Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
I don’t know if Schindler’s List is great art, or art at all. It’s perhaps dauntingly uncouth to label it such, but I know for sure that it’s a supreme and brilliant piece of popular entertainment with a pointed (and welcome) social consciousness, not just directed at the Third Reich and the Holocaust but the contemporary ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and the growing tide of anti-intellectual Holocaust denial in certain parts of the world. But there’s been plenty of message cinema in these last five decades that hasn’t lasted, and has by no means provided the impetus for widespread passion and disdain with such consistency as Schindler’s. That’s because Steven Spielberg, in a directorial post that almost seems like a stunt in retrospect (the project had at various times been handed to Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski and Billy Wilder), constructs his reading of Thomas Keneally’s fact-based novel as not the story of millions of victims or hundreds of rescued Jews but merely a glimpse at a hard and difficult, morally ambiguous man whose heart allowed him to be grudgingly, if temporarily, placed in the right direction — the direction, of course, of history.
What follows is written on the basis that the person reading has seen the film and is already aware of its relationship to history, which despite some embellishments is much more intimate than in most Hollywood period films, a suggestion of just how seriously director Spielberg took this, along with his crew who’d somewhat improbably just completed Jurassic Park (that film was being edited by the director and Michael Kahn during the evenings after shooting of Schindler’s for the day was complete). Documentary material issued by the Shoah Foundation provides direct sourcing for nearly all of the incidental situations depicted here, which somewhat justifies the erroneous reporting of 1993 that Spielberg had essentially concocted a stirringly realistic film that approached documentary.
It doesn’t even come close; for all its urgency, it’s a highly stylized and frenetic movie that defies the logic that would place it as a staid film school culture piece. Make no mistake: Schindler’s List won the Oscar and all of its prestige because of its subject matter (and, of course, its mostly stark and unsentimental treatment of same). But that’s the wrong reason, frankly; that isn’t what makes the film great or fascinating, both of which it is. Spielberg offers no explanation or broad context for the banishment, enslavement, slaughtering, gassing, burning alive of Jews during the War; he makes an assumption of our awareness that we live in a world in which this happened, has happened, is happening (that last part is most important) — and his nonchalance, achieved with constant handheld camerawork and an intricately achieved appearance of non-choreographed insanity, must shock and scar the rare uninitiated — and on top of this groundwork pits two men against one another. The context is in their service and ours, not in explaining or commentating upon the Holocaust.
It’s as a result of this specific idea that the film attains its emotional energy, its grip upon the audience, and its sense of absolute horror and excitement. What so many have missed is that this is Spielberg’s return to the young man who made Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind but has since come to terms with true misery and evil within the world; it’s as exciting as either film, and uses the power of a great and accomplished storyteller to enliven a moment, to run the conventions of cinema along the rim of deepest, truest terror. Spielberg goes for broke with no pause for a respectful distance in the vein of Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog; he thrusts us into the action, not as a thrill ride, but in a manner that gives us pause, fear, despair. By the end, we’re exhausted — ironically, after a greater level of anxiety and mortal trauma than Spielberg’s ever offered, the coda in which the real-live surviving Schindler Jews place rocks upon his grave is the first formal hint of a non-elevated real life in which hope can potentially prevail.
It’s the relief that the director deliberately failed to offer in the highly ambiguous, abrupt endings of his first three films — Duel, The Sugarland Express, and the aforementioned Jaws, all of which rhyme at various points with Schindler’s in a fashion shared with none of his ’80s films — because there is now the need to assert, to cope, to give some evidence of a shared human future. The film’s own consolations are so scarce; there is sex, and the glimmer of survival, but as the world’s richest pleasures are paired again and again with the manifestation of pure dread and animalistic violence and hatred, it’s clear that the picture being presented is of a world in which the solitary force that could conquer a hidden evil is absent. This is our world, and it can be rationalized in this feverish action movie fashion but it cannot be escaped, and Schindler’s is finally about the battle of a humanity’s violent impulses and most selfish needs with the compassion that must be ushered in for survival. It’s strong and uncomfortable, and it picks up and presents these enormous ideas with an assurance that Spielberg had not exhibited in over a decade. Indeed, he crafts a film that’s not even humorless or free of irony, and breathtakingly applies every cross-cutting underline he’d ever used, every trick of fast characterization he’d ever learned, to its greatest and most cinematic utility. Despite the hiatus he took afterward, there’s no question that this film intensified Spielberg’s cinema forever.
Spielberg’s motives have been variously called into question, along with some of the insertions in Steven Zaillian’s script, but Spielberg didn’t take a payment for the film and used its notoriety to fund the Shoah Foundation and a number of projects in increasing awareness of the Holocaust. On the other hand, the controversial (and decidedly ’80s rather than ’70s Spielbergian) addition of a closing monologue in which Schindler tearfully confesses to a grave level of guilt that he didn’t do more is certainly an ill-advised moment that rings false and lessens his value as a character, even if it was designed as catharsis; one last powerful rhyme with Sugarland and Duel could have been a man that wordlessly walked away.
There aren’t many other false notes. Janusz Kaminski’s black and white cinematography is breathtakingly gorgeous and gritty in the proper proportion; little wonder that Spielberg hasn’t used another D.P. since. The blocking is terrific and of course sobering, lending much of the wrenching realism of the piece along with the phenomenal use of extras and locations (the crew was disallowed from shooting in Auschwitz, but its appearance as a shadowy specter is somehow more appropriate, particularly as preceded by the ominous girl along the train tracks feigning a throat-cut, the most chilling moment in the director’s entire filmography).
Yet the greatest stroke of luck here must surely have been the casting; as Schindler and Goth, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes respectively put across perfectly the “mirror” effect presented by the script, as kind-hearted opportunist and bitterly lost war criminal display far more similarities than differences. Not only is this valuable for the sense that Fiennes’ compassionate, sometimes horribly funny performance humanizes the evil that runs across the backdrop of the film, it helps Spielberg and Neeson make the basic point that one heartfelt gesture of kindness or humanity can make the difference between the hero and the asshole — because both men, of course, are hard-drinking womanizers with little use for anything that doesn’t further their own respective agendas. It’s easy to draw a line to Rick in Casablanca, the man who’d stick his neck out for no one but then sacrifices everything, but the more sophisticated suggestion is of James Stewart’s nihilistic professor in Hitchcock’s Rope — at the end of that film, after much pompously dispassionate talk about murder and killing, he confronts an actual murder by two of his students with the statement that “There must’ve been something deep inside you that let you do this thing, but there must’ve been something deep inside me that would never let me do it, and would never let me be a party to it now.”
At the end, this hair of a difference between two men is the story of Schindler’s List, the ambiguity of good and evil even in stakes as high as these, the presence of humanity in the most horrible of systematically murderous crimes, boys just doing their “jobs,” the very reality of the way genocide can take hold and continues to. The implied conscience is manifested here as accountant Itzhak Stern, gently and powerfully played by Ben Kingsley — his face is our constant sobering suggestion that a brief lurking outside oneself can actually possibly improve the world we live in, possibly for long after we cease to inhabit it. Maybe Spielberg has succeeded in bringing that message and maybe he hasn’t, but his attempt is one of the most extraordinary American films of the last twenty years.