Schindler’s List (1993): Spielberg Holocaust Drama Wins Best Picture Oscar

Schindler's_List_posterSteven Spielberg’s three-hour Holocaust epic, “Schindler’s List,” is his most serious and accomplished film to date and probably one of the best Hollywood movies of the year.

I was a strong champion of the film at the annual meeting of the L.A. Film Critics Association, which honored “Schindler’s List” with its most prestigious citation: Best Picture. Since then, two other groups, the N.Y. Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, voted it as best movie of the year, which makes it a top contender for the Oscar Awards. Who knows perhaps the Academy of Motion Picture will be able to “forgive” and “forget” the fact that Spielberg is the world’s most commercially successful filmmaker and finally honor him with its Best Director accolade.

Having taught courses on the Holocaust, I am quite familiar with the increasing body of books and films about it. Yet I have to admit that Spielberg’s movie caught me by surprise: It’s a serious, resonant, most effective work, which might be expected considering its amazing source material. But “Schindler’s List” is also a great movie that should serve as a companion piece to Claude Lanzmann’s landmark nine-hour-documentary, “Shoah” (1985).

schindler's_list_5_neesonI recently reread Australian writer Thomas Keneally’s l982 book of the same title (the book enjoys now a new edition and a new popularity). Miraculously, Spielberg and screenwriter Stephen Zaillian have captured the book’s matter-of-fact approach and have also managed to contain innumerable details–the film is a huge canvas of locales, episodes and characters.

The story begins as Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a failed Nazi industrialist, takes over a major company that previously belonged to the Jews, and proposes to staff it with Jews–unpaid, of course. Schindler recruits a Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), who soon becomes his right-hand man. Together, they supervise a plan that becomes a major supplier of pots and pans for the German military.

In the background is Krakow’s disintegrating Jewish community, whose members are forced to register and identify themselves as Jews. It is in these sequences that the film is most emotionally heartbreaking. The action switches from the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto and annihilation of a whole culture to the Jews’ confined life within the Plaszow Forced Labor Camp.

schindler's_list_4Schindler is depicted as a charmer, a persuasive man who knew how to manipulate the Nazi elite, but also willing to pay hard cash for every Jewish life saved. The most complex relationship in the film is between Schindler and Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the vicious commander of the camp. The filmmakers draw contrasts between the two: In one of their more personal encounters, the heavy-drinking Goeth expresses his admiration for Schindler’s moderate drinking, which he sees as control, and control equals power.

Residing in a luxurious castle located above the camp, Goeth observes the daily liquidation of Jews in a cool, dispassionate manner. In one of the film’s most excruciating scenes, Goeth is shooting innocent victims from a distance, from his balcony, as if he were practicing target shooting, or hunting birds in the wood.

The existential issues of life and death, who survived and who was exterminated, become a function of fate, coincidence–and sheer luck. In his attention to detail, Spielberg shows how some children actually survived: hiding in sleazy sewers, closets and basements, already crammed with other children.

schindler's_list_3_fiennesSpielberg may be unfairly criticized for embracing Schindler’s point of view–unlike other Holocaust works, the movie tells the story of the Krakow ghetto and the Auschwitz concentration camp from Schindler’s vantage perspective, the way he perceived the events. At the same time, the portrait that screenwriter Zaillian paints of Schindler is far from heroic. There’s no attempt to whitewash his initial motivation to become wealthy and live a good life. In the midst of executions, Schindler is seen riding horses, eating a festive meal, or making love to a beautiful woman. However, gradually he begins to resent and register real feelings at the senseless crimes committed against the Jews. Ultimately, Schindler emerges as a multi-shaded character that is driven and torn by contradictory feelings.

Almost every frame of “Schindler’s List” demonstrates Spielberg’s anger and urge to chronicle a catastrophe that defies any logic or rational understanding. For once, Spielberg has found a worthy theme to which he applies his bravura technique. Spielberg’s signature kinetic style is very much in evidence with a mobile, often hand-held camera that dizzyingly, restlessly records the traumatic events.

The interesting black-and-white cinematography, by Polish artist Janusz Kaminski, chronicles the events with the fury of an ideologically impassioned documentary. Every once in a while the look changes from gritty realism to a more stylized look–an expressionist play of light and shadow that is impossible to achieve in color cinematography.

Many Israeli and Jewish actors were employed by Spielberg, which endows the work with more authentic looks and accents; for a change, you are not constantly reminded that you are watching American actors playing roles with more or less convincing dialects.

schindler's_list_2_neesonThe film features three top-notch performances. Liam Neeson, a big, handsome actor, who has done some good work (“The Good Mother”), is perfectly cast as the suave, always impeccably dressed Schindler. British actor Ben Kingsley also renders an effectively understated performance as the accountant Stern, one who almost reluctantly becomes Schindler’s employee–and later confidante and friend. But probably most impressive of all is Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth, the Nazi commander, whose full-bodied portrait goes way beyond the nasty German officers usually seen in American movies.

With all my enthusiasm for “Schindler’s List,” however, a number of weak scenes prevent the film from being perfect. Schindler’s emotional collapse after Germany’s defeat is too melodramatic and negates the prevalent, matter-of-fact tonality of the film–and his personality. And the very ending, in which Spielberg went to Israel and filmed the real survivors of Schindler’s List, is most touching but doesn’t belong to this movie.

schindler's_list_1_neesonThese are the only scenes that depart from the otherwise strikingly restrained style that is always heartfelt without being schmaltzy. At the same time, I understand the motivation of Spielberg, as a mass-oriented entertainer, for including them, fearing that his tale might be too grim for the large public.

The greatest achievement of “Schindler’s List” is that on the one hand, it’s an enraged recording of annihilation of unparalleled proportions, of what Hannah Arendt most appropriately called the banality of evil. But the movie also contains a hopeful note, an unlikely proof of humanity: After all 1,100 Jews were saved by a Catholic German. This is what distinguishes, among other things, “Schindler’s List” from Alan Pakula’s “Sophie’s Choice.”

I usually go to see works about the Holocaust with trepidation, fearing that movies, especially Hollywood ones, might trivialize or cheapen the kind of disaster the Holocaust was. And there’s also the perpetual suspicion of “haven’t we seen all of that before” Or “is there really need for another Holocaust film” I am delighted to report that Spielberg categorically disproves both fears–there are actually new insights and facts about the Holocaust in his movie.