Steven Spielberg has always been a director for whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Spielberg had one colossal success after another (not including his mega-flop 1941) and yet he never received the critical praise that he deserved. Most of Spielberg's films at the time fell into two categories: adventure and science fiction. Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark became his crowning achievements in the adventure genre and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial the crowning achievements of his science fiction films.
In 1985 Spielberg's reputation for "popcorn entertainment" films changed with the release of The Color Purple, which was a historical drama about the plight of a black woman in a small Southern town in the early part of the 20th century. Spielberg made his next foray into the historical drama genre with his 1987 epic Empire of the Sun, which told the tale of a young British boy caught up in the horrors of war in WWII era Shanghai.
However, both of these films, which were met with critical and commercial success, would be outshined by Spielberg's monumental drama, Schindler's List. Schindler's List, which was based on the critically lauded bestseller (originally titled Schindler's Ark) by author Thomas Keneally, and told the inspirational and intriguing true story of a German industrialist named Oskar Schindler, who saved over one thousand Jews during the Holocaust.
Thomas Keneally's book, though based upon actual events, is considered a fictional novel. The reason being that much of the specific details of what actually went on during the Holocaust in regards to Oskar Schindler is still obscured. The novel therefore fills in certain gaps, mainly when it comes to dialogues, since it's virtually impossible to ascertain exactly what was or wasn't spoken. Yet the novel can still be viewed as an accurate account of Oskar Schindler's actions, and, perhaps equally important, of his uniquely contradictive character. Oskar was renowned for being a man of great personal contrasts. He was a German, a member of the Nazi Party, a war profiteer, a womanizer, and benefactor of forced labor camps, and yet, in this most unlikely of men, there was a redeeming factor, which cannot be overlooked. Oskar Schindler used his labor camp to save the lives of 1,100 Jews, who otherwise would have died either from the poor health of the concentration camps or from having been sent to extermination camps like Auschwitz.
The novel provides uncanny insight into the lives of the Jews who lived and died during the Holocaust. Through exhaustive research and by having interviewed numerous survivors and the remaining Schindlerjuden, Thomas Keneally created a novel of real historical relevance that also manages to be a powerful and staggering example of the horrors that humankind can inflict upon one another… and yet he also shows us that one individual can make a difference for the better.
Like the book, the screenplay walks a fine line between fact and fiction without falling into either category. The film's screenplay was written by Steven Zaillian, who chose to tell the story of Oskar Schindler without glorifying him or glossing over his flaws or the atrocities that the Nazis committed. Zaillian also decided to simplify certain aspects of the novel, leaving out many of the minute factual and historical details that Thomas Keneally filled his book with and instead Zaillian focuses on creating a vast emotional tapestry that evokes the chaos, desperation, and despair of the Holocaust. While the screenplay might not be as grounded in reality as the novel, it is still a fair representation of both the Jewish victims and the Nazi perpetrators. Zaillian also chose to focus more on the Jewish perspective than the book, which tells the story mainly from Schindler's perspective. In many ways this is an improvement over the novel since it better allows us to relate with the average Jew and empathize as well as sympathize with his or her sufferings.
The story begins in September of 1939 after the Germans defeat the Polish army. Jews are ordered to register their names and move into large cities. In Krakow, over ten thousand Jews arrive daily.
Enter Oskar Schindler, an Austrian-born businessman, industrialist, and Nazi Party member. Oskar is a heavy drinker and his insatiable appetite expands beyond his appreciation of hearty meals and fine wines, as he is also a connoisseur of forbidden fruit, that is to say that he is a shameless adulterer. Dressed in his finest attire and with a confident smile spread across, he is often found frequenting the high-end parties thrown by elite SS Officers, where he takes advantage of his wit and charm and furthers his social standings. From behind a cloud of cigarette smoke he gazes into the crowd of well to do gentlemen, high ranking government officials, and their attractive female consorts, knowing that he can wield his good looks and suave mannerisms like a seductive weapon and insert himself between any man and his young lover, sweeping her off her feet.
But Oskar is also a shrewd businessman and he takes full notice of how his associations with important Party members can help him to advance his financial successes. Soon, however, he will stumble upon the ultimate scheme, which will undoubtedly make him very wealthy. Oskar comes to the realization that he can hire Jewish workers for less money than he would have to pay Polish workers. So, Oskar opens Deutsche Emailwaren-Fabrik (D.E.F.), an enamelware factory and hires only Jews, which means that he can hire highly skilled and qualified workers for less and the Nazis, who will be able to help him assemble a group of useful Jews for employment, with a little persuasion of course, will back him. Oskar enlists the aid of Poldek Pfefferberg, a Jewish young man with contacts in the black market, and Itzhak Stern, an intelligent and resourceful Jewish accountant, to help him appear legitimate with other Jews. It's not long before Oskar and Itzhak have assembled a full workforce. Oskar also uses Itzhak's connections in the Jewish community to find financial backing for his new industrious enterprise.
By 1941 thousands of Jewish families are forced into the Krakow ghetto, an area equivalent to sixteen square blocks. Many of the wealthier Jewish families are kicked out of their homes so that high-ranking SS Officers may live in more posh surroundings. Meanwhile the number of soldiers in the city multiplies and with their presence comes a stifling atmosphere of oppression.
Wealthy Jews are made to live with the poor, Orthodox Jews find themselves housing with liberal Jews, and multiple families are forced to live together in single bedroom apartments. Valuables and precious family heirlooms are hidden in the hopes that they will one day be reclaimed.
As the Jewish people find their comforts and civil liberties being completely infringed upon, Oskar Schindler, on the other hand, enjoys the luxuries of the high-life that their misfortune affords him.
Soon the SS declares that all Jews are capable of working for the war effort are to be separated from those that have no skills applicable to either manufacturing arms and field supplies or other necessary abilities. Knowing that those who do not have papers listing them as essential workers will be considered expendable, Itzhak Stern begins hiring inexperienced workers and even goes to the lengths of forging papers for them to be able to work at the factory.
Oskar exploits contacts in the black market to acquire rare commodities including expensive clothing and the choicest foods, all of which he will use to gain favors with the SS and bribe them into supporting his factory.
However, the treatment of the Jews by the SS worsens dramatically and the Nazis become increasingly prone to random acts of violence, maiming and killing with complete moral indifference. While Oskar does his best to protect his Jewish workers, he finds that their ability to function in his factory is not as important to the Third Reich, as their ultimate dehumanization and humiliation at the hands of the SS. At one point a number of his workers are put on a train destined for a concentration camp, so Oskar goes to the train station and promptly blackmailed the SS Officers to let them go. Though, he may not have been aware of it at the time, Oskar's relationship with his Jewish workers was evolving into something more than just professional concern. He was beginning to respect them, though he was careful not to let it show.
Just when the Jews begin to acclimate themselves to their new lives in the squalor of the ghetto, the SS Unterstürmfuhrer Amon Goeth arrives and with him comes a new and unsettling unpredictability, for Goeth has a penchant for unexpected and ultimately unwarranted acts of brutal violence. Goeth is a sociopath and a sadist, though he fashions himself a philosopher and an intellectual, but whatever knowledge his sick mind may possess, his soul pays the deficit. He is as barbarous and cruel as can be imagined… and Schindler will need to win his favor if he is to keep his factory running. Theirs will not be a mutual friendship, though Goeth never suspects that Schindler loathes him and only uses him to ensure that his manufactory remains open. Goeth becomes infatuated with his Jewish housemaid, Helen Hirsch, whom he takes delight in beating up to boost his Olympian ego.
On March 13, 1943 Oskar witnesses the liquidation of the ghetto, when Goeth and the SS forces clear the Jews out of the slums of Krakow and into the Plaszow concentration camp. Oskar watches in indefinable horror the rape of a people. The ghetto is consumed by madness, desperation, and violent chaos as the SS confiscate anything of value, as they murder at whim and as they evict the Jews from their homes. Over the next few days, the SS scour the ghetto in search of any Jews in hiding. Those that they find are either immediately shot or sent to the Plaszow forced labor camp, where their sufferings will only be prolonged. There Goeth often sits upon the balcony of his hew house, which overlooks the dreary camp, and when the mood sets upon him, and it does often, he shoots Jewish passersby with his rifle… like their deaths is to him a sport at which he considers himself a great sportsman. Among his many victims, most of whom will remain nameless and faceless to the rest of the world, are a woman who stopped working to tie her shoelaces, a young man who was not thorough enough in cleaning Goeth's bathtub, an old woman too tired to push a heavily loaded wheelbarrow, and many others, whose identities and personal stories are lost to history, their lives undone and their individualism reduced to the simple numbers of a virtually endless body count.
During all of this senseless, impersonal destruction, Oskar Schindler begins to displays changes in his character. Though the success of his business is still imperative, he begins to show a real passion for saving lives. Yet he must keep his true interests hidden from the Nazis, else he himself is placed within a camp.
Meanwhile Goeth's murderous habits escalate and it matters not to him why he kills, whether over a trivial conflict or simply out of boredom, but Oskar realizes that he must step in and try something, anything to end Goeth's prolific killing. As Goeth's death toll grows, so too grows the number of workers at Oskar's factory. Rumors begin to spread amongst the Jews that Oskar isn't like the other Germans and that his factory is a safe haven for Jews, that is a sanctuary from the harsh cruelties of the SS. Soon, in spite of the very risk to his own life and the financial setbacks it causes him, Oskar Schindler begins using bribes to secure places at his factory for Plaszow Jews who are likely to be in the greatest danger.
After having a discussion with Goeth's housemaid, the oft-abused Helen Hirsch, about the terrible things she's seen Goeth do, Oskar attempts to intervene in a more direct manner. One night, after a large dinner and having drunk much wine, Oskar tries to appeal with Goeth's ego and explain to him that he shows his superiority and control, not by slaughtering the Jews, but by allowing them to live. Killing can be done by anyone, but only a man of immense power can stay his own hand and show mercy. This is obviously a ploy to manipulate Goeth into being more forgiving, and for a time it actually works… until Goeth's inward anger and self-loathing build up to the point where he must vent it on another human being. The indifferent killings begin again and the victims are just as random as before.
Soon the "selections" begin, during which all Jewish prisoners at Plaszow are made to pass tests showing their capable of working, they are stripped naked and shaved so that "doctors" can examine them and ascertain the condition of their health. Those unable to work and those of questionable health are sent to other camps such as the notorious Auschwitz, where the unspeakable horrors that take place therein are not entirely known to the Jews. During one of these "selections", one of these grotesque and degrading spectacles, the majority of children at Plaszow are gathered up and put onto cattle cars, the Nazis' preferred form of transportation for the so-called untermensch (sub-humans), and sent away to death camps. All of this happens while their parents are held back at gunpoint. Most of them shall never see or hear of their children again.
On a particularly hot day Oskar decides to hose off the Jewish passengers loaded into the cattle cars. Goeth, amused by the idea, permits it, but only because he sees Oskar's act of compassion as taunting them with false hopes of survival. However, the joke wears thin when it becomes clear that Oskar is actually concerned about their well-being on the long train trip to whatever damned camp they were being taken to. Many of the SS Officers start to take special notice of Herr Direktor Oskar Schindler's strange behavior and some even suspect him of being a "Jew-lover". These suspicions cost Oskar and he is arrested for breaching Aryan-Jewish conduct protocol and for inappropriately relating to the untermensch Jews. Luckily for Oskar, he has friends in high places and he's released after a harsh warning and short stay in a prison cell.
By April of 1944, the whole world seems to be upside-down. Goeth has been ordered to immolate the bodies of over ten thousand Jews killed during the liquidation of the ghetto or during their stay at Plaszow. The ashes of the deceased float through the air and descend upon the streets. It would be impossible not to breathe in the horrific aftermath of the slaughters. The Nazi party had begun its inevitable decline and all evidence of war crimes must be erased.
Goeth tells Schindler that the prisoners at Plaszow are being moved to Auschwitz and that Schindler's Jews will go along with them. Oskar cannot accept this. He must not accept this. In their mutual desperation to save as many lives as they can, Oskar and Itzhak Stern devise a plan to relocate to another factory in Czechoslovakia and with as many of the Jews he can take. Oskar digs into his savings and actually pays for each and every Jew he saves. In the end, over eleven hundred Jews shall live through the war because of him.
The film features an astounding cast, including Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern, Ralph Fiennes as Commandant Amon Goeth, Jonathan Sagall as Poldek Pfefferberg, and Embeth Davidtz as Helen Hirsch. Each member of the cast is remarkably well cast in their respective roles. And though none of the performers were honored with wins at the Academy Awards for 1993, all of them delivered award-worthy work.
Liam Neeson gives the most naturalistic and moving performance of his career as the complex Oskar Schindler, and in the final scenes of the film his character's quiet desperation and regret are enough to bring tears to the eyes.
Ben Kingsley gives his most impressive performance since his 1982 turn in the title role of Gandhi, for which he was given many accolades. But his role as Itzhak Stern is perhaps even more moving and I can't imagine that there's any other actor playing the part. Kingsley manages to create deeply intelligent and morally conscious character, who is in many ways (at least in the film) the catalyst that sprung Oskar into action.
Ralph Fiennes is heart chilling as the remorseless Amon Goeth and he really captures the character's hatred of himself and how he redirects that hatred upon his victims.
Jonathan Sagall is wonderful as Poldek Pfefferberg and lends him with a nervous masculinity and cynicism, which seems entirely appropriate.
Embeth Davidtz is terrific as Helen Hirsch, especially in the scenes in which she tells Oskar about the abuse she endures and the terrible things she's witnessed at Goeth's villa.
I often find that Steven Spielberg's films, especially his earlier films, lack a strong visual narrative and that often it feels as though he's just placed one scene clumsily after another. In most cases, the films are so well directed and acted and feature such brilliant special effects, that it doesn't matter. However, in Schindler's List, this becomes a wonderful strength rather than a weakness as it shows the pure chaos and confusion of the Holocaust.
The film, like most of Spielberg's films, was edited by Michael Kahn, who really gives the story a strong structure and because of this we aren't distracted by issues of either continuity or any anachronisms within the plot, but instead focus our attentions solely on the dilemmas of the characters and the way that it affects us on an emotional level.
Also like most of Spielberg's films, in fact every film since The Sugarland Express, Schindler's List was scored by genius composer John Williams (Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and the Star Wars films). Williams creates a haunting score that embraces minimalist emotions rather than the dramatically over-the-top orchestral melodies that he creates for epic adventure films.
Another element of the film that I must point out is the beautiful cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, who creates a stark black and white world that symbolically represents the oppression of the Jews by the Nazis, but also was reminiscent of German Expressionist and Italian Neo-realist films. He also used methods that are common in documentary-style filmmaking, which is why the film feels so realistic, almost as though we, the audience, are witness to the real historical events.
This brings me to what may be the most technically important component of the film. With this film Steven Spielberg matured as a director and really branched out creatively, trying new methods and allowing himself to experiment with the medium. It was also the first time that he made a film that dealt with his Jewish ancestry, which is perhaps what makes this film so powerful. In each frame, we can see Spielberg's anger and anguish about the Holocaust, not only as a Jewish filmmaker, but as someone deeply moved by the subject, a subject that is of both great historical and personal significance.
Spielberg also employed a level of artistic vision in the film, which makes the film unique in his body of work, using various forms of symbolism to tell the story. For the most part the film is shot in black and white, however there are sequences of color.
In the opening title sequence, we see a menorah being lit while a group of Orthodox Jews recites prayers during the Shabbat. This sequence begins in color, but then dissolves into black and white, the only remaining image of color being the small flickering flame of the menorah. This could be said to represent the fragile hope of the Jewish people during the Holocaust or as a metaphor for the gradual disintegration of traditional Jewish rituals.
Later in the film color is reintroduced for the second time as a young girl in a red coat wanders through the streets as the ghetto is being liquidated. All around her is chaos, death, destruction, but she seems almost invulnerable to it all, like she was just walking through it and would ultimately arrive at some destination of safety. But that was not to be the case. Schindler watches mesmerized by this little child wandering through the ghetto unharmed. In the novel, he wonders why the SS would allow a child to walk among the corpses littering the street and he comes to the conclusion that the SS Officers don't care what she sees because she's going to die anyway. Maybe not at that exact moment, but her death, like the death of all Jews, was intentional and inevitable. In this scene the color could either represent, once again, the fragile hope of the Jews as they are being removed from their homes and massacred or it could represent the incorruptible innocence of the little girl.
In a later scene we discover that the little girl did not survive, when we see a cartload of corpses being unloaded into a fire. In the cart, her physical features obscured by the other bodies piled around her, is the dead body of the little girl, her red coat visible. Oskar watches in horror as the cart is pushed off. Some feel that he's only just realized that the ashes that have been falling from the sky were the remains of people. However, this is highly unlikely to be the case since he's aware of the incinerators before this time in the book, but also because there's a moment when as he's getting into his car he brushes the ashes from his coat. There's a look in his eyes of disbelief at what's happening around him. It's snowing death. In this scene the red coat could either represent the blood of the innocents that died at the hands of the Nazis or it could represent the fact that for many, there was no longer any sign of hope. The Jews were being, quite literally, decimated and some thought that their people were doomed.
If indeed the color in the film represents hope, then the Jewish people will survive all hardships, despite the countless deaths along the way, that this like the biblical Exodus was just another trial of God to test his chosen people.
Now I cannot claim to know what the real reasons were for the use of color. What I have listed above are simply theories and there are many more. But whatever Spielberg's intentions were, the use of colors in a predominantly black and white film only heightens the emotional impact and the poetic sensibilities of the film.
Schindler's List would go on to win seven Academy Awards and numerous other awards, as well as becoming Spielberg's most critically acclaimed film. It is truly his masterpiece. However, not everyone embraced the film.
Some of the criticisms of Schindler's List were in regard to the fact that, other than the first shot and a couple of brief shots in other scenes, the film doesn't really depict many Orthodox Jews as being in either the ghetto or the camps, and there have also been people who accused the film of focusing on liberal and modernized Jews. However, I don't feel that this is necessarily the case. I cannot say whether there's any validity in these claims because, of course, I was not present while the film was being made. Still, I find it hard to believe that Steven Spielberg would intentionally try to exclude Orthodox Jews from the film or attempt to isolate or alienate any Jewish viewers.
Another common complaint about the film (this should come as no surprise) is that it is historically inaccurate. Of course it would be impossible for any filmmaker to create a purely accurate portrayal of what went on in Krakow or in any of the ghettoes or concentration camps. The fact is that it's not humanly possible to condense all of that historical information, all of those different perspectives, all of those emotions into a three-hour movie or even a ten-hour movie. The Holocaust was too vast, the people affected too many, the motivations too disturbing to put onto film in all of their intensity. So yes, the writer and the director take occasional liberties with the sequence of events, they do minimalize and/or emphasize certain aspects of Thomas Keneally's book, and they do fictionalize some characters and some incidents for dramatic purposes. But these changes are made to better suit the cinematic medium. These alterations and deviations from historical fact aren't relevant to the film's emotional impact, and after all, while books are superbly crafted composites of knowledge and information, films are intended for evoking emotional responses more than intellectual ones, though of course there are films that can do both. Does this in any way cheapen the sentiments of the film or of the film's overall historical value? Perhaps, but at least it will provoke a much-needed dialogue about anti-Semitism, government enforced racism, fascism, and genocide. Maybe the film will even inspire people to research the facts about the real Oskar Schindler and the Schindlerjuden. How can that be a bad thing?
For further information regarding the real-life Oskar Schindler or the Holocaust, please visit the following websites:
Wikipedia Page on Oskar Schindler
USC Shoah Foundation
The Center for Judaic Studies
Holocaust Awareness Institute
Wikipedia Page for the film Schindler's List
IMDb Page for the film Schindler's List
What did you think of this review?
By employing Jews in his crockery factory manufacturing goods for the German army, Schindler ensures their survival against terrifying odds. At the same time, he must remain solvent with the help of a Jewish accountant (Ben Kingsley) and negotiate business with a vicious, obstinate Nazi commandant (Ralph Fiennes) who enjoys shooting Jews as target practice from the balcony of his villa overlooking a prison camp. Schindler's List gains much of its power not by trying to explain Schindler's motivations, but by dramatizing the delicate diplomacy and determination with which he carried out his generous deeds.
As a drinker and womanizer who thought nothing of associating with Nazis, Schindler was hardly a model of decency; the film is largely ...