Schindler's List

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One of the Greatest of All Films

Jun 15, 2000
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:This is, for me, what the cinema is all about -- "List" is Spielberg's finest work

Cons:none

The counterpoint between Oskar Schindler's greed and Oskar Schindler's kindness -- the kindness that saved over one thousand Jews from being swallowed up by the Holocaust -- cannot be overemphasized, for greed and kindness are two of the basic, natural factors that motivate human action, and they are fundamentally opposed to each other. (I do not use the term "evil" because I don't believe evil is an innate human tendency, but rather a poison that erodes men's minds and impairs their judgment, like a drug, and I say "kindness" instead of "goodness" because the latter is such a vague, equivocal term and no one really knows what it means.)

If you accept this notion, you will further accept that that is exactly why Schindler's story is such a powerful one; against the horrifying backdrop of men committing unspeakable acts of violence and hatred against other men in the name of policy and politics, the idea that a single human being, compelled by those two forces, would choose to save others while risking his own life, is as uplifting as any other. The fact that we cannot tell when Schindler decided why he should save those lives matter only a little. The fact that he decided at all tells us what we need to know: first he did it because he realized he was losing money (greed), and then he did it because it had to be done (kindness). To reiterate, those two psychological motivators, which regularly defeat each other, served the same purpose: saving lives.

And, at the same time, Spielberg does not exactly wave a flag and jump for joy at the majesty of the human race. Quite the opposite; his documentary-like epic, its running time surpassing one hundred ninety minutes, mercilessly lays bare for us all the ugliness and cruelty of mankind by reenacting -- with peerless accuracy -- what is arguably the most shameful chapter in mankind's recent history, when six million men, women and children were slain because one man wanted it that way, and had the charisma and the power to facilitate the massacre.

The inconceivable magnitude of the atrocity is horrifying enough, but what should stick in the mind of those studying this period in history is that human beings, like you or I or the fellow walking past you down the street, committed these vile acts. It would be comforting to think that the Nazis were possessed by demons and devils, but they were not. They did it because their minds were poisoned, and because we, as a species, are malleable and easily manipulated. And, in the end, they just did it, and that's all there is to say.

At the center of it all is Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson), a tower of a man with an innate sense of showmanship and an incredible talent for networking and friend-making, two skills that allowed him not only to prosper in Germany during the war but also to become a savior to many without being apprehended (although he came very close on more than one occasion). Erecting an enamelware factory to produce assorted items for the war effort, from kitchenware to hinges to artillery shells, Schindler was like any other businessman, efficiently tapping a reservoir of necessity to make a healthy profit. Like a machine, if he saw that a social contact would benefit him, he made that contact. He had a multitude of personality traits focused toward this end: he was not just a drinker, but a skilled social drinker; he was not just a womanizer, but a lover of women and of sharing women to curry favor and make allies; he was not just a party animal, but an expert at mingling and finessing and making himself known; et cetera.

But all the while, his greed was not malevolent, but benevolent -- he was like a two-way channel through which money, favors, and gifts flowed. His self-serving had a kind of innocence, as if he could not survive without being all things to all people, including himself. He hired a behind-the-scenes man by the name of Itzhak Stern, who would become his chief assistant at the factory, and eventually a vital component in Schindler's plan (which has been attributed to Stern, as a seed planted in Schindler's head) to save the Jewish factory workers.

Meanwhile, thousands of Hitler's "undesirables" were being exterminated. Gradually, and with no catharsis or telltale signals, Schindler realized he was not only in a position to save a great many lives, but that he was obligated to do something to resist the genocide. He hired only workers who would otherwise end up in a concentration camp. He fed them, gave them a place to live, and essentially protected them from the Nazi storm. Soon he was spending so much on maintaining his haven that his business began to lose money -- he became like the gambler or the alcoholic who exhausts all his funds in order to keep gambling and drinking, and he was able to carry about eleven hundred names (the Schindlerjuden, or "Schindler's Jews") to safety through the end of the war.

That is the infrastructure of the story; the flesh and muscle is in the vivid (and at times hauntingly beautiful) recreation of the period and the Holocaust. I will say without fear of exaggeration that Schindler's List is Spielberg's best work as a director, and he is a man who has made many great films: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Saving Private Ryan.

Aided by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn, along with a top-notch crew of production designers, makeup artists, and sound technicians, Spielberg abandons his old flourishes (the ubiquitous crane shot, the overbearing score, the too-clever mise-en-scène) and through simplicity of camerawork and editing serves up a turbulent, seemingly unstable piece of cinema.

It's difficult to believe that this is the same Spielberg who made the gaudy, papier-mâché Hook, or turned Empire of the Sun into a ludicrously overproduced behemoth, or even made all those other films (excepting Private Ryan, which is just as mature and direct as List). Instead of aping David Lean and the latter-day William Wyler, Spielberg has filmed List in the style of Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, Carol Reed's The Third Man, and John Frankenheimer's The Train, among others. Kaminski's restless and hyperrealistic camera draws us into the tumultuous, terrifying center of the action. In this way it is a very different kind of visual spectacle, but nonetheless a breathtaking one.

There are other technical facets worthy of praise: the frequent and very effective use of parallel montage (following Schindler and Amon Goeth during their morning routine, for one example) and Eisenstein's "montage by attraction" (the juxtaposition of the candle and the smokestack at the beginning), the wide assortment of vivid imagery, John Williams' brilliant and uncharacteristic score, which at once suggests a gypsy caravan and a violent storm, and a surfeit of ingeniously arranged (but not obtrusively clever) scenes -- the use of color to follow a little girl in her red coat has by now achieved the stature of legendary.

The trio of lead performances are note-perfect: Liam Neeson, who too often in movies seems either befuddled or bored rigid, brings to the title role the grace, force of presence, and crucial subtlety needed to make the story work in its unique, understated way.

Ben Kingsley, whose performances tend to fluctuate between brilliant (Searching For Bobby Fischer) and stolid (The Assignment, Sneakers), also gives a performance in which he is able to suggest an enormous range of thoughts and emotions with very little in the way of external gestures; his Itzhak Stern is a tight knot of exasperation and controlled combustion, and the actor skillfully wears the face of a man who is running down a tightrope.

As Untersturmführer Amon Goeth, commandant of the Krakow camp where Schindler's factory was located, Ralph Fiennes -- surely one of the best new actors of the decade -- uses his entire face and body as his armature to masterfully portray a role which is the most honest and truthful statement on the SS phenomenon Spielberg is likely to make. It is mostly Fiennes, whose Goeth starts his day by destroying a few camp detainees from his veranda with a high-powered rifle, who most singly responsible for the film's almost unbearable sensation of dread.

The script, by Steve Zaillian, does a superlative job of diluting Thomas Keneally's mammoth, encyclopedic novel. Utilizing the capabilities of their respective mediums to the utmost, both Keneally and Spielberg are able to balance the epic scope of the subject matter with a more intimate portrayal of the people at its center. The novel is by its very nature able to fit more people, events, and incidents, so Keneally (and every other historical writer) is able to be more thorough than any filmmaker could ever hope to be (save for documentarists like Claude Lanzmann), but the adaptation could not be better; unless you have a photographic memory you will likely leave both the film and the book with the same education.

Of course, a film cannot reverse the damage done by the Nazis. No one can. But, frankly, anyone who says "it's just a movie" is sorely missing the point. It is a movie that not only does justice to but enhances the magic of the medium (it makes you feel hopeful about what a director can do with the cinema). Making good on one of the basic functions of the cinema, it records, for others to study and reflect upon, a dramatic recreation of an historical event. It is also, like a monument or a statue, a tribute to those who lost their lives in the Holocaust, and also to their loved ones.

It is said that no act of earthly justice -- not the Nuremberg trials, not the seeking out of old Nazis in hiding, not even the vision of Hitler and his minions burning in Hell forever -- can ever make amends for the tragedy. But what can be done is to preserve the memories of what happened and for Hitler's "final solution" to continue to be thwarted. The film celebrates those who are, as Holocaust survivors and descendents of survivors (saved by Schindler or not), living acts of defiance, their very existence a cry of rage against the Nazi's attempt to stamp out the Jewish race.


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