Perhaps I should be shot, but I think four minutes of "Springtime for Hitler" is a more ingenious and powerful argument against anti-Semitism than four hours of "Shoah."
Many Jews attribute the resilience of their culture to a capacity for laughter in the face of catastrophe. As Saul Bellow said, "Oppressed people tend to be witty." Pogroms didn't start with Hitler; by the time the Spanish Inquisition burned a hundred thousand Jews, the story of Jewish oppression already could fill many volumes. Many peoples once multitudinous have perished from the earth: there are no Carthaginians left. There are no more Thracians to speak of. The Celts live only in musical traditions and some old literature, having been subsumed by their conquerors. Their gods are dead, and their languages, or nearly so. But the Jews thrive on. Something kept hope alive under Stalin, under Isabella, under the Caesars. A sense of humor is a great virtue, not to be undervalued.
But in order to make sure I appreciate the horror of the events portrayed, this movie cheats me of a glimpse at real life. The situations don't live as they might, because all the time I'm being flogged with message. There is no even partially redeemable Nazi in this movie, and Schindler's own late-stage change of heart is presented with such suddenness that the movie veers into melodrama. And even melodrama need not be propaganda; Minnelli and Ray always left us with choices. But "Schindler" must be classified as propaganda because it lacks the truth of even gallows humor, which by many reports existed in great abundance in the ghettos and even in the death camps.
The films of Bunuel and Altman are often political but rarely propagandist. The films of Michael Bay and Marcus Nispel are always propagandist and not always political, though they are of course always bad. So propaganda need not be political, and politics need not be propaganda. This shouldn't need saying, but in the modern age of American politics, it's worth remembering. I wish Steven Spielberg remembered it.
One can define propaganda objectively as a sort of forced perspective, a narrow range of potential reactions for the viewer. Propaganda is the use of art to persuade. It turns art into an expository essay. Propaganda is therefore by definition a limited form, limited by its very agenda. The tools of propaganda become less necessary the more inherently obvious the subject matter; the mass extermination of a people would seem to me to fit this category. So I think the style of this movie is unfortunately maudlin, an overkill on the negative. I am not heartless; I hate hate as much as anybody, and I celebrate Jews and all humans as valuable and not for burning. But is there no other way to express a political point than to make me cry for three hours?
The fact is that film as a medium lends itself to propaganda. There is a decision made about every angle; literally, the perspective is chosen for the viewer. This is not the case with other arts, with musical performance, acting, writing, sculpture; but the more visual the medium, the greater its tendency to make statements and the less its potential for ambiguity. It takes a lot of skill to manage a visual art form into something with real depth, into a question rather than an answer.
You can make propaganda about love, like "Love Story" or "English Patient"; you can make propaganda out of character, like "Patton" or "Lawrence of Arabia." The easiest and most common sorts of propaganda are flag-waving and hate-mongering - what's found in state of the union addresses and election campaign ads. At its best, propaganda can remind us of our values, of our responsibilities, of our mythologies and potentials; and so it can be a great good. At its worst, propaganda may contain any of the faults of any medium - it may be bland, dull, predictable. When it is these things, it is not very persuasive, and so it fails at its main intent.
In this light, "Schindler's List" is maybe the second-best type of propaganda. It has real emotion, a compelling story, myriad technical virtues; it leaves me with no choice but to agree with it, but of course I agree with it already insofar as genocide is not a force for good. The movie moves me to an extent. But it lacks comedy, the propagandist's most effective tool; and so when it pretends to explore a range of humanity, it tells a half-truth.
Liam Neeson plays an excellent cad, and Ralph Fiennes' raptor beak was never used to more terrifying effect. (It is among the many faults of the "Harry Potter" movies that they cut off his nose.) But I prefer "The Pianist" as a portrait of Nazi-occupied Poland. Aside from possessing greater artistic powers than Spielberg, Roman Polanski has an immensely deeper capacity for human truth. He does not preach, and he is not strident, and he is not sentimental. And he allows Adrien Brody to make me laugh occasionally, not as often as he makes me cry but sometimes. Shakespeare's trick of contrasting tragedy with comedy is not simply effective storytelling; it is a view to a more realized universe. "Jaws" has it. "E.T." has it. But Spielberg apparently felt that to be funny about the Holocaust would be in bad taste.
As far as propagandist filmmakers go, I'll take Charlie Chaplin or Paul Verhoeven. They are at least funny; the pill of "Great Dictator" or "Starship Troopers" goes down more easily, more persuasively, therefore more effectively, than the pill of "Schindler" or "Private Ryan."