Film with Foote: SCHINDLER’S LIST
Editor’s Note: Welcome to the newest feature on Screen Invasion! John Foote will be taking a deeper look at a film every week from the past or present. He’ll discussed and review the films for better or worse and dig in to the history of the film’s making, the end result, critical and audience reception, awards or not and the overall impact of the film in the grand scheme of American cinema. Film aficionados will not want to miss this!
Cruelty and hatred have no place in the world, yet human history is dominated with such acts that show humanity at their very worst. From time to time, a person rises above it, displaying such extraordinary acts of courage and humanity at a time when it seems lost, it is barely believed. This occurs in Steven Spielberg‘s masterpiece Schindler’s List (1993), a true story, which comes to Blu-ray next week to celebrate the films’ 20th anniversary.
Why did Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party, a war profiteer make the decision to save the lives of eleven hudred Jewish workers at a time when the Nazis were attempting wipe Jews from the face of the earth? What did he see that caused him to reach down into his soul and make the decision to risk his life to protect the people who worked in his factory. They were nothing to him other than workers making him rich, yet at some point during the war he made the decision to protect these people, to spend his considerable fortune to bribe, and buy his workers from the SS. We are never given a clear reason as to why he does what could have had him killed, just that he does.
In Spielberg’s powerful film, the finest of his impressive career, we first meet Schindler (Liam Neeson) as the Jews are being confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, and he is making his move to become a wealthy man during the war. With money from wealthy Jews he buys a factory and outfits it to make pots and pans, finding a plant maner and accountant in Stern (Ben Kingsley) and bringing into the plant more than one thousand Jewish workers, who receive nothing for their work, except shelter and food, and not being sent to the death camps. The relationship between Schindler and Stern is spiky at first, as neither man truly trusts the other, yet when Stern is aboard a train headed for the death camp, it is Schindler who comes to his rescue, bullying the officers into releasing him to his custody. After witnessing the murders in the ghetto, there appears to be a change in Schindler and he works harder to protect his Jews. His Jews. Though it sounds terribly possessive, history has been calling them that for quite some time.
There is a moment in the film that is perhaps the turning point for Schindler. High atop a hill, horseback riding with a lady friend he witnesses the massacre within the ghetto and spots a little girl, perhaps eight, moving through the madness in a red coat. She is avoiding the killing, slowly weaving her way through the nightmare. Later as the Nazis hope to hide the fact they have killed so many, they dig up the mass gave to burn the bodies, and one of them is a child in a red coat. Is that the moment Schindler changes? It is for me. At that moment he recognizes that his people, the Germans, the Nazis are committing terrible atrocities against mankind, and he will not have any part of it. The millions he keeps in suitcases and hiding places within his apartment will be spent keeping these people safe until the war’s end.
Shot in stark black and white, the film has an urgency, an immediacy about it that is shocking as it unfolds. This is history, these are events that happened more than half a century ago, yet it as though we are there watching these moments of horror unfold. How terrible that we connect these events to Rwanda, or the Middle East with such ease. Have they learned nothing?
When a person is shot in the head, their body collapses under them and they fall to the ground hard, often bouncing up and down before settling into death. There is no glory in such a death, just a decision made, a shot, and death. The blood flows out of their head into the white snow like an abomination of nature. The realism with which this is created is startling and sometimes terrifying to actually think this happened, man thought so little of another man, woman or child he could do such things to them. High atop the camp below in his villa, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes( take his rifle onto the balcony and routinely shoots the Jewish workers below, for sport, because he can. He seems to take twisted glee in the power he has over them, which was long ago corrupted by his own blind faith in Nazism. Men are placed in a line, six deep, and a single shot is fired into the one at the head of the line to see how far the bullet will travel. So many of the killings happen in the background, to give us the realization that death was truly all around them, happening as routinely as crossing a street. Could the Nazis have hated so deeply that they actually made streets using the headstones of the Jewish dead, another attempt to eliminate them from the earth? Indeed they did.
More than any film he has made, Schindler’s List (1993) spoke to Spielberg. He would go home after a days’ shoot and weep at what he had created for the screen that day, knowing that at some point in history it had taken place. He left behind all his tricks as a director, those soaring musical scores, those sweeping shots of beauty, everything that made a film a Spielberg film was left out in place of handheld cameras, and a grim realism that gave the film a documentary feel throughout.
Liam Neeson will not likely ever give another performance of such subtle power. He does not need too, he is magnificent as Schindler, that mind always working, the wheels turning, thinking of how he can use what the Nazis are doing against them? Nominated for one of the films’ twelve Academy Awards, it is the performance of his career.
Personifying evil in the film is Ralph Fiennes as Goeth, a psychotic officer who loved what his power could be used for. He hated the Jews because it was his job to hate them, and he states to one of them within the film he does not consider them even human, which must have made them easier to murder in the manner he did. Yet there is also a self loathing about him that Fiennes brings to the performance. In love with his Jewish maid he is disgusted with himself, so he beats her to a pulp to punish himself in some sort of twisted manner. Fiennes too was nominated for an Oscar and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Ben Kingsley has often been called the conscience of the film, and his gentle Stern is indeed that for Schindler. “The list is life” he tells him, letting his boss know what the names on the list mean to the Jews, what his actions mean to them.
There have been criticism of the film’s final sequences as Schindler breaks down at not having done more to save more souls but the sequence works for me, it made me weep the first time I saw it and it made me weep today when I again screened it. My God I have even read a critic say that it was Spielbergs way of trying to find a happy ending for a film about the Holocaust, as if such a thing could be done.
When the cinema was first created, it was looked upon as a novelty, something for the lower classes because the upper class went to lofty art such as opera or the theatre. At some point in the very eary days of film it was discovered that film could take us wherever we wanted to go, into the past, or the future. It could hold a mirror to society and allow us to see our mistakes and triumphs. The best and worst of humanity is on display in this stunning film, and we are the better for Spielberg having made the picture. In every possible way it is a work of art and ennobles the art form.