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A fictionalised biography that doesn't quite work
on 31 May 2008
I don't know how best to represent the Holocaust in popular culture. There is no doubt that the story of Oskar Schindler is a compelling one and Stephen Speilberg did very well with his sincere, though unmistakably Hollywood, take on the subject. I had been looking forward to reading the original `novel' by Thomas Keneally but this really wasn't what I expected. The author had set himself a mighty challenge by converting a true story into a fictional narrative, but I'm afraid it didn't quite work.
Oskar Schindler, a flamboyant, womanising, Sudeten-German businessman and enthusiastic member of the Nazi party, arrives in Cracow with a view to making himself a fortune using cheap Jewish labour. Disillusioned within a very short time by the behaviour of the occupying forces and utterly horrified by the treatment of the Jews he then sets about expanding and protecting his workforce from the excesses with a fidelity woefully lacking in his treatment of his wife. At great personal risk - he was arrested three times - he uses his undoubted charm and charisma, his considerable physical presence and courage, extraordinary, almost comical, bravado, palm-greasing, alcohol, endless gifts and bribes, and eventually his whole fortune to save those who became known as the Schindlerjuden - Schindler's Jews. His true motivation is never clear but there is little doubt that his natural rebellious streak, his love of hoodwinking the system and ridiculing the authorities played a considerable role. It is a story of horror, heartbreak and hope.
So why didn't the book work? With its endless testimonies, quotes and anecdotes, it read as a dispassionate populist biography on the one hand, but on the other - because it had been fictionalised - the characters lacked psychological depth and seemed fictional. So it wasn't quite up to scratch in either category. It seems that Thomas Keneally did not have the literary skills to pull this off, though it was an extraordinarily difficult task and he should be praised for the attempt. As a literary-minded person I feel my hands trembling as I write `the film is better than the book.' That said, I feel that is definitely worth reading.