Mother Night vs Schindler’s List: Compare & Contrast
The context of Mother Night is very similar to that of the book and film Schindler’s List, not only for the obvious one in that they were both set in Nazi Germany during World War II but because the two main characters, Howard W. Campbell, Jr. and Oskar Schindler, faced similar moral dilemmas. Both stories relate to the story of the murder of Kitty Genovese in one important respect, in that all three deal with the issue of how people react to an evil that is happening to someone else. The big difference among the three stories is that the ‘character’ facing that question in the Kitty Genovese story is society as a whole, wherein Mother Night and Schindler’s List are individuals.
Howard Campbell in Mother Night is an American who spent much of his life in Germany, which is more of a home to him than his native United States. He embraces the German language, marries a German wife whom he loves very much, and when the war comes, does not think twice about siding with the government and people of his adopted country. He becomes a well-known broadcaster of Nazi propaganda, directing his message to his American countrymen.
Campbell faces a number of moral dilemmas. He is aware of the evils being done by the Nazis, but he also knows them as people, so to speak; having grown up in Germany, it is hard for him not to feel a part of them. His main concerns are for himself and his wife; they have each other, and that is really all that matters. From his perspective, his broadcasting is just a job, part of what makes it possible for him and his wife to have a nice life. He does not really judge the evil of the Nazis, and is mostly ambivalent towards it, even though by doing his broadcasts he is a part of it, which as the story progresses becomes more and more of an issue for him.
The appearance of the American secret agent who enlists Campbell to broadcast secret messages complicates his situation. He refuses at first; his point of view is that he is “just doing his job” and he does not have strong patriotic feelings towards what Germany is doing in the war, and he certainly has no sense of duty towards America – particularly when he is told that no one will really know he is helping the American side, and that his only reward will be protected from being executed by the Allies. He finally accepts the task for this one selfish reason, but because he is not even aware he is doing the job, only gives it a second thought when faced with trouble, such as when his wife’s younger sister jokingly teases that he’s “an American spy,” or when he is captured by the American soldiers at the end of the war.
As time passes, Campbell is forced to confront his complicity in the Nazi evil, and his “guardian angel” – the American secret agent – is not there to vouch for him and help him escape facing punishment for his part. By the time he does reveal himself, exonerating Campbell from the war crimes charges he faces in Israel, Campbell has already been forced to face his past actions squarely and judge himself for them.
The lesson in Mother Night is that wrong is still wrong regardless of the person committing the wrong is doing something right to compensate for it if there is no conviction behind the right act; Campbell, after all, only did what he did to help the Americans to save his own neck. The benefits of the ‘right’ activities are limited – Campbell’s “guardian angel” could keep him alive, but could not help him face the moral consequences of what he had done.
Oskar Schindler faced similar circumstances and moral choices as Howard Campbell. Schindler was a wealthy German industrialist who had no strong belief in the Nazi cause but was perfectly happy to do business with them for his own profit. He did this by using Jewish slave laborers in his factory. As he got to know them as people and as he came to understand the true nature of the Nazi program to exterminate the Jews, he decided it was wrong, and chose to use his influence to help save as many as he could; “Schindler’s List” was a long list of names of people he was able to exempt from being killed in the concentration camp because their labor was needed in his factory. But Schindler’s conviction was very real; at one point in the story, he instructs one of his works that the artillery shells they are making for the German army should be defective. Like Campbell, in the end, Schindler also suffers guilt for his own selfishness; not because he did not do the right thing, but because he feels he could have done more.
The story of the murder of Kitty Genovese is one of the people as a group not stopping an evil. Every one of the 37 people who witnessed or at least were aware of her murder did nothing to intervene, even to do something simple like calling the police, and each had their own selfish reasons for “not getting involved.”
The Kitty Genovese story, taken together with the stories of Howard Campbell and Oskar Schindler, there seems to be an overall lesson. When someone witnesses a wrong being committed against someone else, he has three choices he can make: he can take part in the wrong, which is what Howard Campbell did; he can act to stop the wrong, which is what Oskar Schindler did; or he can do nothing, which is what each of the people in the Kitty Genovese story did. While one’s own conscience is a very powerful judge, it is not always right. Howard Campbell felt so guilty about the past actions that he intended to commit suicide, and yet those who had been wronged – represented by the people in Israel – recognized he had done the right thing in the end, and set him free. Oskar Schindler felt guilty for not letting go of more of his wealth and self-interest to save the Jews, yet he was hailed as a hero and buried with honor in Israel. Their choices had a great effect on many more people than just themselves, so in a way, the judgment of their consciences was themselves a bit selfish. These stories teach us that one person can make a difference, and in its way, the story of Kitty Genovese does as well; if one person had made a choice to do something, she might have been saved. When no one makes the right choice, all of society suffers – if only one person had tried to stop Kitty Genovese’s attacker, or even called the police, the story would not have been “37 who did nothing” but “one who did something,” just like Howard Campbell and Oskar Schindler did, in their different ways.