) rewritten history, omitted facts or changed them altogether (Pryce 1997; Mitchell 1998; Gates 1987). In this regard, the story of European-Jewish immigration and successful assimilation woven into the very fabric of the American Dream has been central to Spielberg’s oeuvre, together with the expression of an opposition to tyranny and oppression, seen as the foundational principle of Western Jewish-Christian moral identity.

2In showing, in the words of Sacvan Bercovitch, “the failure of America, as a predominantly Christian nation... to help save European Jewry” (Ehrenhaus 328), the filmmaker has acted in many ways as a modern-day biblical prophet whose anti-Semitic childhood experiences instilled in him a sense of Jewish pride, which, in turn, influenced his craft and cinematic narrative style. Nonetheless, while still preserving a certain degree of ethnic and cultural specificity, Spielberg’s cinematic depiction of Jewish identity is characterized by the “universalist impulse inherent in Jewish Messianism since the days of Jeremiah” (Svenungsoon 288), which speaks of a universal and collective struggle for justice and wisdom while still preserving specific cultural ideals and values, as opposed to a religious exploration of the Chosen People per se.

3Countless American films have reflected on the phenomenon of Jewish universalization and assimilation: The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927), Goodbye, Columbus (Larry Peerce, 1969), The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972), Liberty Heights (Barry Levinson, 1999) and Meet the Fockers (Jay Roach, 2004) to name just a few. Jewish characters would abandon, mainly through intermarriage, their physical and/or mental ghettos in order to reposition themselves within the wider spectrum of mainstream (Anglo) American society and renegotiate their identities vis-à-vis history and tradition. Spielberg enters this discussion by proposing a model for being Jewish in America rooted in those specific Jewish values that, in effect, offer universal resonance.

  • 1 “After being asked why the many Jewish-American producers and directors before him had never made a (...)

4As a baby boomer, Spielberg grew up in 1950s American suburbia, which valued consensus and assimilation; the Jews in these areas were notably silent about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism (Flanzbaum 99). Only in later decades did the Holocaust enter the cultural mainstream of Jewish identity, in an assimilationist, multiethnic, roots-obsessed America that depended largely on the victimization of Jews. For some, this may account for the “normalization” of Jewish identity in gentile American culture.1

5Spielberg’s work can, in fact, be read as a reaction to the Jewish-American experience’s transformations in “an increasingly post-ethnic world, a world where identities are mixed, where allegiances are more voluntary than inherited, and more the result of consent rather than descent” (Magid 5). From the 1980s onwards, the two columns on which stood the Jewish-American identity, that is Zionism and the Holocaust, started to shake. If Israel has become a contentious and divisive topic in conversations around Jewish tables, the Holocaust—with the passing away of the last survivors—will “no longer occupy the realm of the “real’... and it will likely become an event and not the lens through which all events in Jewish history are refracted” (Magid 187). Today, intermarriage, assimilation, disassimilation and multi-ethnicity are some of the key features that encapsulate Jewish-American experience. For the most part, the Jewish-American establishment has tried to counter the formation of this new “liquid” identity (Bauman 8) by sticking to the ethnic paradigm of old, and by perpetuating a closed interpretation of identity formation.

  • 2 “Christian universalism, even at its most liberal and benevolent, has been a powerful force for coe (...)
  • 3 On the occasion of Holocaust Memorial Day 2016, speaking at an event honoring Righteous Gentiles (e (...)

6The momentous transitional phase that American Judaism has experienced finds a possible resolution with Spielberg’s identification of Judaism in today’s liberal worldview. This tones down Jewish particularism in favor of a more universalistic approach,2 so that, as the Jew becomes Americanized, paradoxically we can almost say that so, too, does the American become a Jew.3

7Although Spielberg, “perceived by many as the formative representative of American popular culture... from a ‘non didactic’ popular entertainer to his much publicized ‘rebirth’ as a Jewish artist” (Loshitzky, “The Post-Holocaust Jew” 77) has admitted to having reflected upon his Jewish identity for the first time (certainly overtly) in Schindler’s List (Yavowar 1), his Jewish background has informed his films before and since (whether consciously or not). The body of his work exemplifies Rosenzweig’s (as cited in Bernstein-Nahar 1999) calling for a “new learning” that strives to overcome the obstacles which have plagued modern Judaism: namely modernizing Judaism and defending tradition. In this manner, the filmmaker as a cognizant Jew does “not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead[s] everything back to Judaism” (Bernstein-Nahar 1999). In his films, Spielberg has wrestled with the complexities of the Jewish-American experience by weaving along his successful film career a tapestry that depicts the changing reality of Jewish identity in America: from the nostalgic (An American Tail) to the familial (The Color Purple); from the historical (Saving Private Ryan) to the ethical (Schindler’s List); from science fiction (A.I. Artificial Intelligence) to the fantastical (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial); and from patriotism (Amistad) to Zionism (Munich).

Implicit Allegorical Representations

8In December 2011, the prestigious online Jewish magazine, The Tablet, published a list of the Top 100 greatest Jewish movies ever made. “Some choices were based on the identity of their creators, others for their themes, quite a few for their sheer influence on pop culture, and others because of some elusive sensibility that is impossible to define and yet feels instantly familiar.”4 The “greatest Jewish movie ever made” was Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

  • 5 See Mehdi Achouche’s chapter in this volume.

9Although lacking overtly Jewish elements, E.T. is considered by the critics of Tablet to be the Jewish film par excellence because of its universalistic appeal. Charged with religious overtones (E.T.’s supposed death and then Christ-like resurrection), the story of the alien who arrives on earth is the quintessential story of immigration. E.T. the alien is alone, unable to speak the English language, and an immigrant who has landed in a strange and menacing land where his own life is threatened by a pervasive power system. The story of E.T., who escapes from the police and its cruel political institution, mirrors the archetypical Jewish story where pogroms and incessant waves of anti-Semitism force Jews to flee persecution and harassment. Implicit allegorical references to the Old [Exodus] and New [Messiah] Testaments ground the science fiction premise in universal (from a Western perspective) concerns, like the fairy tale elements.5 Prevalent biblical themes are overtly expressed in one scene when Elliott pleads with government agent Keys: “He needs to go home. He’s calling his people” [82:50–82:57], to which the scientist replies: “His being here is a miracle” [83:13].

10Biblical overtones are also ubiquitous in the Spielberg-produced animated feature, An American Tail, which retells the Jewish-American story as one of the many immigrant stories of successful integration. Between 1880 and 1924 (when restrictive immigration quotas were introduced), over two-million Eastern European Jews escaped virulent anti-Semitism, restrictive laws and economic hardship by making their way to U.S. shores, their goldene medina (golden land) (Naar 436–457). This foundational moment finds a gentle representation in this animated musical, which relates the story of the Mousekewitz family that immigrate from Russia to America in order to escape pogroms and injustice. In the opening sequence, we are introduced to the (all-too-obvious Jewish) family of mice celebrating the Jewish festivity of Hanukkah [3:10–8:00]. After distributing customary gifts (much like Christmas is celebrated in America), Papa tells his offspring, Fievel—“named by Spielberg after his beloved maternal grandfather Philip Posner, an impoverished Russian immigrant whose Yiddish name was Fievel” (McBride 20)—and Tanya, about America, the land where there are no “cats,” i.e., anti-Semites [5:08–5:33]. Soon enough, the Cossack cats arrive to attack them and the Jewish families living there. Thus begins a chain of events that take the Mousekewitz family on an immigrant journey to America. During their travels, Fievel loses contact with his family and finds himself alone in New York City. He befriends other mice, including the wise Italian mouse named Tony and Bridget, the politically-charged Irish mouse. Fievel then learns to survive in America’s multiethnic environment by living outside of his (traditional Jewish) comfort zone before he fully integrates within a more widely acceptable American society.

11The film’s title highlights its post-ethnic and universalistic nature as an idealistic representation of the beginning of the great Jewish-American experience: the escape from the Old Country and its anti-Semitism; the hardship of a new start; the encounter with The Other (Baskind 2007); the non-Jew as a partner and not foe; and the promise of a successful life in the golden land of opportunity. An American Tail depicts the beneficial effects of the encounter between Jews and America at a time when the connection between identity and ethnicity is still valid. What is more, the nostalgia in the film is charted by different elements, such as the European accents of older family members, Papa’s fiddle playing and the traditional Russian kosovorotka shirt. In particular, the Great Cat of Minsk is a giant mechanical mouse that the other mice build to scare away the New York City cats [59:00–65:00]. The creature is reminiscent of the legendary Golem (Kieval 1997), the giant made of clay created by Rabbi Loew of Prague to protect its Jewish community from anti-Semites. Certain elements of European Jewish culture are thus transposed into the new world in order to create a different type of Jewish identity that can be assimilated in the environment without the mortal (anti-Semitism) of old.

12An American Tail is the cinematographic realization of the American Dream for a family of Jewish immigrants. Aside from material comfort, this dream also means having the opportunity to live one’s Jewish identity by integrating within a non-Jewish society. Reformulated by contact with other identities, Jewishness turns into one of the many declinations of the American ideals of democracy, equality, opportunity, liberty and rights.

The African-American Mirroring Experience

  • 6 The arduous fight for black civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s highlighted the obvious commona (...)
  • 7 On misuses of this formula (Wolf 479).
  • 8 “Between half and three-quarters of the contributions to the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, and CORE [in the 19 (...)

13As a film directed by a Jewish man based on a book written by a black woman, The Color Purple remains, according to Daniel Bernardi, “a part of both the sprawling history of the American cinema and the complicated relationship between blacks and Jews in the United States.”6 What especially resonates in films like The Color Purple and Amistad are the ethical teachings of the Jewish prophets generally summed up in the (popularly misused7) Talmudic Hebrew expression, Tikkun HaOlam (“mending the world”), which tells a story of an injustice and calls for reparations. The tradition of social activism within the Jewish minority in America is well documented and stems from the biblical text and its commentaries; we are reminded that Jews were on the front lines in the battle for civil rights.8

14Social engagement represents an important aspect of contemporary Jewish identity because of its universalistic nature. The engagement is directed essentially outside the community boundaries in favor of other minorities. The social activism inspired by Tikkun HaOlam has become one of the definitions of Jewishness in America today, de facto in intending Judaism as ethics and not as an ethnic-based religion. Social engagement also ties in to liberal political discourses to represent an element of Jewish tradition that can be comfortably acceptable because it does not intend to separate the American Jew from the rest of American society. On the contrary, it unites Jews and gentiles working together to create a better world (Blidstein 2013).

15Spielberg, who had witnessed discrimination as a child, personally empathized with the plight of Alice Walker’s abused heroine, Celie, in The Color Purple (McBride 366). Enthusiastic to adapt the novel, he chose to mainly focus on the protagonist’s determination to survive many hardships, including rape, incest, racism and sexism. Spielberg adds a Jewish-American accent to the voice of Walker’s “blackness” in the novel, as well as an Oliver Twist motif (as in E.T. and A.I.) by depicting Celie as an “Orphan Annie” (Friedman 2007), an allegorical representation of Jews in the Diaspora who sought a home in America: “Stephen Spielberg said that The Color Purple, known in the book trade as a ‘bodice ripper,’ attracted a mostly white feminist audience, and with the movie he wanted to expand the audience” (Gates 21).

16While endeavoring to reach a wider audience, Spielberg attempted to appeal to the audiences’ emotions by foregrounding the story and struggles of decent human beings, whether Celie in The Color Purple or Cinque in Amistad. These timid-turned-rebellious black characters convey that through determination against certain injustices in U.S. history, the land of equal opportunity for all, one can attain life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Both films open with personal narratives that evoke pathos: The Color Purple amid radiant light shining across a beautiful field of purple flowers contrasts with the racist dialogue against African Americans and foreshadows the film’s final “Rosebud” scene (Fig. 1) [148:50–149:14]; Amistad in darkness with only flickers of light amid stylistic, cinematic thunder and lightning to accentuate the horror of the slaves’ experience of the Middle Passage [116:40–123:57].

Fig. 1 — The Color Purple: Celie and Nettie reunited in the final shot.

Fig. 1 — The Color Purple: Celie and Nettie reunited in the final shot.
  • 9 Kaminski and Spielberg prepared the film’s visual style by studying the paintings of Francisco Goya (...)

17Spielberg received much criticism for his adaptation of Walker’s controversial novel. Many reputable and prominent African Americans felt that he had maligned the black male community and omitted historical details in order to preserve and maintain pro-(white) American sentiments. Professor Gerald Early, for instance, scorned the film for selecting “the black male, the convenient and mutable antihero of the white American psyche for the past 150 years,” as its villain (269 as cited by Dole 1996). In addition, critics felt that Spielberg deliberately failed to reference the existing Jim Crow laws in the Deep South in order to highlight the black women’s ordeal against “evil” black men (Gates 15). Congruently, Jacqueline Bobo argued that Spielberg drew on a traditional, white iconic model (the Oliver Twist intertext) and criticized his “attempt to emulate the conventions of Charles Dickens’s novel” by creating a “disruptive structure” which “displaced Celie as the central focus of the story” (281). However, Spielberg said that he interpreted The Color Purple as “Dickensian” in order to facilitate the connection of a wider audience he identified as “mostly female and white” (Friedman and Notbohm 2000). Spielberg’s child-lost-without-a-home theme emerges and coincides with the history of Jews in the Diaspora. Spielberg achieves this by cleverly utilizing Allen Daviau’s cinematography to draw sympathy for the characters’ plight within their own Africa-American community with close-ups, low angles, tinting shades of charcoal blue and warm golden sunlight. The latter also alludes to the film’s title, as a metaphor for Celie’s inner beauty despite her pain and hardship. Daviau’s beautiful cinematic canvas announces Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography in Amistad.9

18Spielberg also parallels the African/Christian experience through specific montage sequences. These scenes seamlessly integrate Celie’s life in rural Georgia with that of her sister Nettie in Africa, who is rescued from her abusive father by a Christian missionary couple [110:00–114:00]. Concurrently, much like Fievel and the Mousekewitz family, Isaac Stern and other Schindler Jews, and Cinque and his fellow slaves, Celie’s having overcome her harrowing experiences against a background of colonialism enables her to awaken from passivity and naivety with an understanding that achieving love, inner peace and contentment is the ultimate revenge against her aggressors. Celie comes of age with strength, independence and the determination to murder her long-time abuser, Mister, as she prepares to shave him [1:55: 13]. Quincy Jones’s African-like percussive music accompanies Celie, and draws an emotional appeal for her and Nellie’s cultural and feminist voyages, much like John Williams’s emotionally grabbing score does in Amistad (also mirroring the African voices) for Cinque’s transformation. Both soundtracks act as a backdrop to the witnessing of their conversion from timid and fearful to resilient and fearless critical voices against their suppressors.

  • 10 The brit milah is a Jewish religious male circumcision ceremony performed by a mohel (“circumciser” (...)

19The film resorts to parallel editing to depict the African village where Celie’s sister, Nettie, lives with her family. An African preteen boy and girl prepare to have their faces pierced, a traditional rite of passage into adulthood. This is allegorical of a Bar/Bat-Mitzvah, in the sense that the once protected innocent and pure child will now pass into adulthood challenged with overcoming pain and hardship, much like the difficult post-adolescent stage Celie has newly entered. Moreover, there are close-ups of Celie contemplating and finally carrying out her murderous design before the camera zooms in on the African spears (brit milah10) that will be used for the prepubescent rituals in the African village where Celie’s family resides [117:40]. Celie tells Mister, “Put your head back,” following which the preteens in Africa tilt their necks back before a close-up of Mister reveals his jugular about to be cut amid Spielberg’s many cuts from Shug running across the field to Africa and back again to Mister’s throat up against Celie’s sharp razor blade. Blood is nicked from the African boy’s face, just as Mister’s jugular is saved in the nick of time by Shug, Mister’s mistress and Celie’s role model. She stops Celie from committing the same savagery he inflicted on her for years [115:00–117:51]. As a black lesbian or bisexual female, Celie forges her own unique identity by learning to accept her circumstances and limitations, but also by finding her place within a predominantly white patriarchal society. Her narrative mirrors, in this sense, the struggles and eventual success of assimilating Jews (and other multiethnic minorities) within a once traditionally white hegemonic (American) society. The historical American struggle for recognition and acceptance resonates in the next scene where Celie summons strength for the first time to stand up to Mister and put him in his rightful place by reminding him and his family of the torment she had suffered for decades [119:17–120:55].

20On a personal level, Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw (who converted to Judaism before their marriage in 1991) decided to raise their family Jewish, including their adopted African-American children, Theo and Mikaela. Spielberg said:

Well, we were already talking to Theo about slavery and where he came from and who his great-great-grandparents might have been... So when I heard the story [Amistad], I immediately thought that this was something that I would be pretty proud to make, simply to say to my son, “Look, this is about you.”

  • 11 On May 13, 1939, the S.S. St. Louis, which was part of the Hamburg-America Line, Hapag, departed Ge (...)

21While The Color Purple is more of an American national drama that focuses on early 20th century African-American society in rural Georgia, Amistad is a global film concerning minorities where the slaves are Africans involved in an international legal and political dispute concerning Spain, the U.S. and Great Britain. Slavery is just as central to the African-American identity as the Holocaust is central to the Jewish-American experience. Spielberg wanted to accomplish “for the American experience of slavery what Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust” (Jeffrey 77) by creating a mainstream film about the 1839 mutiny aboard a Cuban slave trading vessel (mirroring the S.S. St. Louis ship that was turned away by President Roosevelt in 1939)11 and its subsequent court battles over human ownership.

22Spielberg also received criticism for Amistad for downplaying the U.S.’s role in the plight of blacks, some critics stating that the film glorifies white lawyers, underplays white Christian abolitionists, and underscores slavery as an institution supported by (white Christian) American lawmakers (Osagie 121, as well as Pryce 1997 and Paquette 1998 to name a few). The film, brought to Spielberg by African-American producer Debbie Allen after viewing Schindler’s List in 1994 (Miller 558), has been accused of distorting certain truths and fabricating characters in order to resonate for Western audiences a recognition of universal rights (Morris 259). Vinette Pryce (1997) calls attention to the film’s pinning most of the blame of immoral slavery on brutal Spanish imperialism; he argues that the filmmaker changes facts by depicting the Spanish as the sole slave auctioneers. Similarly, Brian Mitchell (1998) contends that the film “is a very American movie, in that there is something for nearly every American to like”; blacks, he argues, “will be pleased with the movie’s depiction of the slaves as noble and innocent victims,” while “white Americans will be relieved to find their ancestors presented by and large as fair-minded and compassionate.”

23The film thus instills patriotism and cinematically depicts America in a good light in order to offer a narrative of its history that appeals to all Americans and shows a united collective. For instance, the highly educated and respectable Theodore Joadson, a fictional African-American who freely associates with white abolitionists, sits in their courtrooms and roams the halls of the Supreme Court despite New England’s strict racial codes. What is more, Joadson preserves the good, universal faith of Christianity by omitting references to New England white missionaries forcing Africans to renounce their names, languages, customs and religious beliefs [34:46–35:20].

24Robert Paquette (1998) scorns Spielberg for taking great liberties with historical accuracies. In particular, he contends that the portrayal of Queen Isabella II must have been based on Spielberg’s “childhood memories of the ‘Zorro’ television series.” He also says that “the rebels of Spielberg’s movie, even at the end of their debilitating voyages, look ready for the NFL draft,” implying that the film bolsters strong patriotic sentiments rather than reflect upon America’s great shame of injustice against minorities. Steve Lipkin (2011), on the other hand, praises what he calls Spielberg’s “cinematic docudrama” and argues that the film “appeals persuasively to its audience not only as it presents a view of history but also as a story about storytelling.” In particular, he contends that the narrative form, as in The Color Purple, brings focus through its main characters to the just American legal system in order to argue that storytelling can “right the wrongs perpetuated against victims when institutions deny them opportunities to speak” and “vindicates American justice as an ideological system.” Lipkin also asserts that Amistad “embraces the need for victims themselves to tell their stories,” whose changing nature exposes their vulnerability within “emphatically repressive social systems.”

25As in The Color Purple, Africa is depicted as “home,” a land of great beauty and riches, whose people are pillaged by Western Europeans. Africans are shown running for their lives from slave merchants, before being chained and thrown onboard large ships where they are mercilessly stripped of humanity by being beaten, whipped and murdered [76:55–83:55]. Whether it be about one of the most racist crimes of the 19th century, the African slave trade, or about the quintessential evil of the 20th century, the Holocaust, Spielberg maintains some optimism amidst the blood and terror of history, where minorities are persecuted and suffer. Eventually, by the film’s third act, the slaves (and their lawyer) must fight for their lives in court and the change of minds of unjust lawmakers so that the world can become better, safer and more just for future generations. Cinque becomes a voice for the slaves (much like Isaac Stern speaks for the Jewish victims to Oskar Schindler) and, as a subordinate shackled in chains, is provided an opportunity to meet with his savior, President John Quincy Adams in his prized greenhouse (Fig. 2) [122:23–128:12]. The (former) President gives Cinque an African violet (no doubt an intertextual allusion to The Color Purple) as a metaphorical bond of understanding between the two, with the hope that the African slaves will eventually be able to return home. However, there is no historical evidence that this face-to-face meeting ever took place. These cinematic manipulations, according to Paquette, are intended “to speak to the feelings and sensibilities of a multicultural Nineties audience.” When Cinque inhales President Adams’s treasured African violet, he reveals that the flower “originated in East not West Africa; no European harvested one for transplantation until the last decade of the nineteenth century; the flowers give off no scent.”

Fig. 2 — Amistad: President John Quincy Adams gives Cinque an African violet in his greenhouse.

Fig. 2 — Amistad: President John Quincy Adams gives Cinque an African violet in his greenhouse.

26In court, President Adams pleads to America, the slaves’ savior, while walking to a wall with portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and his own father, John Adams (among others) [138:09–138:34]. He then walks patiently towards the camera while pausing beside three porcelain statues of the Founding Fathers, as he calls out to each one by name in order to accentuate his appeal to the Supreme Court Justices [136:46–137:03]; a close-up ensues: “We desperately need your strength and wisdom to triumph over our fears, our prejudices, ourselves. Give us the courage to do what is right and if it means civil war? Then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.” Thus, the issues of slavery, injustice and oppression have become universalized and, perhaps, require Americans to accept them as part of their American initiation and identity.

27In the final scenes of both The Color Purple and Amistad, Celie is reunited with her sister, Nettie, and her family from Africa with the backdrop of a large sun setting [148:50–149:14], just as Cinque returns to his family in Africa, staring out at the setting sun looming high above [147:30–147:45]. Both films endeavor to construct a convincingly clear, “pro-American” “continuity of value in which the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, and the Civil War emerge as linked events furthering the cause of human freedom” (Kodat 84–85). Similarly, in Lincoln, Spielberg universalizes the issue of slavery by altering historical events and, surprisingly, by forgetting several Jewish-Americans that played an important role in the shaping of the Union, notably Isachar Zacharie, Lincoln’s personal podiatrist and confidante, who often gave the President advice on matters of State. This omission makes the film solely about a man who, like Moses, freed and led his people to the Promised Land, but did not live to see it himself.

28Spielberg endeavors to retell dark and shameful periods of U.S. history by connecting the viewer emotionally to abused, heroic and eventually rebellious characters. It is their cinematic narratives that draw us to their universal tales in the face of white-skinned Anglo-Europeans who determine much of their fate within a (once) corrupt and unjust U.S. political and legal system. In this way, the lessons of the past reflect on the present no matter which ethnic minorities, and help to establish a new America whose people can truly live out the meaning of those important words.

Representations of Jewish Experiences

29Spielberg expressed his desire to embrace his own German-Jewish ethnic identity and faith in Schindler’s List, which also represented in his own eyes his transformation from an entertaining popcorn director to a serious (Jewish) artist (Gordon 159). The film is more about the Holocaust and Jewish personal history in broader terms than it is about Oskar Schindler saving lives. Large crowds of Jewish victims, replicas of concentration camps, and the use of extreme close-ups, hand-held cameras, and black and white cinematography add a documentary look and feel (Weissman 162). The scenes depicting the violence that governed the space of the Kraków-Płaszów and Auschwitz concentration camps are not at all central to the film’s dominant narrative: they allow the viewer to witness the suffering and mass atrocities experienced by European Jewry. They also represent the historical plight of the Jewish people via the events of the Shoah: the horrific arrests, beatings and humiliations, as well as forced public roundups to ghettos, followed by cattle car and death march journeys to the camps.

30When Schindler’s List won the Academy Award for Best Film, Spielberg accepted the award on the Kodak Theatre stage accompanied by producer Branko Lustig, a Holocaust survivor, who gave a speech in which he recalled the horrors he endured as a Jewish child during the Shoah. Millions of people listened to the oral testimony of this survivor on prime time television. The popularization of the Holocaust among American audiences coincided with the airing of NBC’s mini-series Holocaust: The Story of the Weiss Family (1978) (Shandler 178), and was powerfully renewed with the release of Schindler’s List, after which “the volume of production of Holocaust films, and of debates about them, has risen dramatically, at the same time that Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation has created a new cultural space of production, incorporating video, film and digital forms” (Hirsch 3).

  • 12 “In several interviews he has described the Holocaust as an ongoing presence in his life and he has (...)
  • 13 In a telling moment of the film, when Schindler goes to Amon Göth, the SS commander of the Kraków-P (...)

31As an “outgrowth of his increasing Jewish identity,”12 Spielberg made the film because he wanted to explore his history and identity as a Jew. By choosing to tell the story of a righteous gentile saving Jews (as opposed to mainly focusing on the annihilation of European Jewry), Spielberg again underlines the universal dimension of Judaism. Indeed, Schindler’s List relates the journey of an opportunistic businessman towards righteousness. If at the beginning of the film Schindler is only focused on making money and is completely blind to the suffering of the Jews, in the end he spends the fortune he has accumulated to save Jews from deportation and certain death. Through the example offered by Itzhak Stern—the Jewish accountant who was practically running his business—Schindler absorbs the moral teachings of the Jewish tradition and is transformed by them. Like the biblical figure of Moses,13 the Egyptian prince born a Hebrew who becomes the leader of an enslaved people, the Nazi party member Schindler turns his back on his own group and interests to conduct the Jews to safety. Although Schindler does not become a Jew, he does acquire a new moral consciousness based on the values of the Jewish-Christian tradition. Indeed, his transformation includes abandoning his womanizing activities and recalling his estranged wife, significantly, in a church [166:23–166:57]. In the world depicted in the film, outside of this tradition there is only brutality and chaos. The atrocities inside the camp are contrasted with sequences in which the Hebrew blessings recited during Jewish rituals—the wedding [111:37–115:45], the Sabbath [168:00–170:00]—create an island of serene order and humanity. Through the Jews, Schindler regains the humanity that the other Germans around him have lost.

32Schindler’s List opens with a sequence depicting the ancient Jewish ritual of welcoming the Sabbath [0:26–1:35]. A Shabbat candle is lit and a pre-Holocaust Hassidic family stands around a table, while the head of the family recites in Ashkenazic-accented Hebrew the blessing over the wine. This sequence ends with the image of the candles being consumed by the fire. The initial color image turns black and white, leaving only the yellow and red of the candle’s flame. The visual transition from the smoke of the candles to that of a train engine takes us to 1939 Krakow, a few weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland, when all the Jews of the city’s surrounding area were ordered by the occupying authorities to register and assemble in the ghetto. If the initial sequence of Schindler’s List situates the viewer in a totally Jewish space, whose color images suggest a “being in the present” that is guaranteed by the keeping of an ancient tradition, the final sequence brings the viewer to a Christian space, the Jerusalemite cemetery where Oskar Schindler is buried (Fig. 3) [185:07–188:50].

Fig. 3 — Schindler’s List: the Jerusalemite cemetery where Oskar Schindler is buried.

Fig. 3 — Schindler’s List: the Jerusalemite cemetery where Oskar Schindler is buried.

33Situated just outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, Oskar Schindler’s grave powerfully marks the encounter between Jewish and Christian motifs, visually rendered by the stones that Holocaust survivors have placed upon the righteous gentile’s grave. The black cross engraved on his name reiterates Spielberg’s discourse on the quintessential universal values of faith, love, hope, truth and justice​. The actor who plays Schindler places a red rose on the real Schindler’s grave, enabling the film to express Spielberg’s universalistic declination of the Jewish-Christian tradition. The central event in modern Jewish history serves as a vehicle for telling a universal story about friendship and salvation, thus putting aside any particularistic Jewish dimension. The Jewish moments in the film, in fact, gradually lose their “foreign” character (i.e., the opening shot of the Shabbat blessing, which to the viewer is unintelligible, much like the archaic Ashkenazic Hebrew of the blessing) to become part of a narrative that speaks to both Jews and non-Jews alike.

  • 14 Spielberg founded the institute in 1994 to videotape and preserve interviews with survivors and oth (...)

34In one of the final scenes, Schindler’s survivors give their savior a golden ring with a Talmudic quotation engraved: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire” [177:00–181:45]. Schindler places the ring on his finger as a fortified marriage to “his Jews” before breaking down and sobbing in tears when he realizes that he could have done more to save more Jewish lives. The film ends with the survivors consoling their gentile savior (mirroring President Adams in Amistad), who then dons a striped apparel to feign a concentration camp victim in order to escape from the advancing allies. The merger of the survivor and righteous gentile is complete and realistic, as Schindler’s main motives to save Jews from deportation to concentration camps is initially greed. Thus, Schindler’s List is not only about the Holocaust, Jewish plight and birth of Israel, but also about the nature of flawed human beings with the capability and desire to pursue virtue and happiness, an American ideal sought by all humans. Spielberg’s most personal epic is not just a film, but a story with real-world outcomes pertaining to the world we live in at present, as exemplified by the creation soon after of his Shoah Foundation.14

35In Munich, Jewishness is explored as a nation-based identity by telling the story of Israel’s covert revenge operation against the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Not only does the film grapple with the ethical question of how to respond to violence and confront terrorism (Foy 170–188), it also reflects on the Jewish identity as a national (Israeli) identity and the resulting dangers of particularism.

36Post-1967 Israel has turned into a divisive cause among Diaspora Jews, perhaps even more so in North America (Rosenthal 2001). The particularistic nature of the Israeli-Jewish identity contrasts, in effect, with the universalist weltanshauung of liberal American Jews. Avner and his group of Mossad agents are required to act for the benefit of their particular national collective. While giving a toast to their first mission’s success, Avner invites his partners to celebrate by quoting the story of Passover (Exodus) where the angels rejoiced over the drowning of Egyptians by God in the Red Sea [40:22–41:28]. However, this celebration is short-lived. By the end of the film, Avner, completely disillusioned by what he has done, forsakes his Israeli national identity for a life in the Jewish Diaspora. While Avner’s mother tells him the story of her family that perished in the Holocaust and their immigration to Israel afterwards where they built a home for the Jewish people [139:41–141:40], she tries to comfort him: “What you did, you did for us... Every one of the ones that died, they died wanting this. We had to take it because no one would ever give it to us. A place to be a Jew among Jews... Whatever it took, whatever it takes, we have a place on earth, at last.” Unmoved by his mother’s words, Avner moves to New York City, preferring a righteous diasporic condition to the sanctioned violence of the national community.

  • 15 An analysis of contemporary Zionism in America can be found in Theodore Sasson’s The New American Z (...)

37The boycott that Munich received in some sectors of the Jewish-American community highlights just how delicate the film’s sociopolitical themes remain. Spielberg’s reflection on the way a sovereign state should respond to the murderous acts of terrorist organizations, and his examination of “the principles of vengeance and retributive justice related to counterterrorism” (Foy 170–187) were received by many as a provocation because the film was seen as criticizing the Jewish State. In a way, the film supported the views of Jewish-American organizations like J-Street, The New Israel Fund and Open Hillel, which face ostracism from the Jewish establishment because of their critical stance towards the politics of the State of Israel. In particular, Zionism has become a politically heated issue among young American Jews,15 who know about Israel only through the liberal media lens of the Intifada, the Occupation and the tragedy of Gaza. The Jewish-American establishment’s total support of the State of Israel makes things even more complicated. Criticism of Zionism is not accepted in many quarters, which further alienates throngs of Jewish Americans who, if engaged with Israel, prefer to establish a critical and “interventionist” relation with the Jewish State that aims at influencing the reality of the ground (Sasson 173–195).

  • 16 Spielberg originally shot a scene with The World Trade Center erect [albeit flooded] in A.I. Artifi (...)

38If 1960s Hollywood-produced features, such as Exodus (Otto Preminger, 1960) and Cast a Giant Shadow (Melville Shavelson, 1966), reflected on the American (and Jewish) public support of Zionism, Munich opens a wider space for reflection about current Israel policies. The film thus pinpoints an unresolved element of Jewish-American identity. By ending the film with a shot of Ground Zero [154:00–156:30],16 Spielberg inserts the Israeli-Jewish story of pre-9/11 America within the present-day American narrative, which provides a conclusion that both countries—Israel and America—face similar threats. We are left to question the U.S. response to terrorism, and whether there exist commonalities between the American and Israeli counter-terrorist strategies.

39Moreover, Munich constructs a Jewish identity that both embraces and counters traditional Western cultural stereotypes, in an attempt to create “a model of pride for both Israeli and American Jews” (Loshitzky, “The Post-Holocaust Jew” 77–87). It proposes to question the reincarnation of the “Jew” as “Israeli” (in contrast to the traditional perception of the classic “other” of old Europe) by confronting him with the “Palestinian” (Loshitzky, “The Post-Holocaust Jew” 78). Perhaps this controversial subject matter and the filmmaker’s decision to provide more balance to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is a reaction to a post-9/11 America that spearheaded its war on terrorism. In one scene, a Mossad agent named Robert asks Avner, “What have we become?” and warns him of the dangers of sinking to the terrorists’ level [120:00-122:00]. The bomb-maker defends their Jewish identity by saying, “That’s what makes us Jewish,” and reminds him (and the audience) of their people’s terrible suffering before adding, “We don’t have to do wrong just because we were wronged.” The moral superiority of the Israeli Jew in Munich resurfaces throughout. In another scene, the Mossad team plans to execute Mahmoud Hamshari, the PLO representative in Paris, suspected of being involved in the murder of eleven Israeli athletes [50:00–53:00]. In his Paris apartment, the Palestinian’s young daughter answers a phone that is about to explode. Within seconds, the agents mercifully delay the explosion in order to save her life. The fact that she is wearing a red sweater establishes an analogy between the Palestinian and the Jew through the intertextual reference to the Jewish girl in Schindler’s List, who wears a colorful red coat in the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto. Avner thus comes to symbolize the film’s ambivalent sentiments vis-à-vis the supremely moral Israeli, who is out for vengeance yet wrestles with morality. After talking to his wife on the phone and hearing his daughter in the background, Avner bursts into tears as his body shakes uncontrollably [112:50–114:00], expressing the physical and moral tension that he fails to acknowledge in words.

40Eventually, Avner moves with his family to New York City and becomes a Jewish American, swapping his once stylish outfits for a pair of jeans. By dropping his national identity and renouncing his “Israeliness,” Avner can make peace with his actions and find some internal peace, as suggested by the sequence in which he peacefully tends his American urban backyard [152:24–152:41]. As a Jewish American, he can now subscribe fully to the universalistic ethos contained in the teachings of Judaism and thus accept that the mission he led was ultimately wrong. In this process, Avner doesn’t completely give up his religion’s particularistic impulse. After announcing to his former Mossad boss, Ephraim, that he will not return home to Israel, Avner invites the man to break bread with him and his family: “Come on, you are a Jew, you are a stranger... It’s written some place or another that I’m meant to ask you to break bread with me” [120:35:20–120:35:57]. Although Ephraim declines the offer, Avner reaffirms his Jewishness through this act of solidarity towards another Jew. As the two converse while standing across from Ground Zero (Fig. 4) [120:36:10–120:37], the image of the Twin Towers reminds the spectator of overseas conflicts, which inevitably beget a catastrophic violence that even Avner thought had only belonged in Israel.

Fig. 4 — Munich: Ephraim and Avner converse while standing across from Ground Zero.

Fig. 4 — Munich: Ephraim and Avner converse while standing across from Ground Zero.

41In the context of today’s globalization, wars between states are an anachronism; in their place—according to Mary Kaldor (2012)—we have new wars, a mixture of conventional warfare, organized crime and massive violations of human rights. These new wars are triggered by extreme forms of identity politics, thus making relevant the difficult choice between the particular and the universal that Avner had decided to avoid by moving to the U.S., and therefore foregoing the national side of his Jewish identity.


42Clearly, most of Spielberg’s work can be read at least in part as a reflection on the Jewish-American condition today. As the most commercially successful filmmaker in the world (Ansen and Kuflik 1993), Spielberg represents a bridge between the generation that immigrated to the U.S.—the majority still attached to the memory of the Holocaust and committed to the State of Israel—and the comfortable and well-assimilated Millennial whose Jewish identity has taken many forms. Between the particular and the universal, Spielberg sees the American identity as a vessel in which the Jewish identity can flourish. From the prophets of the Bible to the legislators in Capitol Hill, there is a continuity of values that makes America the Goldene Medina, a golden and promised land for all Jews. Spielberg’s films thus celebrate the partnership between America and the Jewish people as the basis of a democratic humanism that guarantees each citizen freedom and equal opportunity.

43At the end of An American Tail, the persecuted Jewish Fievel finds a land where his identity can be lived fully outside of his former Russian ghetto, while in communion with others. A story from the Holocaust recounts the cooperation between the Aryan Oskar Schindler and his Jewish laborers who create an alternative to the Nazis. Likewise, the Israeli, Avner, moves to America in order to be able to fully embrace the universal dimension contained in his Jewish identity. Finally, the redemption of the Jews in America opens the road to liberation for all persecuted people, including the African slaves in Amistad and the abused African-American women at the center of The Color Purple.

44In a speech given on May 26, 2016 at Harvard University, Spielberg declared:

I was wrong as a kid to think that anti-Semitism was fading. Over the last two years, nearly 20,000 Jews have left Europe to find higher ground. And earlier this year, I was at the Israeli embassy when President Obama stated the sad truth. He said, “We must confront the reality that around the world, anti-Semitism is on the rise. We cannot deny it.”17

45A world in which anti-Semitism is on the rise puts to the test Spielberg’s optimistic humanism. One of the director’s latest projects is The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (in pre-production), based on real historic events that took place in 1858. The film recounts the kidnapping of a Jewish-Italian boy who was secretly baptized by the family servant and forcibly taken from his family to be raised as a Christian in the Vatican. The story, like many of his films, exposes a great injustice, challenges the abuse of power and overtly relates an anti-Semitic story. This Jewish-Italian boy, Mortara, eventually becomes a priest and is heavily involved in the conversion of Jews, like Spielberg who explores the identity and richness of the contemporary Jewish experience even during these challenging times. Many of Spielberg’s films suggest that, when national, religious and ethnic identities are continuously renegotiated in the context of globalization, a certain beckoning is sounded universally, directed at both Jews and Gentiles, to consider the fundamental dignity of every human being in the world “chosen” to never give up seeking miracles in the face of tyranny.


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1 “After being asked why the many Jewish-American producers and directors before him had never made a movie about the Holocaust, Spielberg replied that “immigrant Jewish producers were having an identity struggle just wanting to become Americans. To make movies about the Holocaust would mean to draw attention to their ethnicity in a way that would impede assimilation”” (Flanzbaum 101).

2 “Christian universalism, even at its most liberal and benevolent, has been a powerful force for coercive discourses of sameness, denying, as we have seen, the rights of Jews, women, and others to retain their difference” (Boyarin and Jonathan 707).

3 On the occasion of Holocaust Memorial Day 2016, speaking at an event honoring Righteous Gentiles (event attended, among others, by Spielberg himself), U.S. president Barack Obama remarked that, in the face of anti-Semitism, “We are all Jews.” Accessed on March 13, 2016.

4 Accessed on March 13, 2016.

5 See Mehdi Achouche’s chapter in this volume.

6 The arduous fight for black civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s highlighted the obvious commonalities between these minority groups, molded their conceptions of themselves and each other, and fostered an effective alliance for social change. Marginalized as outsiders and stigmatized as pariahs—blacks because of their color and Jews because of their religion—these groups recognized a mutual, diasporic heritage permeated with discrimination and persecution at the hands of fearful, often hostile, white and Christian societies (Bernardi Kindle Edition).

7 On misuses of this formula (Wolf 479).

8 “Between half and three-quarters of the contributions to the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, and CORE [in the 1960s] came from Jewish givers. Similarly, more than half the white freedom riders were Jews, as were nearly two-thirds of the white participants in 1964’s Freedom Summer” (Dershowitz, Kindle Edition).

9 Kaminski and Spielberg prepared the film’s visual style by studying the paintings of Francisco Goya with photography steeped in sepia browns to represent the dark, somber mood of Cinque and his fellow slaves (Miller 209).

10 The brit milah is a Jewish religious male circumcision ceremony performed by a mohel (“circumciser”) on the eighth day of a male infant’s life and is a physical symbol of the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

11 On May 13, 1939, the S.S. St. Louis, which was part of the Hamburg-America Line, Hapag, departed Germany with almost 1,000 Jews on board. They were refused entry in Havana and Florida, but through negotiations small portions of the refugees were allowed to enter several European countries. In June, however, the Germans captured the ship and nearly half of the Jews on board perished in the camps.

12 “In several interviews he has described the Holocaust as an ongoing presence in his life and he has characterized the decision to make the film as addressing his desire to create something that would confirm my Judaism to myself and to my family” (Loshitzky, Spielberg’s Holocaust 169).

13 In a telling moment of the film, when Schindler goes to Amon Göth, the SS commander of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, to demand permission to take the Jews working for him to Moravia, he says: “I want my people” and the SS replies: “Who are you, Moses?” [139:39–140:53].

14 Spielberg founded the institute in 1994 to videotape and preserve interviews with survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. The Institute houses nearly 53,000 audio-visual testimonies conducted in 63 countries and in 41 languages.

15 An analysis of contemporary Zionism in America can be found in Theodore Sasson’s The New American Zionism.

16 Spielberg originally shot a scene with The World Trade Center erect [albeit flooded] in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which was released less than three months after 9/11. He left this scene in the film’s DVD release (which mirrors the last shot in Munich).

17 Steven Spielberg, in Harvard commencement speech, says anti-Semitism on the rise Accessed on July 3, 2016.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 — The Color Purple: Celie and Nettie reunited in the final shot.
Fichier image/jpeg, 130k
Titre Fig. 2 — Amistad: President John Quincy Adams gives Cinque an African violet in his greenhouse.
Fichier image/jpeg, 188k
Titre Fig. 3 — Schindler’s List: the Jerusalemite cemetery where Oskar Schindler is buried.
Fichier image/jpeg, 369k
Titre Fig. 4 — Munich: Ephraim and Avner converse while standing across from Ground Zero.
Fichier image/jpeg, 293k


The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Michael Lipiner is a Ph.D. student in film studies at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A native New Yorker, he created the ongoing film studies program at Bayside High School, in conjunction with St. John’s University in New York City where seniors could receive college credits. He is currently interested in film and American cultural studies, which he teaches, writes about and gives lectures in Israel on these subjects.

The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Rocco Giansante is a Ph.D. student in film studies at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Previously, he studied at Goldsmiths College (University of London) and at the University of Parma (Italy). His research interests include: the Portuguese Nouvelle Vague, Israeli cinema, post-political Italian cinema, Badiou and cinema, contemporary art live performances and sound studies. Giansante is also a filmmaker and lighting designer.

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