#43 Schindler’s List
(1993, Steven Spielberg)
“The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf”
So we’re back on the Holocaust. Yes, once again we have a dramatized version of a true story from World War II concerning the treatment of Jews. First we looked at The Pianist, but before that, there was this.
This is the story from the other side of the fence. Not from the perspective of one of the many Jews caught up in the oppression, but from the perspective of one that helped them. This is the tale of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who ended up saving the lives of 1,000+ Jews during the war. Initially exploiting the cheap slave labour the ghetto Jews provided, Schindler later witnesses the atrocities committed by the Nazis and realises that he can help save them by making them workers in his factory. And eventually he produces a list of Jews he wishes to “buy” from the Nazis, a list that saves the lives of everyone on it.
Heralded as a masterpiece on release, Schindler’s List is a truly personal work for Spielberg, and one that apparently he found difficult to make emotionally. It definitely shows, as the stripped-down black and white documentary style it’s filmed in is completely different to films Spielberg is usually known for. This style helps remind us that what we’re witnessing actually happened. Maybe they were altered for narrative effect, but the people and places existed, as did the overarching story.
Did the film deserve its accolades? Of course. Spielberg’s personal interest in the subject means that it’s handled in a very delicate way, not sensationalised for Hollywood’s benefit. What’s more, scenes are often set using simple title cards over very realistic establishing shots, reminding us that we’re not here to be entertained; we’re here to learn and understand what happened.
The performances are fantastic. Liam Neeson as Schindler is brilliant, walking the line between a greedy opportunist and charitable humanitarian perfectly. Ben Kingsley is superb as Schindler’s Jewish secretary and assistant. Ralph Fiennes as German officer Goeth is good, although his accent is sometimes questionable and his acting does slip almost into Bond Villain Mode from time to time.
However, Spielberg’s personal interest in the project means that there are some issues with Schindler’s List. Far too often the movie feels like it’s forcing an emotional reaction out of its audience. While the Holocaust was a genuinely depressing period of history and the millions of people who died in it should be mourned appropriately, there are moments where the film is almost demanding the audience to be sad about it, rather than just showing us the events and letting our reaction be entirely natural. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the closing scenes, where a roundup of the surviving Schindlerjuden (“Schindler’s Jews”) and their actors/family members pay tribute to the real Schindler’s grave, a scene that clearly was meant to be heartfelt but ultimately came off as mawkish and unnecessary.
In addition, not enough is given to Schindler’s moral transformation. We are made aware that he wasn’t always a perfect humanitarian, but his switch is too quick. He goes from a callous womaniser and ruthless businessman to the Jews’ personal saviour practically within a single scene. It’s hard to believe a man who initially protested Germans shooting his Jewish workers due to how much it cost him would suddenly turn into Jesus. While the events of the story are true, it seems more likely that the real Schindler would have had a more natural progression into saviour mode rather than an overnight switch like the movie seems to portray.
As an attempt to draw out the real events of the Holocaust and present it in an interesting manner for a cinema audience, Schindler’s List does succeed, but it is lacking in a few areas.
Starring Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley & Ralph Fiennes
Written by Thomas Keneally (book) & Steven Zaillian
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen & Branko Lustig
Music score by John Williams
Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski
Edited by Michael Kahn
Favourite Scene: Schindler saves a whole crowd of children from being sent to Auschwitz by claiming to the Germans that they are “essential workers” in his munitions factories. The fact that it works shows both how the Germans viewed the Jews and how well Schindler knew he could manipulate them to help save them.
Scene That Bugged Me: As stated, the epilogue felt mawkish and over sentimental, like the movie was beating you over the head with its message.
Watch it if: You want to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself
Avoid it if: You’re a neo-Nazi
Originally posted on Blogspot Wednesday 18 January 2012