Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Steven Zaillian; based on Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally
Cinematographer: Janusz Kamiński
Producer: Steven Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen, and Branko Lustig
by Jon Cvack
During a Hollywood Reporter director’s roundtable, Michael Heineke criticized Spielberg for making entertainment out of the holocaust. It’s an understandable statement from the beginning and speaks to a grander question about storytelling ethics. What is the proper way to capture and immerse viewers into a tragic piece of history? Given Haneke’s style, I imagine he’d prefer a long, locked off camera where we are meant to watch the footage take place in the most subjective method possible. If so, it begs the question as to what makes one particular style of editing, plot, performance, photography, music, and set design more respectful than another.
On Siskel and Ebert, Ebert mentions that the film has done surprisingly well at the box office, given how dreary the subject matter is, going on to say, “...when people say they don’t want to see a depressing film, what they’re really saying is that they don’t want to see a film that’s going to depress them by being bad. Because no good film is depressing. It can be about depressing subject matter, but the artistry, and the vision, and the ending of this film is exhilarating.”
Schindler’s List is one of the great pieces of cinema ever created. It is craft of the highest order, providing a film that both spotlights and immerses the viewer within an experience. Writing this a week later, I still can’t think of a comparable film that has taken such a morbid and tragic history and placed it within an engaging story. Spielberg immerses within the world and all its horrifying and endearing moments; providing that classic unmatched touch in giving hope no matter the despair. We care about everything on the screen; both engaged and frightened.
This is the type of film that I often put off writing about, simply for how much there is to dissect and how it essentially demands a shot by shot discussion. At three hours and fifteen minutes, literally every single scene is a work of art. The opening scene involves the Nazi clerks lining up the tables, complete with notebooks, pens, ink pads, and rubber stamps. They’re there to check the German Jews into the Krakow Ghetto; the Jews only able to take what they can fit in a suitcase and then crammed into tiny apartments.
Oscar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is then introduced in a fancy nightclub. In a brilliant sequence, we see him buy a bottle of booze for some Nazi soldiers. Soon Oscar has a long table full of beautiful girls and Nazi soldiers, getting his picture taken with them all and introducing himself as a manufacturer. We learn that he’s in search of lucrative government contracts that could make him rich. Issue being that he doesn’t have the investors to construct the plant.
In the Krakow ghetto, there is no money, opening up a competitive black trade market for goods. In temple, one man has a nice shirt and the others wonder how he got it; what he had to trade simply for a nice shirt, and where they could get one. It’s an interesting nugget of humanity - where even within a cordoned off area, some still search for the material goods that can make them feel better individually at best, or better than others, at worst. After playing hardball by exploiting their situation, Schindler soon finds his investors and recruits the help of Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to run his business which will use the Jews as minimally paid - and soon slave - laborers.
The subtext of Oscar offers one cinema’s most fascinating characters. Was it always his intention to help the Jewish people? Did he know what their ultimate fate could be from the beginning, or was he actually out to make money? If the latter, how aware was he of committing a grotesque exploitation? Later, when his wife visits, he explains how he had always been a failure at his endeavors, making the initial model seem all the more wretched. He didn’t succeed at regular business, so he exploited the Jews for his own personal benefit. Then again, he came around and saved nearly a thousand. Does this make it worth it? Given the ending, Spielberg seems to say yes in that redemption, no matter the path, is a good thing.
Soon the Nazis round up the Krakow Jews in the film’s most terrifying sequence. They break into the apartments, telling the Jews to drop everything. Some take the little they can fit in their pockets. One family sticks their family diamonds into small pieces of bread and forces everyone to eat them down, including the children. We watch as people hide in the floors and closets.
Since I was a kid I found the idea terrifying. Of a government who’s supposed to protect its citizens coming by to round you up without explanation. To leave everything, board a truck or train, and be whisked away without any hope for justice; the sound of the boots striking the ground and whistles blowing, knowing the alternative is to live underground.
The city clears out and the Jews board the trains to the concentration camp. In one scene, one of the Jewish cops, a small boy not much older than five, searches the house for Jews who hid away, finding the mom and then realizing he knew the woman. The daughter then comes out and we realize she’s friends with the boy. He hides them in the basement level and distracts the approaching Nazis to prevent them from getting caught and the whole thing is so bizarre and complex that this scene alone is better than most short films. It’s a mixture of betrayal, redemption, guilt, and thrills all within a brief three to five minute span.
Even still, a few moments later, Spielberg cuts back to the same alley outside the house where a man escapes from the same building; thinking he’s free until he hears the Nazi troops closing in on his position. With the alley filled with luggage dumped from the windows, the man pretends to clean the bags. A band of Nazis led by Amom (Ralph Fiennes) stops him, asking what he’s doing and the man says he was ordered to clean the alley; clapping his heels together like a soldier. The men then laugh and continue on, calling him a good Nazi. It provides a paradoxical situation in which on the one hand we’re happy the man’s ruse went well, and yet grasp just how dark Amom’s heart is in figuring that the man was just being used as free labor to inevitably be shipped off any way; allowing the man to be exploited at every opportunity.
It’s during the evacuation that we get the iconic image of the girl in the red jacket. Oskar and one of his girlfriends ride up into the hillside where they watch the Nazis round up the ghetto and kill countless Jews in the process. There’s a peculiar throwback to the Temple of Doom where one of the Nazis lines up about half a dozen Jews and shoots them through the stomach, killing all but the last two who they then shoot in the head. While seeming a bit offensive, you then realize it was Spielberg’s way of showing the horror. Unlike Indiana Jones (1981), it is not at all funny. It is not shot with a goofy wide lens, low to the ground, but a long telephoto up in the hills looking down, as though watching like a camera. It feels absolutely real.
The Jews are moved to the Płaszów concentration camp where they’re stripped naked and put in prison garbs, ordered to build their own barracks. As Amom checks the work, one Jewish girl comes up to him, demanding they stop construction as the entire building is at risk of collapsing. Amom wonders why they should listen to her. She explains that she’s an engineer and Amom orders them to shoot her dead. They do and he leads them off, ordering them to tear down the structure and make the changes she suggested. It’s a taste of pure evil. It’s not done in the name of some law or moral code. It is absolute hate. It is us watching another human think another human isn’t human; whose life is expendable. It is the most evil character in cinematic history.
There’s no clear moment Oscar decides to save the Jews. The closest we get is when Itzhak is accidentally thrown aboard the train; requiring Oscar to demand his release to every soldier he sees, each who shrugs him off with a grin before Oscar drops his political credentials and they do everything in their power to find Itzhak on the now moving train.
Up to this point, there is only Oscar the greedy capitalist; a man who refuses to talk to his workers, who while at first appearing anti-semitic, is actually concerned for their fate. Sure enough when a one armed man visits him to thank Oscar for the job, as mad as he is at Itzhak for hiring a handicap worker, it’s also one of the first moments of pure gratitude. Each of these moments add up to where there is no need for some grand epiphany. Like any piece of enlightenment, it is an assembly of moments that finally shifts his mind; realize that he could use his riches to save, or at least put off the slaughter of hundreds of Jews.
When the ghetto is cleared and Oscar loses his workers, he takes up matters with Amom who he schmoozes and bribes and the two soon form a genuine friendship. Amom gives back Schindler the Jews he lost to the camps and Schindler provides Amom jewelry, rare liquors, and women.
Things intensify as Hitler passes on orders to exterminate the camps and in a horrifying sequence we watch as mothers are separated from their children who have no idea what’s going on, driven off as the rest are systematically executed; their dead bodies rounded to be buried in mass graves or burned in towering piles. We soon see the girl in the red jacket dead and carried in a wheelbarrow to be tossed into the fire. It is one of cinema’s most horrific sequences, in which Spielberg creates images that have burned into my mind since first seeing the film back in junior high.
Word comes down that Oscar’s factory will no longer have an exemption. Oscar is to take the hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and leave, now the wealthy man he always wanted to be. About the leave, Oscar and Itzhak share a final drink where Oscar tries to convince himself he accomplished his initial intention, knowing that Itzhak’s fate is death.
Oscar opts to sell all he acquired in order to bribe Amom and the other Nazis to buy back his Jewish workers and create a munitions factory. Counter to pots and pans, Oscar refuses to create a single functional piece of ammunition, using all his capital to create Germany’s worst arms factory.
The night before the Allies reach the factory, Oscar packs his car. A few of the workers got each other drunk in order to pull out their fillings and forge Oscar a ring which he accepts, emotional that he didn’t give up his few other goods to save a couple more Jews. His watch could have been one. His car two. And it’s the truth that tugs so hard at our hearts. He had saved over a thousand Jews, but even still held onto just a few items that ultimately cost the lives of others.
The workers smother him with hugs and forgiveness, and share their gratitude for all that he’s done. He drives off and the Allies arrive the next morning, freeing the workers who walk off, unsure of where they’re going, but simply wandering on, as the nightmare seems to be over (at the time).
It is said that this film is what brought the Jewish holocaust into the mainstream. It started a conversation and showed the audience a piece of history that had otherwise been unknown to most. To call it a cautionary tale fails to grasp the utter horror it captures. Schindler’s List shows the profound evil humanity is capable of. Not just to lead the execution or to indirectly participate, but to sit idly by and allow people with such hate to rise to power and destroy others.
Currently, what appears to be a genocide is taking place in Myanmar against the Muslim people. People say never again, but it seems just something to make themselves feel better. Today there are more people in concentration camps than ever before, having their humanity stripped away and the world is doing nothing about it. They have forgotten.
Schindler’s List portrays how far humanity is willing to go if their hate is strong enough. Whatever Oscar achieved doesn’t in any way outshine the fact that six million Jewish people died because a system and its people hated them enough.
As of this writing, there are still children in cages in the United States with the most basic of hygienic products; deprived in order to dissuade other migrants. Hundreds of scholars have declared them to meet the definition of concentration camps. To think that nearly a third of the country disagrees and is fine with keeping people in cages with insufficient hygienic or medical treatment just goes to show how easy it is to convince the masses that other humans are deserving of such abject treatment. I rather be on the side of precaution; at least ensuring that we don’t strip children from their parents, provide ample blankets, soap, and toothpaste; and that everyone receives proper medical attention. It seems best to play things safe when it comes to rounding people up, putting them in cages and treating them like subhumans. Then again, think of how many agree and do nothing. How many of us, even people generally well informed, know nothing about what is going on in these prisons? It is not the holocaust, but just goes to show how easy it is for the pieces to assemble once again. And all we’re left with is hoping it doesn’t end with the same result. It is an incredible piece of ironic humanity that we could be enlightened about this event, observe the terror and the trajectory, and do absolutely nothing within our own borders. With some even going so far as to defend it.
BELOW: No one has yet come close to matching Spielberg's use of showing information
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