I have never, in my entire career of blogging, had to pause in the middle of a film because it got to be too much for me. That assertion was true until yesterday, when I watched Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. It is a movie set against one of the darkest times in history, and doesn’t shy away from showing the horror associated with the Holocaust. The story is able to rise above the horror however, and even though it doesn’t offer complete resolution (how could it), it does offer the human power of resilience.
Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a business man who is looking to make a profit off of the war. He hires Jewish workers, who at this point in the war are all consolidated into ghettos. They are available and more importantly, cheap. (Important to note is that the Jewish workers themselves are slaves; the Nazis claim all of their wages.) He does not appear to be working out of any kind impulses, he just wants to make a profit. However, he is indirectly saving lives. If the Jewish workers make enamel crockery for Schindler, then they’re essential to the war effort and get to live.
One of the many brilliant aspects of this movie is how it handles Schindler’s character. At the beginning, you assume he’s a jerk, a war profiteer who welcomes suffering and tragedy if it fuels his business. He is saving people, but not because he wants to, rather because they’re making him money. Schindler’s redemptive character arc is one of the best I’ve ever seen, in any film, ever. By the end of the film, it’s his mission to employ as many Jewish workers as possible, making unusable ammunition. He’s hindering everything the Nazis are trying to accomplish, and is still saddened and tortured by the fact he can’t do more. When I was watching the film, I saw his progression in three stages. The first is when he just wants to make money, during the second I thought he was saving Jews because he thought of himself as a hero, and the third in which he genuinely tries to do the best he can, no holds barred. All of the stages overlapped and melded together for me, so I was left guessing exactly what motivates him (a question I doubt anyone can ever answer). In his “Great Movies” review, Roger Ebert compares Schindler to a con man that knows how to work the Nazi system from the very beginning, and always intends to save lives, not revealing his true character until the end. I don’t know if that’s true, but it definitely could be. I think it would hard to get that on a first viewing though.
Completely contrasted and yet strangely likened to Schindler is Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), a Nazi commander in charge of the ghetto and later the construction of the concentration camp. On the surface, Schindler and Goeth are rather alike, and seem friendly for most of the film. They both like to party, drink, and womanize. Underneath, Schindler reveals himself as a good person and Goeth a psychopath. He shoot Jews from his balcony for fun, and is constantly on a power trip. He keeps everyone on edge as to whether he will randomly shoot them or not, taking and sparing lives with equal unpredictability. He is in love with his maid, Helen (Embeth Davidtz), but cannot accept it and brutalizes her even further because of his racism. It’s an interesting and terrifying dynamic similar to that of Epps and Patsy in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave.
The film is incredibly long and hard to get through, but this is essential to the film’s effectiveness. The audience is meant to be completely overwhelmed while watching it, and the fact that it is so long enhances this. Because of my busy schedule, it was impossible for me to watch it one sitting, but nevertheless I couldn’t even watch the second half of it in one sitting. There’s the awful physical violence clearly, but the persistent dehumanization is what really got to me. I had to turn it off during one of the many conversations throughout the film in which the characters refer to human beings as commodities, “shipments” that one can just order off of trucks. This happens all throughout the film; real living people are treated as products and it’s horrible. It would be terrible to see people forced to stand this for three straight hours, let alone imagine living it over six years. The film got a powerfully visceral reaction out of me which is not something that happens very much any more.
The most frequent complaint I’ve read about this film is a common failing of Spielberg, to dip into sentimentalism at the ending. Without going too much into what actually happens, I have to say by the time the ending came around I was thanking him for it. I do recognize that Spielberg has a penchant for this and maybe its evident in Schindler’s List, but if it is I didn’t see it. The whole film was just so emotionally draining that any sense of light and human kindness at the end was more than welcomed by me. Obviously there is nothing good about the Holocaust, and no film can truly capture the scope of the terror and devastation that occurred (which is arguably a good thing), but I don’t think Spielberg necessarily sets himself up to do so. Kubrick said the film was eventually about “success:” “The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.” For better or for worse, Spielberg tends to focus on the positive. The film is still devastating even with the “happy” (and trust me, I say that in the loosest sense of the term) ending.
Another common criticism is that the Jews are mostly anonymous, which in retrospect I have to admit is fair, since I’ve only mentioned one of them throughout this whole review. I haven’t written about Ben Kingsley’s wonderfully understated performance as Schindler’s accountant, Itzhak Stern. His dynamic with Schindler is interesting because you never really know who is playing whom. However, Schindler is clearly the more interesting character (more interesting than Goeth as well) because he is the one who changes. When you watch the film, even though you don’t know hardly any of the names of the Jews, you remember their faces. You may not know the details of their lives, but you can see they are human and they are in trouble, and that they shouldn’t be treated as commodities. Maybe that’s how Schindler saw them.
The film isn’t perfect, but considering the monumental tragedy that Spielberg has to portray and still get people to watch the movie, it’s a triumph. It’s about as perfect of a movie as one could hope for. There’s so much more I could say about it, but in order to keep this post to a manageable length I’ll give you the Academy’s thoughts. Schindler’s List was nominated for 12 Oscars, and took home 7, winning picture, director, adapted screenplay, cinematography, art direction, editing, and original score, and losing actor for Neeson (as good as Hanks was Philadelphia, I believe Neeson should have won in ’93, hands down), supporting actor for Fiennes, costume design, and makeup. It’s clear to see that the Academy loved the film, and there’s no way I can argue with them.
“And he’s got the war. Which brings out the worst in people. Never the good, always the bad. Always the bad.”
Long story short: 4/4
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