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Movies and empathy | Psychology Today Australia

Pulitzer-winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen’s scheduled lecture at 92NY in Manhattan was canceled due to his criticism of Israel. In defense of the principle of freedom of expression, other writers canceled their performances and several staff members resigned. Nguyen expressed disappointment over its cancellation, saying an important function of art is to open minds and hearts. Psychologists at the University of Toronto found support for this in their research on the relationship between a reader’s absorption in works of fiction and empathy.

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Because works of art, including films, can increase empathy, I ask: Which award-winning image is more likely to support one’s moral compass?Zone of interest (2023) or Schindler’s List (1993)? These two award-winning films explore the Holocaust in very different ways. Zone of interest focuses on the life of the command in a death camp as he and his family go about their cozy, domestic routines in the villa bordering Auschwitz. There are no images of beatings or dead bodies. The commander is a dutiful husband and father, while off-screen viewers hear gunshots and screams and see barbed wire on walls and smoke from crematorium chimneys. Director and writer Jonathan Glazer explains that the film is less about the Nazis than it is about us, “the thing inside us that drives everything, the capacity for violence that we all have.” The film is not about the victims of the Holocaust, but “about us and our similarity to the perpetrators.”

The film also makes it clear that turning away from evil makes us complicit in the murders. By not showing the horrors on the other side of the wall, Zone of interest implies that those who today or any other day ignore the suffering of others are as guilty as the camp commander. It is the silence that makes the film unnerving, the banality of evil. According to Glazer, “this is not a film about the past. It tries to be about now, about us and our similarity to the perpetrators, not about our similarity to the victims.”

unlike Zone of interest, Steven Spielberg Schindler’s List doesn’t shy away from depicting gruesome horror. Victims are ever-present, with heartbreaking scenes as the film focuses on Oskar Schindler, the non-Jewish industrialist who saved more than a thousand Jews from certain death by employing them in his factory. After this death in 1974, some of those he helped survive brought his remains to Israel for burial in the Catholic cemetery in Jerusalem. The inscription on his grave reads: “The unforgettable savior of 1,200 persecuted Jews.” A tree was planted in Schindler’s honor on the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem.

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Does either film bring us closer to better people? Some Holocaust scholars are skeptical, including Lawrence Langer. Langer says there was no redeeming moral lesson to be found in the Holocaust. The atrocities were unimaginable and beyond human comprehension, he says. Portrayals of resistance and rescue always fall short of the truth and therefore reject the terrible truth of the Holocaust. It is the testimony of survivors that should be listened to and taken seriously, without sentimentality or mythologization. Langer is even critical of Anne Frank. The Holocaust proved Frank wrong in her statement at the end of her diary, Langer said, when she wrote, “Despite everything, I still believe that people are truly good at heart.”

Langer and others’ rejection of finding redemptive messages in the Holocaust begins with the reality that people died for no reason. It was a senseless, brutal genocide. He emphasizes that we must see mass extermination for what it is and reject triumphant endings like those in the series Schindler’s List. Many people were trying to survive, Langer emphasizes. ‘They were resolute and fought fiercely. But they still died. Did they survive? Pure luck.’

Both films are important from an ethical point of view if we look at them broadly and not as history lessons. Zone of interest’S The director also claims this when he states that his film is not about the past, but about how even apparently good people can turn their backs on terror under the right circumstances. Whether the film’s conceit of placing the genocide off-screen works in driving home the banality of evil is debatable. But what is not is that those who have seen the film know the story of concentration camps and genocide, and that the film raises disturbing questions about complicity in evil.

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To the extent that, Zone of interest uses one stream of empathy, namely the cognitive dimension, namely ‘taking perspective or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’. morally succeeds when viewers put themselves in the place of the commander, then take the next step to examine what atrocities they, the viewers, have chosen not to see, not to hear, and not to stand against in their own lives.

While Langer and others may be right that depictions of the Holocaust obscure the unique dimensions of the Jewish genocide, Schindler’s List is successful in tapping into the other aspect of empathy, namely the affective dimension. The final scene of the film, where black and white turns to color and the real survivors of the death camp appear en masse at the top of a hill and walk to Jerusalem’s Catholic cemetery to place stones, the Jewish ritual of remembrance, on Schindler’s gravestone, it moves the audience to deep tears.

Furthermore, the film portrays Schindler as the flawed individual who nevertheless chose to save strangers, at great cost and risk to his life. Schindler is among those honored at Yad Vashem, one of those “who dared to defend humanity when evil prevailed all around them.” By focusing on this element of the Holocaust, we invite our students to be inspired by the best of human character.” Schindler was a hero and “Heroes enhance our sense of happiness and at the same time reveal our missing qualities,” write psychologist Elaine L. Kinsella and others. “Participants (in the studies) described heroes as ‘moral symbols to protect ordinary innocent people,’ ‘who provide moral goals for society,’ and that they ‘personify the things we cannot put into words.’ Our surveys clearly showed that some heroes were seen by participants as agents of social justice, striving to improve the situation of the disadvantaged.”

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One outcome of the film: Holocaust survivors approached the film’s director and said they had stories they wanted to tell. As a result, Steven Spielberg promised to include survivors’ testimonies. The Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation stores more than 52,000 testimonies, which in turn have been used as educational materials.

Both films can contribute to strengthening the moral sensibilities of viewers in different ways:Interesting zone through provoking uncomfortable introspection, and Schindler’s List by inspiring moral behavior through good example.