Welcome to I Was Going to Watch That…! Here I talk about “classic” or “important” movies that I’ve known I should see for a long time, but just never got around to watching. Sometimes there’s a reason I’ve put these movies off: a personal distaste for the genre, the director, or some other personal reason; other times I just never got around to it. This week’s movie is a big one, “Schindler’s List” (1993).
I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t mean to see “Schindler’s List”. I wouldn’t say Steven Spielberg is one of my favorite filmmakers, I appreciate his work and have seen all of his other major films (and a lot of minor ones). Yet I omitted his most acclaimed film for the entirety of my high school and college years. Even when I finally buckled down and moved it to the top of my Netflix queue, I let the movie sit there for weeks and weeks, something I never do. I was busy, I had to get ready for finals, had to spend time with my friends before graduation, had to look for jobs. All of these were true. Yet I imagine I could have fit three hours in there somewhere to watch this movie.
I’m not sure why I’ve avoided it so aggressively. Part of it is that I tend to avoid Holocaust movies in general, partly because they’re the ultimate misery porn, and are depressing and hard to watch in a very real sense, and partly because filmmakers in recent years have tended to use the Holocaust as a cheap ploy to lend their movie an air of seriousness, retroactively giving pretty much any Holocaust movie a sense of bad taste. Robert Benigni’s concentration camp slapstick comedy “Life is Beautiful” (1997) is probably the most offensive example of this. It was also probably a slight case of institutional rebellion: when I’m told over and over again that a film is incredibly important, I “have” to see it, it’s one of the greatest films ever made, etc., I sometimes build up a strange resistance to seeing the movie, either because I’m afraid it won’t live up to expectations, or out some odd desire to rebel against the common opinion. Whatever the case, I finally managed to put “Schindler’s List” in the player and watch it from start to finish a couple of days ago.
The first thing that struck me was how simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar the film was. Many scenes were familiar, either from seeing bits of it on TV, reading about it, or had been absorbed over the years from who knows where. Yet though I knew the individual moments, it was strange seeing how the linked up (or didn’t) throughout the film. One thing that struck me was how stark and unsentimental the first half of the film is. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson, reminding us that there’s a reason he’s so well respected) is originally portrayed as a scrupulous businessman, only interested in profit. At one point he states that an ingredient was missing from all his other businesses that kept them from being successful: war. He doesn’t employ Jews out of any fondness for them, or desire to keep them from being deemed as useless by the Nazis, but because they are the cheapest labor available. His womanizing habits are presented straightforwardly, and the film, in a rare move for Spielberg, doesn’t really tell the viewer how to feel about this morally. If I hadn’t known, I doubt I would have guessed that this first half was directed by Spielberg: I might have guessed Francis Ford Coppola, or even Stanley Kubrick, since it is very unsentimental, and isn’t as warm as Spielberg’s films usually are (a good thing here, given the harsh subject matter). The direction is unusually stylized for a Spielberg film as he intentionally alters his usual shooting style to imitate a prestige film from the 40’s or 50’s, much as he did with “Indiana Jones” and 1930’s serials. The black and white photography was a brilliant choice, and gives the film a timeless feel. The use of light and shadows is gorgeous as well, sometimes even resembling German expressionist films, and serves as a visual metaphor for the tricky issues of morality at play in the film, in a way that manages not to be overbearing.
Spielberg’s warmth and sentiment, in the early sections of the film, are only really present when the film focuses on the Jewish ghettos. Spielberg’s approach in these scenes resembles that of the Italian neorealist filmmakers, particularly Roberto Rosselini. He focuses on a pretty large number of Jewish characters, mostly women, who are defined mainly by their faces, and the personality that comes through in their brief scenes. The actors and actresses playing these characters are unknowns and have appeared in only a handful of films since, but seem amazingly genuine and realistic in their scenes. Many of them are actual Polish Jews. One wonders if, like the neorealist directors, Spielberg simply directed these actors to play themselves, and filmed the result. Regardless these sections work very well, and the presence of these individuals humanizes the victims of the Holocaust in a way that few Hollywood films have managed. Though it is impossible to keep track of all the names, the faces of many of these people linger in the mind of the viewer long after it is over. It’s remarkable that Spielberg can imitate the styles of so many other directors here (William Wyler, Martin Scorsese, and Rosselini are the clearest influences), without it becoming distracting or forced. Indeed, I doubt that the majority of people who see this film realize how stylish it is.
The film is pretty neatly divided into three hours: the initial introductory hour, which is more laid back, and even funny, than one would expect the film to be; the second, in which the film’s characters realize the true horror of the Holocaust, and finally the redemption, in which the titular list plays a role, Schindler is redeemed for his early crimes, and the war finally comes to an end. The second hour is the strongest of the film, which is due not only to Spielberg’s unflinching, unforgettable portrayal of these horrors, but also by Ralph Fiennes’ incredible performance as Amon Goeth, the film’s antagonist. Fiennes is one of those actors who has enormous screen presence and charisma, but rarely really seems able to fully inhabit a character. In most of his roles, you can visibly see him acting, trying to sink into the role, but the resulting performance is generally empty and lacking in emotion. One wonders if he resorts to roles that require makeup (as in “The English Patient”, “Red Dragon”, and the “Harry Potter” films) so often because he can then at least become the character visually, if not through acting. He has played major roles in two best picture winners (this and “The English Patient”, three years later), yet he’s been sinking into anonymity ever sense, and rarely manages to land lead roles.
This performance now stands as a reminder of what promise Fiennes once had, and what a great actor he might have been. For the first, and only time in his career (that I’m aware of) Fiennes really sinks into his character, and what a character it is. Goeth is a living monster, a man who initially seems sociopathic, creating chaos in the ghettos just for the fun of it, and shooting random Jews from his back porch as a morning sport. Yet never does this become over the top or campy: Fiennes plays Goeth with a quiet intensity and makes his bloodlust feel incredibly real. But the film doesn’t stop there, as it reveals many more sides of Goeth throughout. Once he makes his entrance the film adopts him as a new main character for the central section of the film. He becomes the embodiment of everything terrifying about the Nazi party, which remains terrifying even after 65 years later. The way Spielberg humanizes the character actually makes him more disturbing: where he could have been a cartoonishly evil Nazi caricature, it’s made clear that he is simply an extremely twisted man. In a jarring scene, he attends a Jewish wedding party with Schindler and is shown to be a fun loving man who enjoys good drink and beautiful women, just like Schindler (the two men are contrasted throughout). He has a strange, twisted relationship with a Jewish woman who he essentially imprisons in his basement, Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz); a part of him loves her, but his outlook on the world makes it impossible for him to see her as a human being. He dreams of taking her back to Vienna with him, while knowing that he will execute her when he has to leave. The multi-dimensionality and psychological realism of the character, along with Fiennes’ terrifying performance, makes Goeth one of cinema’s greatest villains.
At one point, attempting to defend Goeth’s actions to Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley, who weirdly looks quite different, but no younger than he does now), the Jewish accountant who is the real brains behind Schindler’s business, Schindler claims that were it not for the war, Goeth would be a different man. He’s probably right: were it not for the war and the Nazi party’s influence Goeth might have been a perfectly good man, at least in appearance, who never discovered his penchant for violence and torture, whereas Schindler might be a corrupt, greedy, anti-Semitic businessman who cares about nothing but his own profit. The strange relationship between Schindler and Goeth, and the way that Spielberg uses the two men as mirror images of each other is one of the greatest things about the film, and the characterization is by far the most nuanced of Spielberg’s career.
Then there’s the final hour, which contains nearly all of the film’s most famous sequences, and feels much more like a Spielberg film than the rest. After the languorous pacing of the first two hours, this all seems strangely rushed: first the film jumps several years to 1944; Goeth quickly disappears from the film as the Krakow ghettoes are closed down and he’s moved to Auschwitz. Realizing what will happen to the Jews, and transformed by the horror of Goeth’s actions and his friendship with Stern, Schindler starts up a new company making artillery shells, which is merely a front to prevent as many Jews as possible from going to Auschwitz, paying each worker’s wages to the Germans out of his own pocket. Then there’s the scene where he and Stern make the titular list, which is appropriately iconic, though it does whitewash history a bit to make the men seem more heroic.
The film’s most memorable sequence comes shortly afterwards, when a trainful of women who were meant to go to Schindler’s factory are instead shipped to Auschwitz. The confused women arrive to what they think is their salvation, only to be stripped naked and sent to the showers. The women stand there, sure they will die, only for the showers to turn and emit water rather than gas. The sequence is amazingly vivid, and Spielberg forces the viewer to share the emotions of the victims. It is also beautifully shot, as Spielberg takes the film’s stark contrast of light and darkness to new heights: the darkness becomes dank and foreboding, while any light becomes blinding and oppressive. It’s certainly one of most terrifying of any film about the Holocaust: this scene alone achieves what Spielberg set out to do with his film. The situation is corrected, and they arrive at the factory safely. After seven months the war ends, and Schindler becomes a war criminal and flees Poland. The scene where he departs, the people that he’s saved surrounding him, and is suddenly guilt stricken at the realization that he could have spared more money, and saved more people than he did, while Stern comforts him, is extremely moving, but is one of the few instances when Spielberg overplays his hand and makes the scene overly sentimental. The surviving Jews embracing and comforting Schindler is memorable and touching, but also a bit schmaltzy and unrealistic. And the final scene, in which the real Schindler Jews place stones on Okar Schindler’s tomb, accompanied by the actors who portrayed them, is a mistake: it’s the kind of crowd pleasing ending that would be more suitable to a Hallmark movie of the week than a great piece of cinema. It’s jarring, as if Spielberg thinks that the audience needs to be reminded that this isn’t just a movie, it’s an Important Social Message.
Despite the great praise I’ve given the film, it must be said that it’s far from perfect. It’s actually a bit of a mess structurally. In his attempt to make the ultimate statement on the Holocaust and the suffering of the Jews, Spielberg has stuffed several movies into this one. The film sometimes feels like a collection of great scenes, with little connecting thread. It is extraordinarily unfocused as well: Schindler disappears for long portions of the films, as do all the Jewish characters, Goeth becomes the central character for about an hour, before abruptly disappearing, only to return for a brief scene in which he is hanged (though this is partly an issue of history getting in the way of storytelling), and one gets the sense that the order of many scenes could be switched around without impacting the film in any way. Spielberg’s dabbling with color is a terrible mistake that comes off as a mere gimmick to get the audience’s attention: it’s as if he just couldn’t resist using special effects of some sort. And it can feel pretty baggy and overlong at times, mostly due to the complete lack of narrative drive until the final third. It’s the rare film that feels both too long, and a bit underdeveloped. This certainly doesn’t sink the film, and it’s doubtless that focusing the film more would have come at the cost of losing some memorable scenes, but it does hold it back from being the flawless masterpiece that it’s often claimed to be.
Still, “Schindler’s List” is certainly an important film, and one of the most moving and respectful tributes to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust ever put on film.
Schindler’s List: ☆☆☆ 1/2