Oh No, Russia’s New Olympic Darling Skates to the Theme From Schindler’s List

A Blog About the Olympic Games
Feb. 8 2014 4:43 PM

Oh No, Russia’s New Olympic Darling Skates to the Theme From Schindler’s List

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Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia performs in the women's figure skating team short program during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics on Feb. 8, 2014.

Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

The star of Saturday’s team figure skating session was undoubtedly Julia Lipnitskaia, a young Russian who thrilled the crowd with her short program. “The diminutive 15-year-old Russian figure skater positioned herself to become the darling of the Sochi Games,” wrote Kevin Kaduk at Yahoo’s Olympics blog. “This Russian Teen Prodigy’s Figure Skating Performance Was Freakin’ Incredible,” blared the headline of a BuzzFeed article praising Lipnitskaia for a “beautiful and nearly perfect routine that left us speechless.” NBC commentator Johnny Weir called Lipnitskaia “a wild hybrid of Sasha Cohen and Tara Lipinski,” whatever that means. And Lipinski herself—also an NBC commentator—said that Lipnitskaia had a great shot at the gold medal.

Well, I can’t wait to see what Weir and Lipinski say about Lipnitskaia once the women’s individual competition starts. According to the New York Times, the Russian teenager’s "signature piece"—one she'll likely perform in the Olympic long program—is set to John Williams' theme from Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Holocaust drama Schindler’s List. But that's not all: The routine features Lipnitskaia skating as the film’s iconic “girl in the red coat,” a young Polish Jew who is killed by Nazi soldiers.

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I think I speak for all of us when I say, “Finally, someone has adapted the saddest scene from a Holocaust movie into an acrobatic figure-skating routine.” No? Just me? No one else?

In case you haven’t seen Schindler’s List for a while, it tells the story of a German industrialist who, by employing Jews in his factories, saved them from near-certain death at the hands of the Nazis. In the movie, the “girl in the red coat”—a rare splash of color in the black-and-white movie—is first seen during the violent liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow. Later, Oskar Schindler finds the girl’s dead body, and, stricken by guilt and remorse, decides to take action.

Here’s a clip of the girl’s first appearance in the movie:

And here’s Lipnitskaia’s “red coat” routine, from the 2014 European Figure Skating Championships:

Surprisingly, there’s a long history of high-level figure skaters incorporating Schindler’s List motifs into their routines. From Katarina Witt to Irina Slutskaya to Johnny Weir himself, lots of great skaters have performed routines set to the Schindler’s List theme. These programs aren’t always well-received. As a recent post on the figure-skating blog Morozombie put it, it’s perhaps best to be “wary of attempts to portray the evils of the Holocaust and the suffering of the Jewish people on ice.”

And yet, skaters keep on skating to Schindler’s List. Why does something that seems so vulgar strike the figure-skating community as the best idea ever? Where’s the disconnect?

Figure skating does not prize subtlety. Young women slather on makeup, load up on sequins, and plaster on huge smiles to win high marks from the judges. Their musical selections, too, do not emphasize restraint. As that post on the Morozombie blog notes, a Schindler's List theme represents “a convenient opportunity to use dress up in sombre colors, use various overwrought dramatic contrivances and make overly melodramatic and agonized faces.” When skaters play sad, they play really sad.

Of course, Spielberg’s use of the girl in the red coat has itself been criticized as mawkish—one of the Spielberg film’s “overly sentimental tropes,” in the words of Entertainment Weekly. Schindler's List on Ice makes sense, then, in a perverse way: It’s the marriage of a sport that demands hyper-emotionalism and a film that delivers it more than any other in modern times.

In the end, it comes down to execution. Lipnitskaia’s Schindler’s List program— choreographed by Ilia Averbukh, a former Olympic ice dancing medalist who is himself a Russian Jew—is better than most. The Morozombie blog noted that “when she skates as the little girl in the red coat in Schindler's List, Miss Lipnitskaia's flaws become virtues that just work,” while USA Today called Lipnitskaia’s routine “spectacular but respectful.” The 15-year-old Russian skater is so beautiful and graceful on the ice, she ends up transcending material that she probably has no right using in the first place.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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