THE LIST IS LIFE. THE MAN WAS REAL. THE STORY IS TRUE.
In 1993, Schindler’s List was a seminal event, one of those things you simply had to experience. I was in school and every student was treated to a showing of the film, as part of a campaign to teach children about the Holocaust. Undeniably one of the finest films ever made about this grim period, it is bound to age with grace and teach new generations about the horrors of Nazism long after the last victims have died.
Steven Spielberg became familiar with Thomas Keneally’s novel at an early stage, but he felt too inexperienced to make the movie. So he waited, but in the early months of 1993 found himself shooting the film in Krakow, Poland. Sure, he had just made Jurassic Park, which was not very different from Jaws, but he had nevertheless reached a level of maturity sufficient to make this important film.
It begins in that Polish city in September, 1939. After conquering Poland, the Germans round up every Jew and confine them in ghettos. At about the same time, German businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) sees an opportunity to make money off the war. He strikes a deal with Jewish businessmen whose financial support makes it possible for Schindler to open an enamelware factory, helping the war effort. The accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) provides Schindler with cheap labor: Jews who would otherwise be sent to various camps. The enterprise is successful, but things change with the arrival of SS officer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). The ghetto is razed and Goeth builds a concentration camp, Plaszow; Schindler manages to keep his workers by bribing Goeth. As the war draws to a close, Goeth is ordered to send his prisoners to Auschwitz and Schindler feels compelled to take more risks to save his workers, the “Schindlerjuden”.
Three fascinating hours go by easily as we follow the plight of the Schindler Jews, surviving the bloody purge of the Krakow ghetto, the insane whims of Goeth who enjoyed shooting prisoners from the balcony of his villa in Plaszow, and the near-annihilation of those workers who were mistakenly transported to hell on earth, Auschwitz. Spielberg has shot his unrelenting film in black and white, an effort to make his work look like old WWII documentaries; there are plenty of haunting images, including some with effectful color tints, such as a girl’s red dress and the lighting of candles.
John Williams’s music is a magnificent achievement in itself, one of his most touching scores, made even more gripping thanks to violinist Itzhak Perlman. Neeson gives one of his most impressive performances as we follow Schindler’s journey from selfish, fun-loving war profiteer to dedicated humanitarian; Kingsley is equally good as his careful, hardworking bookkeeper. Fiennes is an eye-opener in his breakthrough as the thoroughly evil Goeth; his eyes are cold, but you can nevertheless sense the human being, his dreams and desires. Unfortunately, they aren’t pretty.
The film has its refreshing sense of humor, in the face of death. It also shows how random death was in those godforsaken times. Whether you survived or not was mostly up to luck, what kind of mood your tormentors were in, but there were also people willing to risk everything just to save a few from certain death.
After the war, 1,200 Jews owed their lives to Schindler’s manipulation of the system and the film ends with survivors and their descendants visiting his grave in Jerusalem, putting stones on it according to the Jewish faith. It is an emotional way to say goodbye to a real hero, but sentimentality never cramps this masterpiece.
Schindler’s List 1993-U.S. 195 min. B/W-Color. Produced by Steven Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen, Branko Lustig. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Steven Zaillian. Novel: Thomas Keneally. Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski. Music: John Williams. Editing: Michael Kahn. Art Direction: Allan Starski. Cast: Liam Neeson (Oskar Schindler), Ben Kingsley (Itzhak Stern), Ralph Fiennes (Amon Goeth), Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle, Embeth Davidtz.
Trivia: Billy Wilder and Martin Scorsese allegedly considered directing the film at early stages; Tim Roth was allegedly considered for the part of Goeth. Spielberg tried to get Roman Polanski to direct, but he was not ready for it after having survived the Holocaust himself.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score, Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Film, Supporting Actor (Fiennes), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Score, Editing.
Quote: “This list… is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.” (Kingsley)
Last word: “I always knew these things happened, but it’s different when you actually see the sign ‘Pomorska Street’, and you know all the horrible things that happened on Pomorska Street, but there’s the sign and there’s Schindler’s actual apartment, there’s Amon Goeth’s actual villa where he stayed. And to touch history, to put my hand on 600-year-old masonry, and to step back from it and look at my feet and know that I was standing where, as a Jew, I couldn’t have stood 50 years ago, was a profound moment for me as a re-creator of an incident in history; it meant more to me as a Jew. So, I went there the first time to research a movie and wound up researching my own Judaism.” (Spielberg, Inside Film)