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A Study in Spielberg: Schindler’s List (1993)

16 Apr

SchindlersList

I had never seen anything like it before       . . .  23 years later, I still haven’t.

Schindler’s List is an uncommonly moving experience that in many ways the kind of experience that illicit all the reasons that I go to the movies.  For Spielberg, it was a massive turning point, proving that  the cinema’s biggest little kid had grown into a great film artist.  Schindler’s List was like nothing that he had ever directed before and it was like nothing we had ever seen before. It moved me greatly as it did millions.

Watching Schindler’s List is like watching a train wreck; you can’t stand to watch yet you cannot bear to look away. Shot in black and white it has a kind of documentary quality, peering with unblinking eyes into one of the most horrific events in modern human history – how the Nazis could take lives without rhyme or reason and then how they were robbed of a small number of their victims through one man’s kindness.

We meet that man Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) an alcoholic, a womanizer who joined the Nazi party because it was an easy way to fund his businesses through money given to him by throwing parties for high officials. He’s a swindler of the highest order, a virtuoso flim flam man who could bedazzled and charm anyone into doing almost anything.  In a virtuoso opening scene we see a magician at work.  He can walk into a party thrown for and by top Nazi officials, parties in which he is a total stranger.  Using money as a form of greeting, he buys a bottle of campaign for an officer’s table.  Soon the officer is joining him along with a volley of women.  The night goes on and more and more people eventually join Schindler.  He orders the best drinks, the best food, entertains with the best jokes, sings the best songs.  Soon an officer is asking the waiter, “Who is that man?”  The waiter speaks as if the answer is obvious, “Why, that’s Oskar Schindler!”

That scene, in many ways plays like the computer simulation in Titanic.  It’s a masterstroke because we see how Schindler operates and it gives us a mental template for how things will play out for the rest of the film.  From that moment, we understand what a great swindler he is and how he operates the game.  He’s a con artist, able to speak and to buy his way in and out of everything.  It prepares us for what comes later.

There is some question about when and why Schindler’s heart begins the shift.  When the Nazis begin arounding up and murdering Jews in the Krakow ghetto, Schindler’s face might indicate that something has turned over in his soul, but the movie isn’t blunt about it.  Much of his motivation (verbally) lies in keeping his factory operating.  He needs cheap labor and the enslaved Jews to keep things running.  Is he saving them or is running a business.  At first, it’s hard to tell.

He hires a soft-spoken Jew, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to be his accountant.  After many Jews have been killed for no reason, Schindler and Stern begin drawing up a list of workers for his factory – workers that Stern slowly begins to realize are being bought one by one.  “You’re not buying them?” Stern says.  And then begins an exhilarating moment when the two being drawing up this list.  For a handful of Jews this is their ark, their port in the storm.  Never has the click of a typewriter in a movie been used to better effect because we know that every click means life, means a chance, means generations yet unborn.  Holding the list in his arms like a sacred text Stern can hardly speak “This list… is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.”

Many have spoken about this as a new kind of storytelling for Spielberg.  Thematically it’s is exactly the same as his other works. Schindler’s struggle to save the Jews were really no different than the men battling the shark in Jaws, Indiana Jones tackling the Nazi’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Elliot trying to save E.T. from the government officials, the scientists battling the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, all of these had external struggles but nothing ever came as close to the bone. He used his skill for stories about struggles in fantasy films and put it to use with one of the darkest chapters of human history. He always said that he waited until he grew up as a person and as a filmmaker before he was ready to make the film.

That’s best because for a director known for his content, Schindler’s List is a film in which he shows great restraint. He shows us the murders and the horror that befell the Jews but he also knows that there is only so much that we can take so he shows us just enough (most of the murders take place in long or medium distance shots). He also calls the murders before they happen.  There is a beat, a notation to the audience that something is about to happen, then comes the murder.  We have a second to process things so it doesn’t play as cinematic.

The film is shot the film in black and white partly because the murders in a color would be too much to bear. Most amazingly each murder happens differently, all of the actors die in a different fashion. Spielberg wants us to witness the atrocities in all their horror and he also wants us to understand that each was an individual, a person. At one point a woman is shot for speaking out and as the Nazis grab her she is pulled up to the camera so we can look in her eyes and realize that a worthwhile life is about to end.

Spielberg also realizes that the scope of the holocaust is too vast for one movie so he slims it down to a smaller story. He was wise, with all those denying that it ever happened, to base the film on a true story, a single act of selfless heroism. But Oskar Schindler is not a conventional hero, he realizes that saving these people is an act of cunning in which one false move could mean instant death. He and Stern work in code and in corners to insure that what they are doing is kept out of the spotlight. They realize that it would be suicide to take on the Nazi’s head on.

One of Schindler’s biggest obstacles is Amon Geoth (Ralph Fiennes) the commandant of the camp holding Schindler’s workers. If Schindler used the Nazi Party as a cover for his business interests Geoth uses the party as a cover for his psychopathic tendencies. He murders Jews at will, using a scope to shoot them from the balcony of his villa. He uses a minor incident involving a stolen chicken to shoot a line of Jewish men dead. He forgives a young boy who failed to clean his bathtub properly and lets him leave only to shoot him dead a moment later. Schindler’s advantage over Geoth is his tunnel vision and the fact that he is almost always drunk, a sober man with his attention at full would begin to spot.

Geoth’s pleasure comes from shooting and killing at random which robs the Jews of any hope that the promised slogan “Arbiet Macht Frei” (“Work makes you free”) may have provided. Many critics cited the character of Geoth as a mistake, that putting a psychotic in the film robs us of a real sense of the Nazi functionaries, of how a man could dehumanize the Jews on the basis of his orders. I don’t think it’s a weakness, I think that understanding the psychotic nature of murdering the Jews helps us understand how the Nazi era began in the first place. Geoth can’t see the Jews as human beings and he stands for the maniacal tendencies of Hitler, Georring, Hess, Himmler who certainly weren’t functionaries. Geoth is a one-dimensional person but it’s that kind of narrow thinking that breed genocide in the first place. Schindler on the other hand represents those who recognize this as insanity, his character is so complex that we don’t get a sense of the man or his reasons, we only get a sense that this is a complex man driven to do a very good thing (think the opposite with Hitler and you understand).

What comes of Schindler’s deeds is a reward, one of the most emotional moments in cinema history.  As the war draws to a close, the Jews are liberated.  They walk out of the concentration camps toward the horizon toward the future.  It’s an uncertain future, but it’s a future none-the-less.

THEN the moment that takes my breath away and brings me to tears.  We see the horizon filled with people, the scene turns from black and white to color and we see those people in modern dress.  These are no longer actors, these are the real Jews that Schindler saved, with their children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren, affirming Stern’s assertion that “There will be generations.”  The real people, accompanied by the actors who played them, file past Schindler’s headstone at the Mount Zion Catholic Cemetery in Jerusalem to pay their grateful respects.  Then the camera pulls back and we see how long the line is how long the line is!  Generations have come to pay their respects, generations that he allowed to happen by robbing the Nazi of a handful of their victims.

I’ve never seen an ending like this, not ever.  Every other biographical film ends with cold informational text that tells us what happened to the real people, but for Spielberg it isn’t enough, not by a long shot.  He has gathered these generations to tell their story, the story of their tragedy, the story of their salvation, the story of the list because the list is life.

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