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The girl in the red coat is the most famous symbol in Schindler’s List, and has become one of the popular icons of Holocaust visual culture. But what is its meaning? According to director Steven Spielberg the red coat – the only color image in the film, apart from the Shabbat candles in the opening and the final scene at Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem – evokes the “red flag” the Jews waved at the Allied powers during World War II as a cry for help.

The red coat detail is described by Thomas Keneally in his novel Schindler’s Ark (the book on which the film is based). It comes from the true story of a little girl named Gittel who was well-known in the Kraków Ghetto and actually used to wear a red coat (she was killed in the liquidation of the ghetto on March 13th, 1943).

So, in the ghetto massacre sequence, this symbol stands for the innocence of the Jews murdered by the Nazis and directly speaks to Schindler’s conscience turning a war-profiteer into a hero. But how?

Few spectators noticed that the red coat turns into b/w when Schindler isn’t able to perceive the girl anymore (she escapes and hides under a bed).

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This is a turning point in the film and in its melodramatic structure. What we have here is the visualization of Oskar Schindler’s psychological process. The viewer of the film is asked to identify not only with Schindler’s gaze but with his sudden awareness that the gray, anonymous mass of people murdered by Nazis is composed in fact of innocent individuals. This affective personalization is the ultimate attempt to conceive the immensity of genocide in terms of individual human life, dismissing its abstract, unintelligible dimension. That’s why the child is visually set apart from the crowd through the red color. But this color only exists in Schindler’s gaze, in a sort of dreamish sequence.

The sequence that follows is figuratively linked to the ghetto massacre scene. Now we see Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) on the balcony of his house in Plaszow Camp randomly shooting at the prisoners. As in the ghetto sequence, the point-of-view shot invites the spectator’s identification with Goeth’s gaze. But the target of the shooting is now anonymous, almost abstract and stylized.

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A sort of routine is suggested here, the everydayness of evil and murder. But, what is most important, the sequence portrays dehumanization as a psychological process, through which moral inhibitions are removed and the enemy is perceived as less than human.

The red coat, as we have seen, stands for the exact opposite process.

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One Comment

  1. Reblogged this on Winter.


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