Monday, December 5, 2016
(December 1993, U.S.)
It is my general habit before posting any of my films on this blog to watch the film again just to get a fresh perspective before expressing my thoughts and words. However, at this particular time in my life, I don't feel emotionally strong enough to handle a film as heavy and as tragic as Steven Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST. Rest assured, however, I've seen the film enough times since its release to offer an accurate and faithful post that will accurately reflect my thoughts and feelings on the film.
This epic historical drama of the Holocaust, based on the original novel called SCHINDLER'S ARK by Thomas Keneally, tells the story of German businessman and profiteer Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) and the period of his life during World War II Europe in which he saved the lives of more than a thousand Polish-Jewish prisoners by seeing to it that they were constantly kept under his employment. The film also stars Ben Kingsley as the Jewish accountant of Schindler, Itzhak Stern, and Ralph Fiennes as German SS Officer Amon Göth.
I think rather than continue with any specific plot points about a film that I believe has been seen by not only fans of Spielberg, but by anyone who truly believes in the art of cinema, I will rather reflect on moments of the film that personally touched or affected me in some way. While I take every film I write about to a personal level, I feel more than ever that it's the only real way to approach SCHINDLER'S LIST because it's how a film such as this affects us that makes it so important.
To begin with, the fact that the film is shot almost entirely in black and white is crucial because I cannot imagine this tale being told any other way. Color, in my opinion and many others, I'm sure, is a strong implication of life, spirit and joy. And while this film may end on a somewhat triumphant note, it's a bleak and grim telling of the most horrible period of 20th Century world history, so to tell it any other way would have been wrong.
One of the earliest moments to really catch my attention is, believe it or not, a very light moment in which Spielberg tries to extract a laugh from us within the film. During a montage of scenes when Schindler is interviewing secretaries, the bulk of them are beautiful girls who do not necessarily possess the required skills for the job. Still, Schindler cannot help but swoon over them. The last woman he interviews in unattractive, old enough to be his mother and types with great and efficient speed. The look on Schindler's face is that of disbelief and irritation. Spielberg, who is generally not known for his attempts at comedy (even he admits he's not always funny), may be seeking to lighten the burden on his audience, if for only a very brief moment, because he knows that our emotions are destined to be tried as we face the unspeakable evil and cruelty of the period.
In the film, there are endless Jewish prisoners, some that we come to know a little more than others, given their screen time (Itzhak Stern and the maid Helen Hirsch, being the best examples). The horrors that are bestowed upon them by the Nazis are almost countless and surely as countless as the hoards of people that are victims of it. Yet amidst the great mass of human beings all blended into a black and white tapestry of celluloid, there is the single little girl dressed in the red coat. Who is she and why does Spielberg choose to have her stand out among so many in one of the few moments of color in the film? Besides being a girl that Schindler himself notices among the massacres and then later sees when her body (again, identified by the red coat) is lying among many other corpses in a wagon, she is, perhaps, a symbol and a reminder of the colorful gift of life among so much death. I'm sure I'm likely a minority of this opinion, however. Spielberg himself confesses a very different approach in that she was supposed to symbolize the highest levels of the United States government knowing full well about the Holocaust's existence and choosing to do nothing about it. As he put it...
"It was as obvious as a little girl wearing a red coat, walking down the street, and yet nothing was done to bomb the German rail lines. Nothing was being done to slow down the annihilation of European Jewry. So that was my message in letting that scene be in color."
I'll have to take his word for it, but that still doesn't prevent me from forming my own feelings and interpretation as I've described above, whether they're agreed with or not.
Once again, keeping an optimistic tone in a world where there appears to be no optimism, there is a scene where a young Jewish boy and girl have chosen to be married, even as they live their lives as scared prisoners. They're married by a woman who confesses to not being a Rabbi, but will perform the ritual, nonetheless. As a typically cynical man myself, it's extraordinary that I can appreciate and even by touched by such an optimistic and hopeful institution as the vows of marriage taking place right smack in the middle of the refugee prison.
Throughout the film, we've come to understand early on that Oskar Schindler is a kind-hearted man who is deeply affected by the course of action being a member of Nazi Party is taking on his life and his business. There are numerous moments of mercy and sympathy that saves the lives of many of his workers, but it is the heat of the train and the hoses that I am constantly drawn to. Trapped like animals inside the train boxcars, prisoners are suffering in the scorching heat. In an almost trivial and nonchalant manner, Schindler urges Amon Göth to indulge him and spray the water hoses at the opening of the box cars to cool the prisoners off. By his facial expression, he appears to be treating the entire matter as if it were comical, but we know that his heart is in the right place to show mercy to the people. To be obvious about it in front of his SS superiors would surely mean trouble for him, even as he must sit there and listen to Amon Göth claim that his sympathy in itself is the worst kind of cruelty he can show these people. Again, it's a brief moment of light in a world of darkness.
Finally, there is the moment when the war has ended. The officers in Schindler's factory have been ordered to kill the remaining Jewish prisoners, but are convinced not to in order that they can return to their families as "men" instead of murderers. This is a poignant moment, indeed, but it's what follows later that just gets me in my most sensitive area. At the moment that Schindler bids a farewell to his surviving worker before fleeing as a member of the Nazi Party, his people present him with the engraved ring that quotes, "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire." Touched and deeply ashamed of who he has been in all of this, Schindler breaks down in their arms, claiming he could have done more to save more. Like laughter, crying can be contagious on film, and it's impossible not to feel for Oskar Schindler, regardless of his affiliation with unspeakable evil. By the time the film is nearing its end, black and white has converted to color and we are witness the actual Schindler Jews visiting Schindler's grave site in Jerusalem. The real people are accompanied by the actors who portrayed them in the film, each of them placing a stone on his grave (this moment just gets me every time!). What Spielberg must have undertaken to actually find these people after so long in order to bring their extraordinary tale to such an uplifting conclusion, is beyond me!
So what shall our final reflection and interpretation of SCHINDLER'S LIST be? How shall we, our children and our children's children come to view what is undoubtedly the most respected motion picture of Steven Spielberg's magical career? Shall we say that the big kid who loved aliens, archaeological adventures, Peter Pan and dinosaurs finally grew up with this one? No, I don't think so. As far as I'm concerned, he did that back in the 1980s with THE COLOR PURPLE and EMPIRE OF THE SUN. Shall we say that Spielberg finally comes to terms with his Jewish roots and faith, something he may have chosen to dismiss throughout most of his life prior to the making of the film? That, of course, is a reasonable assessment, as he has sought to make a film that is, by far, the most personal, intense and deeply uplifting piece of cinema he's ever offered us. Or shall we simply say, with immense gratitude, that the film finally tells a tale of the human spirit behind its will to survive during one of the darkest times of our own humanity that should never be forgotten? That is likely what I'll tell my own son when his time comes to watch SCHINDLER'S LIST. Perhaps I'll even show him the introduction by Spielberg himself that he recorded when NBC-TV premiered the film on February 23, 1997, uncut and uninterrupted by commercials, at Spielberg's request, in which he stated...
"I want you and especially parents to know that Schindler's List is more explicit and more graphic than anything you may have seen before on network television. I made the film for this and future generations so they would know and never forget that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and that history cannot be denied. I cannot be honest to that history or to the memory of its victims without depictions of violence and suffering...So tonight, in your homes, you will experience the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman, a member of the Nazi Party, a womanizer and a war profiteer, who saved the lives of more than eleven hundred Jews."
I saw SCHINDLER'S LIST early in 1994 with some friends. When the film ended, the entire theater was like a morgue, not only in its dead silence, but in the feeling of sorrow that was in the air. My friends and I did not speak to each other for nearly twenty minutes. It wasn't until later in the restaurant, after ordering our beers and burgers, that we were finally able to break down our personal walls and discuss to great length, the motion picture we had just witnessed and would never forget. I cannot imagine that anyone other than Steven Spielberg could have done such a thing to our emotions. For that, I thank him!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Amon Göth: "This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that. That's cruel!"