Schindler's List (Spielberg, 1993)

"The holocaust defies imaginative comprehension, yet possesses monumentality that demands we take account of it"
 -John Slavin


When Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert reviewed Schindler's List (Spielberg, 1993) upon its release, Gene Siskel revealed that a recent The New York Times poll concluded that over a third of Americans "didn't even believe that the holocaust occurred". As long as opinions like this continue to be prevalent, it must surely be the duty of those who have a platform and a voice to ensure that as many people as possible are educated about such an event. Steven Spielberg, perhaps the most successful, well known director in history thought about making a film based on Schindler's Ark since 1982, and would say that making such a picture would have been an impossible if it were not for his earlier works The Colour Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987), because the two films matured him as a director. 

But, immediately the question of whether the most unthinkable atrocity in history can, and should ever be depicted in work of fiction. Should it ever be acceptable to reduce such an event into a three hour reconstruction, or is it tasteless, futile and insulting? Spielberg has acknowledged this view several times, agreeing that the picture is only a shadow of events that are too "obscene to picture in any medium" (Quoted in Weinraub, 1994):

"I don't think there can ever be a film or a book or that can ever represent the true, pure horror of the Shoah, nothing can ever approximate it or even get close. But if this film can at least give a sense of it and people can suddenly look back to say 'I can't look forward until I look back at this'" - Steven Spielberg, 1994 interview.

With Schindler's List, Spielberg wanted to communicate one simple message, and that was "that something like this can never happen again" (Quoted in Schickel, 2012: 155). As a gateway, one that Spielberg has admitted is only a glimpse into the Holocaust, I believe it's such an important document. He believed such a project would be commercial suicide, that no-one would go to see it. Its subject matter, length, black & white photography and the fact that the main character is one of the most unconventional heroes in cinema shouldn't have been a recipe for commercial success, but it was. Before he brought it to the public attention, Schindler's story wasn't really known outside of those who survived because of him.  

Liam Neeson Schindler's List

What makes Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) a memorable individual is that he arrives in Poland with only one aim: to make as much money as possible, even if this means exploiting a cheap workforce. He's a womaniser, he drinks, throws his money away on lavish parties and has no intention of helping those he has employed, even though he knows what their fate will ultimately be. Spielberg makes his transformation from a war profiteer into a man willing to risk his life for his Jewish workforce gradual, and therefore believable. Even after witnessing the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, seen by many as the turning point in his character, Schindler stares down at his empty warehouse in the aftermath and when speaking to Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), appears concerned more for the waste of money than the loss of life. Soon after, a woman asks that he give her parents work in his factory - "they say no one dies here, they say you are good". What follows is one of the most telling moments for his character as he lashes out at the woman, telling her that he could have her arrested - he then storms into Itzhak Stern's (Ben Kingsley) office:

"He wants to kill everybody? Great, what am I supposed to do about it? Bring everybody over? Is that what you think? Yeah, send them over to Schindler, send them all. His place is a "haven," didn't you know?"

He's worried about his perception of a sympathiser because it would be fatal if any German found out, even upon repeated re-watches of the film he remains a fascinating character because it's still unclear what the trigger is that transforms him. He doesn't seem to completely comprehend that his actions are saving lives and berates Stern when he allows a one-armed worker into his office to express his gratitude for giving him a job, in the script this scene is described as something that is killing Schindler inside, not because he cares for his workers at this point but because it's obvious that Stern is hiring people with no skills. Every worker that is shot costs Schindler money, and he makes sure to express this anger on several occasions, he's a complete enigma for much of the picture, because he has to convince everyone around him that he has little regard for his Jewish workforce. It takes time for Stern to respect him - three times he offers his accountant a drink to which he rejects, out of preference perhaps but also out of contempt for this member of the Nazi party. At first Schindler is completely using the person who will ultimately turn out to be the first meaningful friend that he has ever made in his life, someone who was integral to his success as both a profiteer and life saver.

Critics of the film tend to point to the last scene between Schindler and his workers as being overly sentimental, schmaltzy, maudlin and overwrought - a criticism that has been levelled at Spielberg's films for much of his career. The moment in question, when Schindler stands before his workers after the war's end and breaks down because he felt he didn't save enough, has been described as as being 'straight out of a prime-time soap' (Lott, 2009). Spielberg justified this by saying that it was included to "drive home the sense of loss" (Quoted in McBride, 1997: 439). Indeed, one could read this scene as a fourth wall break to the world leaders at the time who did so little despite being aware of what was happening - this was what the little girl in the red coat was intended to signify, that events in Europe were as obvious and plain to see as a bright red coat in a monochrome frame. This scene is important however, because it does help to de-legitimise the another criticism of the film - that it is a story entirely about success. It shows us how much this man has changed, although he has managed keep his emotions in check throughout the whole film, they finally overwhelm him; Schindler doesn't see his actions as heroic, he finally acknowledges his his past indiscretions and realises that these have cost even more lives. He sees himself as a failure, which is what the Holocaust was. Even past the very moving last scene when he's establishes, in colour how many generations have been spared because of Schindler's bravery, Spielberg goes back to black and white and has the credits playing over a succession of gravestones, Jewish gravestones that prisoners in the labour camp were forced to remove earlier on and use as paving slabs. The very last image of the film is one of death, not success, and forces us to think back to the events previous three hours.

Ralph Fiennes Schindler's List

Schindler's achievements never compromise Spielberg's aim to portray the barbarity of the Nazi regime, in fact it's obvious that he's making parallels between the those who were saved and the millions more that perished. For example, after the films controversial scene where Schindler's female workers are mistakenly transported to Auschwitz, there a two moments that stuck in my mind which drives home the sense of loss, not this sense of success. Even as the women are seen leaving the showers, having not been given the anticipated fatal gassing, the camera cuts to a much larger group being led down a separate set of stairs - we see the smoking chimney and it's obvious what will happen to this second group. If Spielberg wanted to make a film soley about "success", he could have chosen not to juxtopose a moment of relief with something that completely dwarfs it. Even as the women are finally saved and are being led onto a departing train, yet another train one arrives into the camp, we don't need to be shown what will again, befall this second group of innocent people within a few months, weeks or even minutes. There is no uplift in the film, regardless of the genuine heroism of this one man, I've never walked away from it thinking it extinguishes the images of the liquidation scene or the moments where Goeth is shooting people from his balcony. There are several times throughout where Jewish characters say, to the effect of: "the worst is over", but obviously, all glimpses of brief light are completely destroyed. There's a moment between a group of Jews huddled around a fire in the ghetto, who despite having had everything taken from them, are talking together and for the first time ever are laughing with one other - this camaraderie  immediately precedes the introduction of Goeth, a moment that casts a shadow over the rest of the entire film.

Schindler's List film poster The awful sense of indifference and cold detachment of the German guards to the violence they are perpetrating leaves the audience to think about a horrible fact for themselves - that there has clearly been so much more brutality occurring before the events of the film that these soldiers are now completely desensitised. When Goeth orders the execution of a female engineer after she correctly advises the guards on the foundations of the barracks they're building, Spielberg stages this moment so her murder is initially being prepared in the background of the frame while in the foreground is a guard just calmly sipping on his coffee. This nonchalance and utter disregard for life is constant throughout, and shown not just through the violence itself but through the way in which the Germans are literally attempting to decimate the culture of these people. Goeth's monologue before the liquidation scene talks about the six centuries of a Jewish Krakow, and how after that evening "those six centuries are a rumour, they never happened". A Synagogue is demolished to make way for Goeth's stables and the aforementioned headstones that are used for paving, leaves these graves to literally be walked over for the whole film just like their entire way of life was. 

Claude Lanzmann's 9-hour documentary Shoah (1985), is undoubtedly the most complete and important piece of cinema ever made about about the Holocaust - it is the more essential work that can't really be compared to anything else, but as Roger Ebert has said: "few were willing to sit through its 9 hour length" (2002: 396). If we're talking about the direct impact of a film on on the real world, I feel that the Spielberg has, more than any other director engrained this topic into the public conscience, which was his aim with Schindler's List all along - his first picture with a real message. Something that was considered commercial suicide ended up making over £300 million at the box office, he won his first Academy Award, but ultimately "something greater than the movie came along" - the creation of the Shoah Foundation, whose aim is to record and preserve the testimonies of survivors. A bonus feature on the DVD of Schindler's List shows the effect that the work of this organisation has had, and the most striking one to me was the images of schoolchildren being taught of the Holocaust with these testimonies being used as a teaching resource. This is why, outside of his family he considers this his greatest achievement, and Schindler's List the most important film of his career.



References

Ebert, R. 2002. The Great Movies. New York: Broadway Books.

McBride, J. (1997). Steven Spielberg: A Biography. Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press.

Morris, N. (2007). The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Cinema of Light. New York: Colombia University Press.

Schickel, R. (2012). Spielberg: A Retrospective. London: Thames and Hudson.

Lott, T. (July 24 2009). The Worst Best Movies Ever Made. The Guardian. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/jul/24/worst-best-films-ever-made

Weinraub, B. (April 7 1994). Islamic Nations Move to Keep out Schindler's List, New York Times. [Online] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1994/04/07/movies/islamic-nations-move-to-keep-out-schindler-s-list.html

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