- Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
- Written by: Steven Zaillian. Based on Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally.
- Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Embeth Davidtz, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagall, Ezra Dagon, Malgoscha Gebel.
- Rated: R.
Last weekend I saw four movies: The Graduate, The Queen, Schindler’s List, and The Green Mile, in that order. I first reviewed The Queen. It was a straightforward biopic with little to object to and little to offer beyond its running time. But it was a pleasant experience, and my review came easily. Next I reviewed The Graduate. My opinion wasn’t as solidly formed as with The Queen, but I was quite sure about what I was going to say and how I would analyze the movie. I got around to reviewing The Green Mile and found it easy enough to review. It was a film that pretended to bear great emotion but, upon observation, found little. These reviews were all straightforward, perhaps because they contained just as much criticism as they did praise, if not more. I have saved Schindler’s List for last, partly because it is the one that I am least afraid will leave me, and partly because I was scared of writing this review.
It is needless to say the film is a masterpiece. I can count on two hands the number of films that are more affecting, more moving, and more gripping. Steven Spielberg displays a gift not seen in his other films, not even in the pure awe of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the epic apocalypse of Saving Private Ryan, nor in the shadowy depths of Jaws. His pacing is deliberate, his camera is steady, and the smart decision to convert the film to black and white gives it an innately haunting sense of time and place. Here Spielberg trusts that what we are seeing on camera makes the movie and that no shiny embellishments are needed.
If I must accredit Spielberg, so must I praise John Williams. His score is the sole departure from pure observation, an outsider’s perspective. It is tragic and beautiful. Every note carries the burden that the subjects carry. For Schindler’s List contains subjects, not characters, per say. We are not given their motives, but we are given their actions. We can never understand all of their emotions, but we can draw conclusions from what is presented before us. The material is cold and observant, but Spielberg and Williams know this and use it to draw us closer to the tragedy.
It seems unfair to call Schindler’s List a tragedy. It earns its R rating with graphic depictions of genocide and senseless gory. The benefit of seeing the film far outweighs these teenage taboos, but that’s another argument altogether. Schindler’s List is a Holocaust film, but scribe Steven Zaillian makes it bearable by focusing on one thousand survivors.
Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a fresh new businessmen, among the recently arrived in Kraków, the heart of Nazi Germany. He whines and dines his way through booze, gambling, and women with the hopes of someday returning to his hometown with a triumphant smile and a caravan weighed down by money. When Schindler sees Jews being forced into the infamous Kraków Ghetto, he has a eureka moment. Aided by accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), he sets up a mess kit factory employing Kraków Jews. Why? They’re cheap and he carries no apparent prejudice, at least when it comes to money. The pair are a roaring success, and soon their factory is admired by Nazi officials and Jews who hear of the fair treatment alike.
Enter Amon Goeth. As played by Ralph Fiennes, he appears to have a head cold in early scenes, riding through the ghetto with an air of indifference. So the emperor surveys his subjects. Goeth stops to hire a maid, the prettiest, not the most experienced, when a female German engineer approaches him in a panic. She babbles about tearing down the foundations and restructuring the building. He orders her shot, then tells his men to do exactly as she said. Goeth is like no other villain you’ve seen before: he is not your average psychopath, but his violence is not justified. Why does he get out of bed to take potshots at Jews first thing in the morning? Does he hate them, or at this point does he derive some pleasure from the killing, or perhaps just the power associated with it? No matter, Fiennes’ performance is riveting and utterly terrifying.
Neeson’s delivers a performance profound enough to match and occasionally better Fiennes. Schindler is destined to save over a thousand Jews, shipping them throughout Europe in secret to safety in his fake factories. He must employ bribery and deception with his life very much at stake. Neeson’s evolution from a glistening-eyed businessman to a savior shedding tears in his final scene is unimaginably impressive. We are not told when a switch occurs, but it may perhaps be the scene of the girl in the red coat. I mentioned the film is in black and white, save an unnecessary prologue and epilogue and a girl in a - red - coat. She walks through the ghetto, a symbol of hope to all who see her. We follow her as she crawls under her bed, and her coat is once again black and white. She is an icon on the streets, but she is just a girl. When Schindler next see the girl in the red coat, the coat signifies blood.
Schindler is racked by guilt and regret even in the epitome of his generosity. In his final scene, we see him evaluate his car, a ring, everything he owns and counts the number of lives he could’ve saved by selling them. This film points the finger at us. Who are we to watch him torn apart when we ourselves have sold nothing? I admire a film that implicates its audience, like the novel of The Hunger Games has recently done so boldly. In Schindler’s List, the accusation is subtle, but nevertheless present. For every Oskar Schindler, there are millions of others who stood aside and let terror reign. ☆☆☆☆