Director: Steven Spielberg
“Spielberg does an uncommonly good job both of holding our interest over 185 minutes and of showing more of the nuts and bolts of the Holocaust than we usually get from fiction films.” (825, Jonathan Rosenbaum, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I like the clever use of cross cutting transitions from modern-day to war years with the candles burning – also the transition from colour to black and white. I also love the way Schindler cross cuts from candle smoke to the steam train smoke which begins the film properly. The decision to film it in black and white gives the film an odd sort of authority. I am reliably informed by my sister (who has read copious amounts on the subject of this film – she’s doing her dissertation on it don’t you know?!) that Spielberg’s intention was to keep a connection to the still images of the period, which were black and white, and have a more documentary type feel despite it actually being a fictional feature film. The informational subtitles while informative sometimes have a tendency to get a bit lost as they are white text on a complex black and white background.
Liam Neeson’s Schindler starts off as a rather mercenary character fully prepared to exploit the Jews in any way possible to make money. He is a master manipulator which comes through during the course of the film. He appears to have no morals. There is something prophetic about Schindler’s speech to his wife – the first part certainly when he says “They won’t soon forget the name Schindler here. Oskar Schindler. Everybody remembers him. He did something extraordinary. He did something no one else did.” Indeed he has been remembered and not because he made a success of a factory during the war years but because he saved so many lives – an extraordinary feat that no one else accomplished on the same scale. Schindler is a tenacious character – he stubbornly goes about saving ‘his’ Jews even going so far as to rescue the women from Auschwitz.
Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern is an extremely capable man with the gift of the gab doing everything he can to make life in the ghetto slightly more bearable for as many people as he can. The excess of the German lifestyle is sharply juxtaposed with the harsh conditions the Polish Jews were subjected to in the ghetto, especially when Schindler is ordering things on the Black Market. Ralph Fiennes encapsulates the cold uncaring nature of Goeth, the Camp Commandant. He views the Jews as animals there to be picked off one by one for his own amusement demonstrated in the scene where he’s shooting them from his balcony.
Spielberg strove to be as accurate as possible even moving the entire production to Europe so as to film on the actual locations where events took place. When he ran into extreme opposition to filming within the grounds of Auschwitz he overcame this by reconstructing what he could outside the walls while still being on the site of the infamous camp, Auschwitz (once again thanks to the little sis for this excellent piece of information!) However “what is unfortunately missing, and therefore distorted, are many of the more fascinating elements in the real-life story that doesn’t match Spielberg’s pious, patriarchal scenario.” (825) Despite striving for authenticity and a documentary feel Spielberg does however employ certain methods that pull on the audience’s emotions … especially the highly emotive music used in the soundtrack. And the little girl in the red coat during the clearing of the Ghetto is the only spot of colour in the film ensuring that you do not miss her. The car driving over a road made of gravestones is one of the most shocking images in the film … and that’s saying something when the film centers around the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. The sequence where the deported Jews’ luggage is being sorted highlights just how systematic the Nazis were – everything was labeled and documented. There isn’t a more emotionally poignant scene than Schindler’s women in the shower at Auschwitz – to see their terror but acceptance of their imminent death turn to relief when the water comes on is incredibly moving.
Spielberg does not shy away from the horrors of the forced labour camps showing people being executed at point-blank range for the most trivial of reasons. Having said that you are still somewhat removed from it due to the fact the film is shot in black and white. The burning of the exhumed bodies is as powerfully disturbing an image as the little girl covered in flaming napalm from the Vietnam war.
We watch the clearing of the Ghetto from two perspectives – first from right within the Ghetto and the Jewish perspective which can at times be quite traumatic. And then secondly from outside the Ghetto and Schindler’s perspective. This removes the audience giving them a brief respite before the discovery and destruction of the Jews found hiding. Spielberg employs this double perspective throughout as Rosenbaum notes when he says “each emotional register is accompanied by a different style of cinematography, and much as Liam Neeson’s effective embodiment of Schindler works as our conduit to the Nazi’s, Ben Kingsley’s subtle performance as his Jewish accountant, right-hand man, and mainly silent conscience provides our conduit to the Polish Jews.” (825) The cinematography is stunning, the black and white creating some truly beautiful images – even of some of the more, for want of a better word, evil aspects of the film.
The film is an excellent example of how the underground system works within places like the Ghetto and the work camps – the way information gets passed (about what Schindler is undertaking) and the way bribes get passed along. I do find it interesting that it is Schindler bribing the Jewish Goldberg to ensure the safe transfer of “essential workers” from the camp to his factory. The change in Schindler is actually very subtle and thus more believable. By the end of the film the overwhelming emotion is one of respect between both Schindler and his Jews – encapsulated beautifully in the ring created for him which says “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire”.
“One also wonders how Spielberg might have coped with the bribes that were necessary for many of the Polish Jews to find their way onto Schindler’s list and thus survive. If he had dealt with this sort of material, though, the film would have probably lost some of its moral directness even while gaining in moral complexity.” (825) It must be remembered however that no matter how extraordinary the story of Schindler and his Jews is that it was the exception rather than common place. Most Jews were not so lucky and most German’s did not go to such extreme lengths to save Jews.
The ending is beautiful with Schindler’s Jews visiting his grave with their counterparts from the film. It’s an incredibly moving and beautifully shot film and remains, in my opinion, the foremost film concerning the subject of the Holocaust.