Monday, February 7, 2011

The Seinfeld-Spielberg-Schindler's List Connection

You were making out during Schindler’s List?”
Mrs. Seinfeld, The Raincoats-Part II, Season 5, Episode 83

Being the Seinfeld-enthusiast that I am, I’m often hard-pressed to get through any significant span of time without relating something that happens in my life to an episode of Seinfeld.  Oddly enough, my visit to the Oskar Schindler Enamel Factory in Krakow on Friday proved no exception. 

Of course most people know the film Schindler’s List, which recounts the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jews during the Holocaust by employing them as forced laborers in his factories, including the Emalia enamelware factory situated in Krakow’s Podgorze district, which became the site of Krakow's Jewish Ghetto in March 1941. 

More than 15,000 members of Krakow’s Jewish population were forced to live within the Ghetto's walls, including a young Roman Polanski, who described his feelings at the time in a handwritten note now on display in the museum:

"I suddenly realized that we were to be walled in.  I got so scared that I eventually burst into tears."
Roman Polanski, age 8

The eventual liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto took place in March 1943 and was supervised in part by SS-officer Amon Göth, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the film.  Those who could still work were sent to the nearby Plaszow forced labor camp, while the others, including children, the sick, and the elderly, were carted off to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.  Many were murdered on the spot in the Ghetto's Zgody Plaza.

Nazi Terror exhibition with
 floor-tile swastikas
As with many real people and places touched by Hollywood, the 1993 release of Schindler’s List generated further interest in the original Schindler factory.  At the time of filming, the factory was in use as an electronics component plant; later it was opened to visitors seeking to catch a glimpse of Schindler’s office, and the famous interior stairway featured in the film.  In 2007 the factory was closed for a three-year, multi-million dollar renovation; it reopened last year with a permanent exhibition entitled Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945.  

View of the Plaszow Concentration Camp replica exhibit
As one might expect from a museum that depicts in graphic, painstaking detail the very worst of what humanity has to offer, the experience is a heavy one that wrenches the heart from start to finish.  Of course some rays of light shine throughout, like the several video testimonials of surviving, Schindler Jews, and other stories of “righteous” Cracovians who risked their lives to save others.  But overall, it’s hard to imagine anyone exiting the place without feelings of intense melancholy in tow.

So you can imagine my reaction when, down one of the exhibit halls, I encountered two teenagers standing close together with their arms around each other in what looked to be a romantic embrace.  At first I tried to extend the benefit of the doubt, thinking perhaps they were consoling each other over the sheer madness and incomprehensibility of it all.  But then, just as I was passing by, they started sucking face.  At that moment, the voice of Jerry Seinfeld’s television mother popped into my head, questioning these two kids in that now-famous, incredulous tone: 

You’re making out at the Schindler factory?”

You may recall the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and his girlfriend, Rachel, go to see Schindler's List and, finally alone and away from Jerry’s visiting parents, proceed to make out through the entire film.  Unbeknownst to Jerry, Newman is seated in the back of the cinema and witnesses the whole, objectionable display.  Newman wastes no time in telling Jerry’s parents, Helen and Morty, who later confront Jerry upon his return home:

Helen:  How could you?
Jerry:  How could I what?
Helen:  You were making out during Schindler’s List
Jerry:  What?  No.
Morty:  Don’t lie, Jerry.
Jerry: (turns, grimacing):  Newman.
Helen:  How could you do such a thing?
Jerry:  I couldn't help it. We hadn't been alone together in a long time and we just kinda started up a little during the coming attractions and the next thing we knew, the war was over.

Rachel’s father also learns of the inappropriate make-out session (from none other than Newman, his postman) and thereafter forbids Jerry—“someone of such weak, moral fiber”—from seeing his daughter again. 

Perhaps I'm being too judgmental, but I think two lovebirds stealing kisses in the middle of what can be described as a Holocaust-remembrance museum rises to same level of absurdity as the Seinfeld-Schindler’s List story line.  And trust me when I tell you, the Schindler Factory museum is simply one of the last places you’d think you’d have to advise people to get a room.

Schindler's List movie memorabilia displayed
in the museum's "Film Cafe"
I finished touring the museum and returned to the hostel with a renewed interest in everything Schindler’s List.  I thought it would be interesting to watch the film once more while in Krakow, so I searched the internet for a legal way to get my hands on it.   Unfortunately I couldn’t find a place to purchase or rent it online (as Netflix and similar sites don’t stream in these parts), so I relied on various online articles and short snippets to refresh my recollection.  That’s when I ran across an interesting Seinfeld-Spielberg-Schindler’s List connection heretofore not known to me.

I read that—considering the subject matter—the making of Schindler’s List was understandably difficult for members of the cast and crew.  Spielberg himself purportedly said that he “cried all the time” during filming; in fact, there was little humor on the set for obvious reasons.  So, to temper the depressive feelings engendered by the reenactment of tragic events, Spielberg reportedly had episodes of Seinfeld delivered to his hotel for viewing after long, arduous days of shooting.  In later interviews, both Jerry Seinfeld and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine) discussed the connection between Spielberg’s viewing of Seinfeld during the filming and The Raincoats-Schindler’s List episode, which aired the next season.

Of course for days now I’ve been wishing that I had packed some of my own Seinfeld DVDs, particularly as I prepare to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau later this week.  But then today, reflecting upon the two Auschwitz-survivor memoirs I’ve read since my arrival in Krakow, I realized how patently absurd my own thinking has been.  Here I am about to visit a place where the most horrifying deprivations in the history of humankind took place, and I’m lamenting the fact that I won’t have the comfort of Jerry-George-Kramer-and-Elaine to get me through the witnessing of its historical reminders.

Yes, that perspective sure is a slippery little sucker, but I think I’ve got a grasp on it now.