"Schindler's List" and Self-Control
What Spielberg’s classic can teach us about power, over ourselves and others, and self-control
There is a story in the Hebrew Scriptures that, while not believable as an account of real events (it turns out there are a few such stories in there), holds archetypal truths about the nature of control. The story goes like this:
In the time of King Solomon, two prostitutes came before the king, prostrating themselves and yet, despite their propriety, both visibly distraught. Through tears, the first woman begged the lord’s pardon and explained their dispute. “She,” the woman said with a terse gesture at the other woman, “and I live in the same house, where I recently gave birth to a child. A son. Three days later, this woman also bore a child, also a son. During this period, we were alone in the house.”
King Solomon gave a nod that seemed to indicate boredom but revealed to those watching closely that he was listening attentively, pressing the woman to continue her tale.
“One night, this woman rolled over on her child and killed him. Seeing what she had done and desirous to remain a mother, she took my son while I slept and put him by her own breast, placing her dead child next to mine. When I rose to nurse my son that morning, I was in agony to discover that he had died! But I looked at him closely in the light and saw, as any mother would of her own child, that this was not my boy.”
Here, the other woman spoke up, hissing at the first, “No! The living one is my son, and the dead one is yours!”
But the first one insisted, “No, the dead child is yours, and the living boy is mine!”
King Solomon raised a hand and silence fell. He summoned a guard with a sword, his decision made. “Slice the living child in two, so that each woman may take a half.”
The second woman sneered to the first, “Neither you nor I shall have the child,” and turning to the swordsman said, “Cleave him in two!”
The first woman’s heart raged with love for her son and fear for his life. “Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Do not kill him, she is his mother!”
King Solomon made his judgment, demanding the child be handed over to the first woman, the obviously true mother. The story traditionally ends with all of Israel learning of the verdict and praising the king for his awe-inspiring wisdom in administering justice. Evidently, it didn’t take much to impress them.
These unnamed women act as mere foils to each other to describe the character of Solomon. But there is much more to be gleaned from closer analysis of these women, whom we will name for the hell of it Sophrosyne (the first woman) and Apate (the second). A route to understanding the deeper significance of this tale of two mothers can be found in Spielberg’s Oscar winning classic, Schindler’s List. Let’s begin with the central preoccupation of both the movie’s protagonist and the opening section of the movie itself: Who is Oskar Schindler?
“Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but ... life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”
~ Gabriel García Márquez
We are introduced to Spielberg’s reluctant protagonist indirectly; we don’t see his face immediately, and we don’t learn his name until the end of the first major scene. At a fashionable German restaurant at the start of World War 2, our man discreetly pays an obliging maître d’ for a table, to which he is personally led, strolling with the casually entitled air of a confident man, attractive to the eyes of the young women sitting nearby. While his smile invites flirtation from one of the women, his eyes slip over to another table. His attention has skipped to a group of SS soldiers in full uniform – he is enticed by sex but captivated by power. It is the uniform of the Nazis that catches his attention, and he notes the insignias and symbols of rank and authority, just as a photographer captures them in the flashes of his camera. These are the symbols that others see, fear, and look up to, and it is what others see of a person that so interests our protagonist.
Now he spies the Reservé sign placed on an empty table that is soon occupied by two Nazis, one outranking the other, and a beautiful woman. This is where our central figure really begins his power play, the moment in which he reveals to us, the viewers, his true character through his attempt to portray his ideal character. He has a bottle sent to their table, a gesture that leads to the general sending his subordinate over to this stranger. Our man instantly charms the soldier into taking a seat at his table. This is his bait for the real prize, and the general bites, going over to find out why his soldier has changed tables. Our protagonist then uses the woman to solidify this union and keep the men where he wants them, charming her into joining his table as well. The general now has no choice but to remain with this new group.
Throughout all of this, his audience is continually asking variations of the same question. The maître d’ asks his waiter rhetorically, “Do you know who that man is?” When our man hands the waiter money to send drinks to the general’s table, he says, “You can say they are from me.” This vagueness verging on the tautological and its hint of self-importance calls to mind God’s answer to Moses about what to tell the Israelites: “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,” he says. “I am who I am.” This gesture of the drinks causes the general to send his subordinate to “find out who that man is”. Finally, at the end of the scene, a new SS general enters the restaurant and asks the waiter, “Who is that man?” Now we get an answer, now that our protagonist is in the role he created for himself, at the centre of attention, stood over the others, singing the loudest, the host of a lavish party: “That’s Oskar Schindler!”
Schindler has expertly manipulated the attention and perception of others to begin to create himself. Apate, our lying woman from the Biblical story, is engaged in this same kind of deception. She believes that if she can only convince the other woman, Sophrosyne, and the court of the king that this child is hers, then she will remain what she desires to be: a mother. This accounts for why she strives so hard to be deemed (by others) the mother of this child even though she knows he is not hers. This is a faith that Schindler shares, that the belief of others determines who a person is, rather than the reality of what they have done and will do. Not by their fruits shall we know them, but by the fruit that they convince us fell from their tree.
Later in the movie, Schindler’s estranged wife asks him, of the clothes and cars that he flaunts, “It’s not a charade, all this?” As we have seen, it does begin as a charade, a performance to convince others that he is a certain person until he actually becomes that person. As Schindler’s charade is that of successful tycoon, Apate’s is that of loving mother. In fairness, Sophrosyne is also concerned with presenting herself a certain way – as respectful of the king’s authority – but this is no charade. Her attempt is to convince others of who she truly is, not simply who she wishes to be.
Schindler makes his goals clear to his wife: “They won’t soon forget the name Schindler here, I can tell you that. Oskar Schindler, they’ll say, everybody remembers him. He did something extraordinary. He did something no one else did.” Schindler plans to be remembered as unique, and he intends to achieve this by controlling those around him. Just as his success depends on the three-hundred and fifty people in his factory who, he brags to his wife, are “making money – for me”, it depends too on him manipulating how others see him. He gives this away by voicing here what others will say of him, literally controlling their words in his speech. Apate also believes that if she can convince the king to pronounce her the mother, then that is what she will be. Like Schindler, she desires to control others in order to create herself.
“Instead of clearing his own heart the zealot tries to clear the world.”
~ Joseph Campbell
Just as Sophrosyne and Apate are brought together by a shared workplace, Schindler is introduced through the business of war to his comrade, antagonist, and philosophical foil: SS second lieutenant Amon Goeth. He is equally interested in the concept of self-creation and eager to assert himself in the world, though where Schindler uses charm, Goeth uses fear and tyranny. It is against Goeth’s struggle to achieve the identity he pretends to already have (authority with total impunity, the winning side in a zero-sum game of dominance and domination) that Schindler’s own journey progresses, against the stasis of Goeth’s inability to move beyond greed that Schindler changes and grows.
The men share a pivotal scene in which – Goeth stonkingly drunk, Schindler soberly sipping his drink – they discuss the nature of power. Goeth slurs, “You’re never drunk ... That’s real control.” Self-control is clearly a quality he admires; he believes it is a form of his most supreme value – power. Schindler asks, of the victims in the nearby concentration camp, “Is that why they fear us?” He is wondering if it is the Nazi’s control over the Jews that instigates their terror. Goeth smirks and says, “We have the fucking power to kill, that’s why they fear us.” Here Schindler corrects him – it is that they may kill “arbitrarily” that frightens the Jews. This capricious killing is a break in societal order; in normal conditions, to avoid death by the authorities, one must only obey the rules. In Nazi Germany, there are no rules a Jew can follow that will assure him of his life.
We see this form of “power” displayed by Apate when she defiantly and against reason affirms the king’s decree to have the baby cut in half. She is letting everyone know that she is not held accountable to good sense or ethics, that the king himself cannot cow her into confessing her lie. Like the Nazis usurping the conventions of a morally healthy society to grant themselves the right to indiscriminate murder, Apate is willing to entertain madness to retain a sense of power.
Schindler tells Goeth a story:
“A man stole something, he’s brought in before the emperor. He throws himself down on the floor, he begs for mercy. He knows he’s going to die ... and the emperor pardons him. This worthless man. He lets him go ... That’s power, Amon.”
This is an effort to temper Goeth’s vicious style of authority, to rewrite his self-image as “Amon the Good”, through a counter to his definition of power. The arbitrary nature is still there (it depends on subverting the expected norm, but rather than killing with no reason, it is mercy) but instead of control exerted over an external other, it is employed on oneself. Sophrosyne was able to summon this power of self-control when Apate was not; she acquiesced to Apate, relinquishing her son to the fraud for his own sake, so that he would live, despite the fact that she had every right to insist on her position as the child’s mother.
We see how this “Amon the Good” turns out only a few scenes later; his attempts at benevolence go only so far, before his innate fury and lack of self-control get the better of him. He succumbs to the worst angels of his nature and reverts to slaughtering arbitrarily. He has no authority over himself, so he seeks to soothe himself of that painful truth by asserting authority over others, a weak substitute. Apate is just as powerless against the control of her selfish desires, willing to sacrifice others to spare herself the pain of sacrificing something of herself. Sophrosyne, by contrast, has the strength, the power, to accept the burden of suffering for the benefit of another person. She will give her son up to this liar and be called a liar for his sake.
This was also the kind of person Schindler began his story as; while the Nazis at his impromptu party in the restaurant discuss, right before him, the suffering they gladly inflict on the Jews, Schindler quietly discusses the wine list with the maître d’, separate from the politics and pain around. To care about that would only make it harder to pursue his goals, which necessitated his complicity with the Nazi regime and exploitation of the situation that made Jews a cheap labour force for his factory. To empathise is to lose a part of oneself to another person. It is to invite weakness, which paradoxically requires great strength. This is a strength that Schindler must develop by the end of his journey.
“There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”
~ Carl Jung
Near the close of Schindler’s List, our hero comes to a crucial juncture in his journey. Familiarity with the conventions of (especially Hollywood) cinema lead us to expect a triumphant conclusion, complete with three cheers for the jolly-good-fellow and a victorious stroll into the sunset. Instead, we are confronted with an uncomfortable, emotionally raw scene of Schindler, now liable to be arrested for his Nazi party membership and war profiteering, breaking down over his failure to save more people, even just “one more person”. His newfound empathy and love for those he once exploited brings him literally to his knees, sobbing.
For a while after my first viewing of Schindler’s List, I mistakenly thought that this was the last time Schindler was seen on screen, and I wondered about this strangely sombre ending to his story. It seemed to lend itself to a nihilistic reading that suggests good deeds really never do go unpunished. Perhaps there was little motivation to put in the work to grow and learn self-control. And then I realised that this is only the last time our hero is seen alive. We see him right before the roll of the credits, standing over his own grave in representation of the true result of his story: the respected memory of a man who “did something extraordinary.”
Schindler’s breakdown, then, is not the end result of his journey but a necessary stop along the way. Here we find the final similarity between his story and that of the Biblical women. The sorrow of both Schindler and Sophrosyne precedes each of them getting what they had struggled for. There is no reward without suffering. This is why Catholic mysticism claims that a dark night of the soul must precede union with divinity; it is a narrative explanation for the death of Jesus on the cross before his ultimate victory; it is why Dante’s eventual ascent begins with a descent, why he must travel through Hades before rising to Paradise, and why he only attains deep understanding after having ventured into a “forest dark”. I’ll write it again, and do repeat it to yourself often, there is no reward without suffering.
“By suffering comes wisdom,” wrote Aeschylus, one of the great tragedians of ancient Greece. It is not, however, only after suffering in a sequential sense that reward arrives; it also comes as a direct result of it. For Sophrosyne, her suffering was not a side-effect of her story, it was part of the causal chain that led to its triumphant conclusion – it was her tears, after all, her evident sorrow at losing her son, that meant she kept him in the end.
In the final analysis, we can see that Goeth is Apate, in thrall to desire and enslaved by a lack of self-control, leading in the end to being left with nothing. Schindler, meanwhile, is Sophrosyne, both giving of themselves to save the other and suffering for it, but in the end rewarded – having earned – what they desired.
“And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”
~ Mark 3:25, KJV
“To thine own self be true,” Polonius advises in Hamlet, a statement that carries much more weight than New Age interpretations allow. The phrase has come to be an obviation of guilt for speaking one’s mind freely or behaving in ways others might judge poorly. It is now a token by which people can excuse self-serving behaviours undertaken without forethought; Shakespeare’s line in this case might be rendered as, “To thine own whims be subservient.”
There is a reading, however, that carries with it a responsibility: to weigh up our intended words and actions on the internal scale of self-identity and determine whether they are in accord with who we think it is best for us to be. It is commonly believed that if you think it, it must truly represent your deepest thoughts; if you feel it, it expresses your honest emotions. But what if the propensity for – brace yourself, here come unfashionable terms – good and evil reside in each of us? What if it’s possible to be a decent person today, a jerk tomorrow, and who knows what the day after that? Perhaps being true to thine own self means asking whether a proposed action lines up with the one of our many selves that we want to be the true self, the person we really are.
In her diary, the French-American writer Anaïs Nin wrote:
“The knowledge that we are responsible for our actions and attitudes does not need to be discouraging, because it also means that we are free ... One is not in bondage to the past, which has shaped our feelings, to race, inheritance, background. All this can be altered if we have the courage to examine how it formed us. We can alter the chemistry provided we have the courage to dissect the elements.”
This gift of self-determination requires skill; it requires we develop and practice an ability to select between traits, actions, and goals, and to enact those we deem positive and overcome those not in line with that. What this calls for is self-control. Given this power to write one’s own character and hold influence over one’s own narrative, the question comes up: Who should I try to be? To what end should I be aiming my efforts to mould myself?
My own answer to that would necessitate another entire essay, and I would rather leave you with the question, but if you insist, I will mention my distaste for the solipsistic manner of self-help, spiritual-and-vapid types who spend much of their time and considerable income on focusing solely on their own fulfilment, with their own happiness as the goal. Perhaps one final moment from Schindler’s List can indicate my thinking in brief. Near the end of the movie, Itzhak Stern presents to Schindler a ring on behalf of the Jews he worked to protect. Engraved on it is a phrase in Hebrew.
“From the Talmud,” Stern tells him. “It says, Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”
Thanks to my patrons:
I am grateful to everyone who has shown their support through Patreon, and an especially huge thank you to Hayley Whitehouse-Jones and to Max Smith. Patrons get early access to the essays, exclusive content, and are vital to keeping Art Of Conversation going. Click here to be part of the conversation at my Patreon.
• Schindler’s List, dir. Steven Spielberg (1993)
• 1 Kings 3:16
• Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)
• Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)
• Carl Jung, Contributions to Analytical Psychology (1928)
• Aeschylus, Agamemnon (5th century BC)
• Mark 3:25, KJV
• Shakespeare, Hamlet (1599)
• Anais Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934 (1966)