Part-Time Review: Schindler's List (1993)

Overall Grade: A+
*Schindler's List is a prestigious member of my Film Bible
*Schindler's List is one my Ten Essential World War II films

There's a scene near the final act of the film where Oskar Schindler, a German factory owner played by Liam Neeson, and his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern, played by Ben Kingsley, are creating a list of names - the titular "Schindler's List." The list of names are the Jews that Schindler is paying Amon Goeth, the commander of the Plaszow concentration camp played by Ralph Fiennes, enormous sums of money to bring over to his factory instead of shipping them to their deaths at Auschwitz. After finalizing the list, Stern removes it from the typewriter, holds it with reverence and says to Oskar, "This list... is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf." It's a beautiful and moving sequence showing the moral journey Schindler has in the film and I think it's one of the best and most moving sequences in all of cinema. To understand why, we have to start at the beginning of this film.

The film opens with the lighting of sabbath candles as a Jewish family says their prayers. A small montage of candles leads to the title card between two lit candles and eventually ends on one nearly exhausted candle, the film having gone black and white with the exception of the flame, ending in smoke. The candle smoke quickly transitions to train exhaust as we hear a train whistle break through the silence after the prayers (the foreshadowing here of the killing ovens we all know are coming is just devastating.) The train arrived in 1939 Poland where more than 10,000 Jews arrive daily and are being processed. The first English words we hear in the movie are from a bureaucrat to an arriving family, "Name?" We then hear a crush of names of the arriving families. This sequence is quickly followed by the introduction of Oskar Schindler who is preparing his fine clothes and jewelry for an important party attended by high-ranking Nazi's who could help his business. He arrives looking swanky, gives the head waiter a lot of money to be seated at the best table, sits down beaming with confidence, and the waiters and all the men in the room begin to ask, "Do you know who that man is?" Oskar buys drinks for important people in the room, makes friends, orders the finest food, grabs pictures with them, and becomes the life of the party. By the end of the night when the highest ranking Nazi officer walks into the party and asks the waiter, "Who is that man?" he replies with disbelief, "That's Oskar Schindler!" It's just the first ten minutes of the film and I cannot believe how perfectly the montage sets up the aims and themes of the story. 

The key thematic question here is this, will we acknowledge the sacred value of every human life or will we find ways to minimize, abuse, and override it? Schindler's List begins its narrative with Jews departing from a train and walking up to attendants who are making lists of their names as they enter the Jewish ghetto of Krakow. In this case, to be on the list is to be inferior and controlled by the state - less than human. This sequence is contrasted with Schindler's introduction at a German dinner club where he pays large sums to wine and dine Nazi top brass. He's doing it to network and get approval to start factories and get military contracts. His name becomes valuable because he's now someone who brings these high-ranking Nazi's joy. In this sense, names on a list, signatures, are everything to Oskar because they are just a means to an ends - his wealth. Schindler arrives in the Jewish ghetto looking to take advantage of the situation, using Jewish cash as capital to fund his factories and using the Jews as workers because they cost less. Stern tells him,  ". . . The Jews themselves receive nothing. Poles you pay wages. Generally they get a little more. Are you listening? . . . The Jewish worker’s salary, you pay it directly to the SS, not to the worker. He gets nothing." Schindler replies, "But it’s less. It’s less than what I would pay a Pole. . . . Poles cost more. Why should I hire Poles?" What's the value of a Jew to Schindler? Very little - they are just a quicker way of achieving his personal goals. 

You may be asking, how is the "based on a true story" of a selfish German factory owner (who was likely historically worse than portrayed in the film) named Oskar Schindler a responsible way to tell the story of the holocaust? This is a fair question, but I think the final product should assuage the concern. Through a fictionalized version of Schindler's story, the film is able to provide a unique window into most of the major steps that led to the holocaust: the registrations of the Jews, stripping of businesses, being forced to wear the star, re-location to ghettos, imprisonment in camps, forced labor, and ultimately murder. Along with the major elements of the holocaust, the film finds ways to include many of the grisly details and fates of the real world story: how some Jews took the chance to police their own people for better situations, the different types of working conditions within the concentration camps, different classes/types of people dealing their suffering, how children were handled, etc.

Another reason the objection doesn't pan out is due to how well Steven Spielberg, the director, has chosen to portray these events. Yes, on paper, the story is told largely through the eyes of the German Oskar Schindler. However, in reality, one of the great achievements of this film is how a great many plot and character threads are often woven together to cover a great deal of material in a short amount of time; all with attention to a grounded and realistic cinematic style. One great example is the editing of several sequences leading up to the liquidation of the ghetto where Itzhak Stern begins setting up Schindler's business and uses this chance to work behind the scenes to save and warn as many people as possible is a masterful. The sequence spans a decent amount of time but never stalls and feels like it always keeps moving forward, brining more education about the historical situation with every beat. We see the living conditions of the ghetto, learn how the black market works, understand how Stern can use Schindler's factory to protect people, see how the factory line works, and begin to see Jews who are deemed unneeded are filtered out of the community. The compilation is enormously helped here by a John Williams' score that has a dance like nature to it, giving a propulsive feeling to it. 

Another of these well composed compilation sequences is our introduction to the SS Commandant Officer Amon Goeth, played with chilling evil and humanity by Ralph Fiennes, and the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. Goeth is first introduced to us in three major scenes. In the first one, he is in the back of a car being given a tour of the Krakow ghetto. His response to the tour of the horrific living conditions he witnessed, "Why is the top down, I'm f***ing freezing." In the next sequence he is being given a tour of the under construction Plazow Concentration Camp where he complains about the size of his villa, picks a Jewish housemaid he's attracted to and then listens to the argument of a Jewish engineer that a dorm foundation needs to be rebuilt. He cruelly orders her shot on the spot with the simple justification, "We are not going to have arguments with these people." Once she is shot in the head Amon orders the dorm torn down and rebuilt just as the engineer wanted. The final Goeth introduction scene is the German liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, a day Goeth opines, "...Six hundred years ago, when elsewhere they were footing the blame for the Black Death, Casimir the Great - so called - told the Jews they could come to Krakow. They came. They trundled their belongings into the city. They settled. They took hold. They prospered in business, science, education, the arts. They came with nothing. And they flourished. For six centuries there has been a Jewish Krakow. By this evening those six centuries will be a rumor. They never happened. Today is history."

The German soldiers move into the city and with machine like efficiency they begin to identify housing blocks, move through them, evacuate the people within (with little warning), and place them on transports to concentration camps. Those who resist, those who protest, and those who try to runaway are shot on the spot. Spielberg's decision to film in black and white and use a lot of handheld shots really pays off here. Like many other sequences, the cinematography feels like a mix between a documentary and a film. It puts the viewer directly into the historical moment with a verisimilitude and perspective that still has the power to stun me on repeated viewings. People are not just shot in polite and viewer friendly ways like in most classic films. Instead they are cruelly murdered here by the SS and its portrayal on the screen is gut-wrenching. The entire liquidation sequence again brings many character and event threads together with expert editing. There's a heartbreaking beat where doctors decide to feed their most helpless patients poison before the SS arrive to kill them. Another sad beat is discovering the fate of those trying to hide in houses as SS officers are shown finding them while another plays the piano. One of the most moving beats is seeing a random little girl who is rounded up but then tries to get away and find a hiding spot. Her coat is a beautiful pink, the first color we have seen since the beginning of the film, and she is largely oblivious to what is going on. There's a moment later in the film where we discover her destiny that has to be one of the toughest cinematic gut punches I've ever experienced. This decision to portray the many threads of cruelty and random violence suffered by the Jews under the Germans lifts the story from being "about" Oskar. Yes, he's an important character, especially for the viewer who is expected to go on the moral journey with him, but I challenge anyone to watch and experience the film and tell me that he's the actual point of the film. Spielberg continues this shocking verisimilitude in the evils of the concentration camps and the horrors of Auschwitz. The sequences are forever embedded in my mind and heart. 

Finally, I think the choice to use Schindler as a window on the holocaust works because his character arc is largely meant to parallel the arc of the viewer watching it. As the story progresses and Schindler encounters Jews and observes their treatment at the hands of the Nazi authorities (he witnesses the liquidation of the ghetto from a hill overlooking the city), he undergoes a slow change. It happens in subtle ways at first, but then it becomes more and more obvious until he arrives at the moment I described at the beginning of this commentary. Like Schindler who observes the treatment of the Jews mostly from a distance, we the viewer also watch people on a screen. We too must grow to care for them as we learn of their lives, their wishes, their families. We have been told about the Holocaust in our schools (hopefully!), but they are largely just words on the paper, maybe with a a few pictures to help. Schindler's character arc mirrors the arc this story is attempting to give to the viewer as well. After we view what Schindler views, know what he now knows, will we grow to see these people as humans with value or will they just remain names on a list in history? 

There's a reason the movie goes out of its way to repeatedly find situations where they can say the names of as many of the Jewish people as possible. The creation of the list of names to be saved I described at the beginning is the moment that demonstrates Schindler has given up his previous views: to use the Jews as a means to his own ends - riches. The list demonstrates that Schindler has grown to know that a human life, each one, is sacred. That he must sacrifice the thing that meant the most to him, his riches, to demonstrate this is beautiful. This isn't the last time Spielberg has used the conceit of a list of names to depict whether we find value in a human life - think about it: in Catch Me If You Can Frank's ever-changing name showed his lack of integrity and peace with his self-worth, in Minority Report the pre-cogs produced a ball with a name of a victim and a perpetrator, in The Terminal Victor Navorski seeks to get his name on a list so he can enter the country, in an inversion of the list of life Munich starts with a list of names Avner must assassinate and he comes to realize it is dehumanizing, and in Lincoln the President demands the right amount of names to vote on a bill to end the de-humanizing practice of slavery. 

I could write much more and I fear that what I've already written is nowhere near worthy of this film. The topic of the holocaust is a big one and no one film can tell every story about it worth telling. For a list of recommended films to round out your understanding and knowledge of this tragic period of history check out my Guide to WWII Films on the Holocaust. Schindler's List is one of the greatest films of all-time and one you definitely should not miss. We must remember this history. We must face it in the way the film presents it: as cruelty, as hate, as evil. We must take the journey that Schindler does: to see every human life as sacred and to do what we can to protect it. It's a lengthy and exhausting film, but to paraphrase Stern's comment to Schindler, "The movie is an absolute good. This movie is life... all around its reels lies the gulf."

Overall Grade: A+