Monday, September 7, 2009

Defining power in Schindler's list: A dharmic perspective.

Schindler's list is a 1993 movie about a German businessman Oscar Schindler who goes to Krakow to take advantage of people thrust into a Jewish ghetto. He first begins to use the Jews as laborers for his factories, taking advantage of the mandated lower salaries for Jewish laborers as compared to European ones. (The laborers themselves get nothing, salary is pocketed by the SS) But when he sees what they have to undergo under his fellow Germans, he is moved and sets to right his wrongs.



There is a conversation that he holds between a German SS officer Amon Goth in the second half of the movie over a round of drinks. Goth gets drunk easily while Schindler remains sober. The following ensues:

(Goth collapses while trying to sit in a chair.. )

Schindler: Why do you drink so much? Your liver is going to explode... like a hand grenade.

Goth: You know, when I look at you.. I watch you (gasping).. you're never drunk. Oh that's .. that's real control. Control is power.. that's power.

Schindler: Is that why they fear us?

Goth: (inaudible) We kill them that is why they fear us..

Schindler: They fear us because we have the power to kill arbitrarily. When a man commits a crime, we should know that if we haven't killed anybody, we feel good. When we kill him ourselves, we feel even better. That is not power though,.. that's justice. It's different than power. Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don't.

Goth: You think that's power?

(Schindler coming closer to Goth..)

Schindler: That's what the emperors had. When a man stole something, he's brought before the emperor. He throws himself on the ground and begs for mercy. He knows he's going to die. And the emperor pardons him. He's a worthless man, he lets him go.

Goth: I think you are drunk.

Schindler: That's power. That is power.


Dharmic Perspective: Two aspects of power are thus mentioned in the conversation. One aspect of power comes straight from the left brain (the logical brain). That is of control. Logically thinking, controlling a person's actions is power. And that control is maintained by a strict law and order, a top down enforcement of power. The pinnacle of the power pyramid controls the layer below it, that layer controls the succeeding layer and so on till at the bottom of the pyramid, the aam junta is controlled. The SS officer in the above conversation supports this view of power.

But, if we tweak the right brain a bit and be more creative with the interpretation of power, then there are other, more subtle, more humane and more effective ways of projecting power. That is shown in the example given by Oscar Schindler. An emperor of a kingdom has all the military might and executive control that he can have. He can execute a criminal if he wishes to. But, if the criminal has realized his blunder, and if the king releases him, there is hope that the criminal can improve. A life is saved thus, and life is precious. This is also a type of control, but of an indirect kind, which coerces the people to improve themselves rather than they being directed to from above.

This is a rare dharmic perspective that is hardly found in movies these days. Hats off to Steven Spielberg.

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