More than two decades on, Steven Spielberg's dream nightmare project, his "serious" magnum opus, endures as a tale of luck and war in the midst of a monstrous tragedy
If the Steven Spielberg-produced Back To The Future defined me as a film lover, then the Steven Spielberg-directed Schindler's List defined me as a film critic. Prior to my long overdue viewing of Spielberg's 1993 Oscar winner for the first time, nearly a decade ago, I had already been privy to the power of the cinematic medium as entertainment. But to me, Schindler's List was something else; it was the equivalent of the medium as educational storytelling. It was both, in Spielberg's words, "a helluva story" and what you might call "a message movie". But not quite in the way he surely intended.
In a way, Schindler's List is the Star Wars of "serious", "artistic" film-making; it is universally appreciated and transcendent in the hearts and minds of the general public not solely on merit, but also because of what it means to them. To judge it objectively would be extremely difficult, and would surely ruffle more than a few feathers; yet that is exactly what I will try to do in this retrospective piece.
The line between film "lover" and "critic" perhaps isn't as great as many of us would like to think. Critiques that Schindler’s List is basically "Jaws with Jews" or "ET in the Holocaust", while unfair, are not entirely unfounded. Were one to strip away the subject matter, the stark, black & white cinematography, the skilful, theatrical acting and the European "feel" of the film, you could be left with a typically Spielbergian drama of absent fathers & lost boys, or vice versa. But in doing so, one would also strip away what makes Schindler's List both unique and staggering; its powerful intimacy and endurance as a character study. It is a compelling tale of luck and war that is as resonant today as it was at the time of its release.
Our initial meeting with Czech-born Nazi businessman Oskar Schindler, played by Ballymena's own Liam Neeson, takes place in wartime Poland, in 1939. We are rather awed at the character's sly indifference to everything and everyone around him. He seems to take great pride in the mysterious image of superiority he's created for himself (an image delectably highlighted in one of the best introductions I've ever seen on film - see above). Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), is equally stunned at Schindler's apathy when Schindler hires him, explaining his plan to make a fortune through an enamelware factory. For Nazis like Schindler, the war is a great entrepreneurial opportunity. For Jews like Stern, it's a struggle to survive. That Schindler cannot at first see this baffles Stern, although really it only emphasizes how extreme self-focus can be in times of opportunity and crisis; a key cornerstone of this production.
In a narrative time period spanning all six years of World War II, Schindler's gradual transformation from war profiteer to saviour in the eyes of more than 1,100 Jewish people is chronicled, in possibly Spielberg's most theatrical approach to filmmaking. Selective close-ups, skilled camerawork and excellent cinematography place us in the shoes of every character, however significant, as the film unveils commendable richness in a prevalent "every man for himself" theme. Despite superficial appearances and repeated reminders of the violence & brutality of the era, character really is king here.
Schindler's List is a story of how people fight, struggle and sometimes succeed, albeit temporarily, in striving for their goals and in retaining their sanity in a zone of chaos, in this case World War II and the Holocaust. At one point, Schindler’s estranged wife, Emilie (Caroline Goodall) remarks that it is "luck" that makes all the difference between success and failure. Schindler himself says it's "war". Really, it's both. Even though a pre-enlightened Schindler can't bring himself to admit it, he knows that he is lucky to have the opportunity of capitalizing on being in the right place at the right time. Therefore, in context, the Jews' barely possible escapes over the course of the film make sense, hence Schindler's "thank yourselves" gesture to the survivors near the end of the film. It is apparent that this particular Frank Abagnale Jr. is not the White Saviour he seems to be; survival, as history has repeatedly told us, was more of a collaborative effort. The White Man's Burden is both centralized and deconstructed here.
A common criticism of Schindler's List is that the motives of the title character are never really revealed. But this is actually crucial to the film's success; for all the obvious lack of stimuli, there is plenty of food for thought here. By keeping Schindler relatively enigmatic, the viewer must work harder to understand him. And in this Schindler, I consistently see, through both Steven Zaillian's screenplay and Liam Neeson's performance, an attempt to mask any confusion, fear and doubt he may feel beneath a sturdy façade. Schindler positions himself as a "God" in both his Auschwitz and Brinnlitz factories, someone who knows that he cannot mingle too often or too openly with who he socializes with or who he "looks after" – otherwise, people might not find reason to believe him, or believe in him. It is telling that the final step in Schindler's conversion happens to be around the time of Valkyrie, in 1944, when a group of leading German army generals deemed the war to be unwinnable for their country. He knows he needs a safety net, a way out – and, as such, the famous list appears to be the answer to all his problems.
Yes, it is, as Schindler himself puts it, all about the "presentation" and not the "work". Recall Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and how a bulk of their popularity stemmed not necessarily from their achievements, but their projection of the Great Leader image to the American people. The world is a stage, especially if you're a politician, and, like Reagan in the 1980s, Schindler is the actor playing the part. The idea that the film should have further acknowledged the likes of Itzhak Stern, Marcel Goldberg and their real-life contributions to the list, rather than treat them so fleetingly, is a valid one. But Spielberg is smart enough to know that were Schindler not the film's leading man, the list's "official" author, then the film would be deprived of its fulcrum, its vital centrepiece. This Schindler may not be a great man, but, to the people he saves, he is a great figurehead.
No less pivotal is Nazi commandant Amon Goeth, portrayed by a never better Ralph Fiennes. Like every dictatorial figure, or designated villain, he relishes his power over people, corruption be damned. Yet, like many Spielbergian central figures, even "good guys" like Indiana Jones, Roy Neary and John Anderton, he is a man forever in over his head. He cannot grasp the need for restraint and forgiveness even when Schindler tries to spell it out to him. To Goeth, the only way to prove his power is make others suffer; and his kills give him the illusion that he is becoming a better person, when he really isn't. How ironic that this man believes that "control is power" when he cannot even control himself. And how; if he looks merely concerned when he meets Jewish maid and future object of his affection Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz), he looks truly beat up on the inside when Helen files his nails for him, aware that he should not be enjoying himself even though he actually is. This contrast of logic vs. emotion is visually expressive film-making at its finest, and comes to a head in a memorable and disturbing basement encounter where Goeth really unveils his frustration on Helen. It is melodramatic, but effective, adding extra weight to the moment where Goeth finally realizes that he must let Helen go.
It's evident from the start that Goeth, like Schindler, cannot bring himself to show an inkling of weakness in his environment; hence his decision to order the murder of construction foreman Diana Reiter (Elina Lowensohn) in a key scene. To him, whether she is right or not about the foundations of a building needing to be torn down (she is) is irrelevant; in his eyes, she, an "educated Jew" and a dissenter, is a threat to his authority. But even Schindler is not immune to breakdown on the inside - and this is long before the film's infamous climax. Recall when a young Jewish woman attempts to entrap his good nature through flattery, and also when he gets an unexpected visit from his wife.
Clearly, Schindler and Goeth are, in Nick Hornby's words, life's visitors; they don't want to be visited. They are men who don't know what they want, but only think they know what they want. The difference being that one stands up to be counted because he literally plays his hand correctly at the most opportune moments, intentionally or not. Goeth's respect and admiration for Schindler are never in doubt; he is just incapable of being the same person. He fails to realise that feeling powerful is not the same as being powerful.
Note that I have not for one second focused on the much-maligned "iconic" moments featuring the gun that won't fire, Stern on the train, the hose, the girl in red, the shower scene and so on. To criticise these scenes for their "offensive", "exploitative" and "Hitchcockian" intensity, as many have done, would be to miss the point, in my opinion. For to me, the value of the sequences, and indeed the entire movie, come not from what happens, but how it happens, and how the numerous characters behave according to the circumstances. The true lasting power of Schindler's List comes not from action, but from reaction.
If anything harms the film, it's a desire to have it both ways: something I'll call The Spielberg Complex. The director wants to create a documentation of the Holocaust along with telling a good story, and at times, the film is at odds with itself. I don't believe this is Spielberg's fault so much as his cultural influence, the kind that ensures he cannot tread too heavily on people's toes. When the film becomes less about the people and more about the director trying to prove a point – that he can be "serious" after all – it runs into trouble. The filmmaker's "complex" has affected much of his work following ET, which, to this day remains the best and worst of Spielberg: joyously entertaining though it is, it shoved the Spielberg formula so firmly in place that only a handful of his films have really tinkered with it, and even then the job only gets partly done. Pre-ET, he didn't seem to let things get to him (witness the liberating, enthralling filmmaking in Duel, Jaws, Close Encounters and Raiders); post-ET, he began to care too much. If any of his post-ET films are to succeed, they must be character-driven and not plot-driven. Luckily, for both Spielberg and us, Schindler's List is the former.
Furthermore, the much disparaged "could have done more" farewell and colour epilogue, while indeed sentimental, do not offer the false sense of reassuring closure that many critics believe they do. It's admittedly common knowledge that "should have", "could have" and "would have" are overused words, and some may think that the film is telling us that it is alright to fail or underachieve, so long as we feel guilty about it afterwards. The message behind the melodrama is actually more complex and sobering.
We always aspire towards reaching a goal; but suppose you get there, and you're hit by the sudden realisation that it's not only nowhere near enough, but that the consequences - for you, your new found friends, everything and everyone around you - could be enormous. Everything has a price. The mantras of "one man making a difference" and "the family sticking together and surviving against the odds" are damaged. It wouldn't be the first, nor last, time, that Spielberg would handle such an issue: recall young Jim Graham's broken face near the end of Empire Of The Sun, or Avner Kauffman's realisation that the homeland he sacrificed everything for has rebuked him completely in Munich. The "could have done more" scene, fictional though it is, speaks to the human need for reassurance, yet, like Jim and Avner, for all the reassurance Schindler receives, he is not convinced. Nor are the Jews. Where now for them, except an Israel that will be torn by strife in the future? And where now for Schindler, except failing at his marriage and at several more businesses?
It's almost an auto-critical commentary on Spielberg's own work; like Schindler, Spielberg has achieved, to a point, spectacular things, but has the cost been worth it? It is the question on which both the moral dilemmas and critical attitudes of the film rest.
What should be in no doubt is the film's legacy as a Holocaust document. To many, Jewish names including, but not limited to, Poldek & Mila Pfefferberg, Chaja & Danka Dresner, Adam Levy and Marcel Goldberg have all become household names, encouraging research on the time period that possibly stretches beyond even what Spielberg's Shoah Foundation has achieved. If there is not enough time within the film's three hour length to fully flesh the Jews out, they feel real; as does the influence of the project they have featured in. As Alan Stone, author of "Movies And The Moral Adventure Of Life", writes: "by celebrating the few who survived, Spielberg has put unforgettable human faces on the nameless dead." Spielberg may not be a historian, but he's surely inspired generations of historians.
I like to think EMPIRE's Colin Kennedy said it best when he stated that while no film, in Itzhak Stern's words, could be an "absolute good", then by the early 1990s a popular film about the Holocaust had become "an absolute necessity". And, in Kennedy’s words, that such a film was Schindler's List is "enough to restore your faith in not just the (cinematic) medium, but also the human race itself."