Let me tell you about the first time I watched Schindler’s List. I was 21 years old and home for Christmas with my parents. My family, which is of Jewish decent on my mother’s side, all went to see the movie. I don’t recall but it might have been for my father’s birthday which falls 2 days after Christmas. We always see a movie together as part of his birthday celebration but I’m not sure how far back that tradition goes.
I don’t remember much about the film as a whole, but there’s one thing I will never forget. The end. You see, I didn’t know this was a true story. And when the real “Schindler Jews” appeared at his grave marker to place stones to honor him it hit me like a ton of bricks. I broke down.
Now, almost 25 years later I’ve seen the film a total of three or four times. I break down every time without fail. It’s overwhelming and I suspect it always will be.
I give Steven Spielberg a hard time for his lack of subtlety in his films. It hasn’t always been this way though. His early work was smart and treated the audience likewise. Films like Sugarland Express, Jaws and even Raiders of the Lost Ark didn’t bash the audience over the head with “meaning” and “significance.” The characters were genuine and well-written, even the ones that were larger than life.
Somewhere along the way he abandoned all that. I suspect it was after getting carte blanche from every studio in Hollywood. The making of Jaws explains it all. His original intent was to show the shark early and often. But there were technical problems. The mechanical shark didn’t work they way they wanted it to. So he had to improvise, come up with a solution. He couldn’t buy his way out of it. If he had the kind of budget then that he gets now he would have fixed or replaced the mechanical shark as many times as needed to achieve his original vision. And Jaws would have sucked. Or at least not have been the amazing film we know it to be today.
My problem with the films of Steven Spielberg boils down to one fact. He doesn’t have any obstacles. If necessity is the mother of invention, Spielberg has no needs and therefore there’s nothing inventive in his films.
Don’t get me wrong. I know I sound like I’m painting with a broad brush. There are some bright spots in his post-1981 filmography. But for every Color Purple there is an Amistad, a War of the Worlds and yes, a Saving Private Ryan, a film so devoid of subtlety there are scenes (after the first amazing 30 minutes) that would have been comedic if the subject matter wasn’t so serious.
But that’s not the case here. Schindler’s List is a masterpiece of smart, deft film making. It’s Spielberg at his finest.
Based on Thomas Keneally’s novel “Schindler’s Ark” the film follows German entrepreneur Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) during World War II. Schindler begins the story as a member of the Nazi party and a genial war profiteer (if one can be such a thing).
Spielberg does a marvelous job of slowly introducing Oskar Schindler. It begins with his wardrobe laid out on the bed, telling us all we need to know right now about the man. It’s a full 10 minutes into the film before he is formally introduced and we even hear his name.
We see him bribe Nazi officials and wine and dine himself into their favor to acquire the factory he needs to begin producing enamelware. It works.
With the clout he needs to open the factory he enlists the help of Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), a local Jewish community leader who also has connections to the black market. Schindler wants Stern to run the business and arrange for financing from the Jewish community to buy the factory. Because Jews cannot own property he returns their investment with enamelware which they can sell on the black market.
For a while it’s easy for Schindler to stay friendly with Nazi officials and Stern is able to use the factory to give his fellow Jews jobs in the factory, making them “essential workers” for the war effort. But things are bad. Very bad.
Listening to the jeers from people in the street as they were forced out of their homes and into the Kraków Ghetto sounded like Charlottesville. It was equally revolting. But things go from bad to worse. Much, much worse. When SS officer Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes) arrives in Kraków to oversee construction of Płaszów concentration camp the brutality escalates quickly and graphically.
It’s 43 minutes into the film before the first shocking act of violence and because Spielberg has taken his time getting to this point the effectiveness is heightened. It’s a vivid picture of life in the Kraków Ghetto. It began as mean and cruel, rights trampled and dignity ripped away. It was horrible but they were resilient. Somehow they’d find a way to get through it. But it didn’t stop there. It became suddenly deadly, unpredictible and terrifying, something they could only hope to survive.
There’s a scene where people are being loaded into train cars to be taken to a concentration camp. They bring their luggage. The Nazis tell them to be sure and clearly mark their bags and they’ll be waiting for them at their destination. It’s a lie told to better control hysteria and panic. Spielberg follows the bags as they are brought to the train station and then carried away to a room where they are emptied and sorted. It’s heartbreaking, especially because the work is being done by other Jews who undoubtedly understand what is waiting for the people at the end of the line.
Fiennes and Neeson play so well against each other. The film is beautifully shot in black and white and makes spectacular use of light and shadows, a symbol of these two men. There’s a great moment when the film cuts back and forth between the two men as they shave. It’s the equivalent of “I put my pants on in the morning just like you, one leg at a time.” But when they leave their homes their paths are very different. It emphasizes the power of choice.
It’s Göth’s arrival to the story that forces Schindler to face the truth. He witnesses massacres across the ghetto at Göth’s orders. It’s here that the famous little girl in the pink coat is introduced. It’s such a striking way to connect the audience to the humanity of a single individual in the midst of chaos and horrors. It’s also an effective way to show us what Schindler is seeing. It gives context to his experience. Brilliant.
Apparently this little girl was a real person who really wore this pink coat. Her name is Roma Ligocka. Not only was she a survivor of the Kraków ghetto who was known by her pink winter coat, but she’s also director Roman Polanski’s cousin. How weird is that. Apparently in real life the coat was actually red but to me in the film it looks pink.
This is Schindler’s moment. But it is not yet his moment of clarity. This is not where the list starts. At first he is outraged and his first response is indignation. It’s not indignation about what’s being done to these Jews, it’s his selfish reaction to losing workers.
Schindler: l go to work the other day. Nobody’s there. Nobody tells me about this. I have to find out. I have to go in. Everybody’s gone.
Göth: No. No. They’re not gone. They’re here.
Schindler: They’re mine! Every day that goes by, I’m losing money. Every worker that is shot costs me money.
Nonetheless, it’s where he begins and it’s how he gets them out of the work camp and safely back into his factory. Well, all but Stern who Göth is keeping for his own bookkeeping.
Word spreads as Schindler’s factory becomes a haven, an escape from Płaszów. One by one Stern helps them out. A hingemaker. A little boy smart enough to pin the theft of a chicken on the man who Gٗöth has already killed. The parents of a woman who comes to Schindler desperate for help.
But it’s not yet Schindler’s intent.
“People die. It’s a fact of life. He wants to kill everybody? Great! What am I supposed to do about it?” – Oskar Schindler
It’s hard for Schindler to believe that Göth enjoys the brutality. But he comes to face facts.
His next reaction is to try and help Göth understand the power of mercy. This is where this film takes its biggest risk. It dares to give the hope of compassion for Göth. And for about 4 minutes you think maybe Schindler got through to him.
He didn’t. The brutality continues. And not just brutality but humiliation. This is where the film slows a bit and deviates from the story to emphasize the horrors. One terrible moment after another. It’s all unimaginable yet true.
Over time Schindler begins to shift from his war profiteering to embrace his role as a man in a position of power who can not only be merciful to others, but literally save their lives. He goes from bribing a clerk in Płaszów to bring workers to the factory to bribing Göth in order to build his own sub-camp where he’ll have more control.
But the brutality continues within the camp and Göth is ordered to burn the bodies of more than 10,000 Jews killed in the ghetto and Płaszów.
It’s here where Schindler sees the body of the girl in the pink coat. It’s here where he has his moment of clarity and when Göth is ordered to ship the remaining Jews at Płaszów to Auschwitz. Schindler knows what he has to do. He seizes the opportunity to move the Jews to his home town of Zwittau-Brinnlitz and build a munitions factory there where they can continue to be “essential workers.” He negotiates with Göth who agrees but it costs Schindler a fortune.
This is where the list is born. He dictates name after name, Stern types them, page after page. Almost 1,000 people were transferred to Brinnlitz and saved from Auschwitz.
“The list is an absolute good. The list is life.” – Itzak Stern
Schindler makes sure the munitions factory never produces a fully functioning shell and keeps the factory open for seven months. He runs out of money just as Germany surrenders and the war is over. As a Nazi party member and war profiteer, Schindler has to escape into the night. His workers help him prepare, outfitting him and his wife in striped pajamas to avoid being captured by the Russian army. They also give him a signed document describing how he saved their lives.
But before he goes they also give him a ring with an inscription from the Talmud.
“Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”
He breaks down. He is overwhelmed by the sentiment but also at the thought of how many more he could have saved if he had sold his car or his solid gold Nazi lapel pin.
The next morning the workers are rescued by the Russians. One of the workers tells the soldier they could use some food. He points, suggesting there is a nearby town. The next shot is the massive line of men, women and children walking side by side as they come over a hill. We cut away to see Göth’s fate as he is hanged for his war crimes. We cut back to the hill and the black and white image of the families walking fades into a color image of the Schindler Jews today walking side by side in Jerusalem to Schindler’s grave.
Their actor counterparts accompany them to place the stones. In the final shot Liam Neeson places a pair of roses on the grave marker.
It’s a remarkable film. Well written. Well acted. Well shot. And yes, very well directed. There are so many remarkable sequences. This is why I get so frustrated at Spielberg. I know what he’s capable of. I wish all his films were made with the same light touch.
Ben Kingsley is the unsung hero of Schindler’s List. He is the glue that holds this film together. No question about it.
Spielberg refused to take a salary to direct the film. I really think this is a huge factor in why he was able to accomplish what he did. He got back to just making a film unshackled by the financial aspect of the art. And it wasn’t that he just worked his contract to reap the rewards on the back end with a cut of the box office. Spielberg made sure he would never make a dime off Schindler’s List. Any profits that would have come his way were used to found the Shoah Foundation, an organization that conducts audio and video interviews with Holocaust survivors.
The Shoah Foundation operates through the University of Southern California. Because of this, and the fact he’s on the board of the film school there, a lot of people think Spielberg went to USC. But he didn’t. He applied there but wasn’t accepted because of bad grades.
He went to Cal State University, Long Beach. But he dropped out. However, in the early 2000s he secretly went back to CSULB to get his degree in film and video production. For his final student project he submitted Schindler’s List. So, in a way this was the first student film to win best picture.
Student film or not, it was nominated for 12 Oscars at the 66th Academy Awards including best actor and best supporting actor for Neeson and Fiennes. The next closest films were The Piano and The Remains of the Day. Each had eight. But the scorecard at the end of the night was even more lopsided. Besides best picture and director for Spielberg, Schindler’s List won seven including adapted screenplay, score and three technical awards. The next closest film won a only three Oscars. But don’t feel too bad for the guy that made that movie. It was Jurassic Park.