Wednesday, August 1, 2012

#31 - Schindler's List

BACK-STORY:  “Schindler’s List” was released in 1993 and immediately took a position among the great movies of any genre.  It was produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.  Modestly, he tried to convince Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, and Billy Wilder to direct the pic, but for various reasons they turned him down.  Spielberg refused to make any “blood money” for the film.  The movie is based on the novel Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally.  Keneally was inspired to write the book by one of the Schindlerjuden (“Schlinder Jews”).  The movie was shot on location in Krakow, Poland.  The scenes at Auschwitz used a replica outside the camp because Spielberg was refused permission to film in the camp.  The film won numerous awards.  It was awarded Oscars for Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing, and Original Score.  Liam Neeson was nominated for Best Actor and Ralph Fiennes for Best Supporting Actor.  It was the most expensive black and white film made up to then (topping “The Longest Day”).  It had been 33 years since a black and white movie had won Best Picture (“The Apartment”).  It is #8 on AFIs latest list of greatest American motion pictures.
Schindler is "smoking"
OPENING:  The movie opens with words telling us that after the fall of Poland, Jews were ordered to register and relocate to major cities.  Krakow was one of those cities.  Oskar Schindler (Neeson) strolls into the film nattily dressed and exuding confidence.  He goes to a night club and schmoozes some local Nazis.  He is a playa and a free-spender.
SUMMARY:  Schindler meets a Jewish accountant named Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley).  Schindler proposes a scheme where wealthy Jewish men will invest in a factory making war supplies.  Stern will run the firm and Schindler will be the front man.  He wants to make money.  At first Stern is repulsed by Schindler and turns him down, but soon he has an unexplained change of heart and the company is up and running.
                Schindler is an amoral cad.  He takes over the apartment of a wealthy Jewish family and does not think twice about why it is available.  He is also a grand womanizer.  He and his wife have “an arrangement”.  He is greedy and credits the war for his success.  He is very good at playing the game.  He bribes and flatters Nazi officials for them to look the other way.

               Stern begins rounding up workers from the Plaszow labor camp.  Schindler likes this because the workers are cheaper.  The Nazis are outsourcing them.  An awkward relationship develops between the two men and Schindler rescues Stern from being deported to a death camp.  He scolds Stern by telling him “what if I got here five minutes later, then where would I be.”

                SS-Lieutenant Amon Goeth arrives to take command of Plaszow.  The movie steps up to another level when Goeth agrees with the suggestion of a female Jewish engineer and then immediately has her executed for making the suggestion.  This powerful scene warns you to fasten your seat belt.  Goeth is going to be one of the most fascinatingly repulsive characters in any movie.  This is hammered in by his balcony sniping of Jewish inmates from his mansion overlooking the camp.
the little girl in the red coat
                The next extended scene is the famous clearing of the Krakow ghetto under Goeth’s supervision.  The chaos, fear, and helplessness of the Jewish families is powerfully depicted.  There are many memorable small touches and several appalling visuals like Jewish men being lined up in a row so one bullet can kill several at a time.  Schindler witnesses this from a hill overlooking the ghetto.  His (and our) attention is drawn to a little girl in a red coat who wanders through the hellish environment.  This departure from the stark black and white cinematography is genius.  The scene closes with the horrific blinking buildings as the Nazi death squads locate and dispatch Jews who had hidden until after dark.  Pathetically, they thought they had safely weathered the storm.
Goeth having target practice
                Schindler buddies up to Goeth and gets him to allow Schindler to open a sub-camp at his factory .  Schindler is in the process of changing from viewing his workers as pawns to make profit to human beings worth saving.  He takes particular interest in saving Goeth’s Jewish housekeeper Helen (Embeth Davidtz) who lives under constant fear of the mercurial Goeth’s moods.  Schindler even manages to convince Goeth to use his power to forgive rather than punish.  Goeth tries saying “I pardon you”, but it does not take.
                Although the movie is not set in a death camp, Spielberg manages to get in a scene with the selection process.  It's a depiction of naked Jews having to jog in front of doctors.  As the “healthy” evidence the joy of surviving they are whiplashed by the singing of the children who are being driven away in trucks.  This is audience manipulation at its best.  It is a Spielberg movie, after all.
                At this point the transformation (beatification?) is complete.  Schindler cons Goeth into spraying water on boxcars full of Jews waiting on the tracks to go to Auschwitz.  Goeth tellingly accuses Schindler of being cruel.  The other Nazis find this act of humanity to be laughable.  Schindler is now risking his life, but he gets in trouble for something seemingly banal.   He kisses a young Jewish woman at his birthday party.  This is where the schmoozing comes in handy as Schindler’s Nazi “buddies” bail him out. 
                When Schindler finds out the whole camp is being sent to Auschwitz, he convinces Goeth (with the help of a huge amount of money) to give him his workers.  Thus is born the famous “list”.  Each name on the list is going to cost him money, but Oskar prods Izhak to add more and more.  Schindler opens a new plant in his home town in Czechoslovakia.  He warns the Nazi guards to lay off the prisoners and insists on making defective artillery shells.  Transformation complete.     Unfortunately, the train transporting the women gets routed to Auschwitz in a seemingly contrived plot development that allows Spielberg to delve into the horrors of a death camp.  Mission accomplished.  The night arrival adds a nightmarish and ominous aspect.  This is amped up when the women are sent to the “showers”.  This could have resulted in the most horrific scene in cinema history.
CLOSING:  The war comes to an end.  Schindler makes a speech to the guards shaming them into leaving without harming the Jews.  Now the Jews are free and Schindler is on the run as a potential war criminal.  And he’s broke.  Stern and some of the others collect whatever gold they can get their hands on and fashion a ring with a Talmudic inscription:  “Whosoever saves one life saves the world entire.”  Schindler gives a tearful going away speech that laments not having done more. 
                In a slightly hokey post script, the actors and the actual survivors they portray lay stones on the grave of Schindler.  It may be hokey, but it is an excellent way to end the film and goes beyond the usual “this is what happened to them” blurbs you sometimes see at the end of movies.  It also lends credibility to the film.
Acting – A+
Action -  N/A
Accuracy -  B
Realism -  A
Plot -  A

Overall -  A

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Yes.  It is not your standard testosterone driven war movie.  It can be intense at times and certainly is emotionally draining.  This is a warning to males and females.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  This is a difficult movie to analyze for historical accuracy.  There is contradictory evidence on many of the incidents in the film.  However, based on my research, it appears that the movie is factually accurate for the most part.  Keneally is a reputable author and his novel was well researched.  He understandably labeled the book a novel because he invented dialogue.  This is not particularly unusual in the field of historical fiction.  Also, the Schlinderjuden have verified the accuracy of the film.
                Oskar Schindler’s personality and modus vivendi are realistic.  If anything, he was a bigger cad than Neeson portrays him as.  Emilie was certainly a forgiving wife.  This was no one woman man.  Neeson gets the charm right.  What is downplayed a bit in the film is Schindler’s voluntary involvement with the Nazis prior to Krakow.  The movie leads you to believe he was a Nazi just because it was good for business.  This overlooks his more active role in the Abwehr (German intelligence) before arriving in Krakow.
                The role of Stern is apparently close to the real Stern.   The “partnership” angle may be overplayed.  There is evidence that the list was more the work of a Marcel Goldberg and may not have had a lot of input from Schindler.  Goldberg was a loathsome figure who accepted bribes to get people on the list which resulted in people being removed from the list.  The Schindlerjuden did not have fond memories of him and he would have made a poor character in this film.  Some critics claim Schindler was in jail for bribing Goeth at the time the list was compiled and that Stern was not working for him any more at the time.  I lean toward Spielberg’s take on this issue.
                Goeth is accurately portrayed.  The essentials are there.  He did snipe at inmates, but from a hill (his house did not have line of sight to the camp).  The evil "haunted mansion on the hill" was justified in the film.  When Goeth was executed after the war for war crimes, it was specifically for killing over 500 Jews personally.  It could be argued that the real Goeth was more evil and without any redeeming qualities.  It is highly unlikely that Schindler was able to even temporarily humanize him.  As far as his creepy relationship with his Jewish housekeeper Helen, she appears to be a fictional character.
                The depiction of the massacre in the Krakow ghetto is realistic.  There even was a little girl in a red coat although the movie does not try to be accurate on her.  She survived.  Living conditions in the camp are well done.  The scene in Auschwitz gives a good idea of what that camp must have been like.
                The time line is admirably correct.  The movie does not take events out of sequence.  There is a simplifying of how quickly his first plant went from having a few Jewish workers to all Jewish workers, but this is cinematically excusable.  
                With regard to the anecdotal events in the film, they are a mixed lot.  Several are obviously fictional:  Schindler rescuing Stern from deportation, Schindler witnessing the ghetto evacuation from a hill, the Jewish engineer execution.  The kissing of the Jewess at the birthday party is true, however.
                The most problematical scene is the women being shipped to Auschwitz.  It appears to be added to the film for emotional manipulation.  It is based on an incident at the same time of some women being rerouted to a camp called Gross-Rosen.  A name that doesn’t quite have the impact of Auschwitz, does it?  As to the women being shoved into what appears to be a gas chamber, that is almost surely bull shit.  Highly effective bull shit.
                Interestingly, the movie does not go far enough in the redemption area.  Schindler’s progression to sainthood may seem Hollywoodized, but it leaves out all the efforts he made for his workers beyond giving them the security of employment.  He spent his own money providing them food, clothing, and medical care.  The movie underplays his encouragement of their religious rituals which included Jewish burial rites.  Most significantly, the screenwriter chose to leave out an incident where Schindler accepted shipment of two boxcars of literally frozen Jews and personally aided their recovery.  One less justifiable omission is the role that Emilie played at the second plant.  She achieved sainthood herself by cooking for the workers (who got 2,000 calories as opposed to the usual 900) and caring for the sick.  The movie gives her nothing to do except stoically support her philandering husband.
                Speaking of Hollywoodizing, the closing pushes the limits of realism.  Not surprising for a Spielberg film.  The bit about the ring (as someone sniffed, you can’t melt gold the way they did) and the final speech are on the cheesy side.  It might have been a good idea to tack on the actual survivor scene to leave that as the last image.
CRITIQUE:  Is it possible to make a film about the Holocaust that shows its horrors and yet is inspirational and has a happy ending?  This would seem undoable without hitting a hornet’s nest worth of derision.  Amazingly, Spielberg has pulled it off.  The achievement is awe-inspiring.  This is especially impressive because Spielberg stepped out of his comfort zone to make a movie that was not aimed at 14 year old boys.  It is really his first adult movie and he deserved to be rewarded for it. 
                The movie is technically top notch.  The choice to go black and white was a daring gamble that pays off big time.  It is now hard to imagine the movie in color.  The cinematography was an easy choice for the Oscar.  The lighting enhances the lensing.  The look of the film is not ostentatious, however.  You do not marvel at what you are seeing, you just register its proficiency.  John Williams (who at first thought he was not up to the seriousness of the film) is nicely understated and does not push emotional buttons like you hear in many epic movies (including some of Spielberg’s more recent films).  His Oscar was deserved.  It was his last victory.
                The acting is fantastic.  Neeson gives his best performance.  He nails the complex personality of Schindler.  Schindler’s redemption arc must not have been easy to play.  The character is refreshingly multi-dimensional .  Neeson even handles the final speech without marring the rest of his restrained work.  Ralph Fiennes matches him.  Fiennes gained almost thirty pounds by drinking a lot of beer to get ready for the role.  He is the embodiment of malevolence.  AFI placed Goeth at #15 on its list of Top 50 Villains (Goeth is the highest nonfiction character).  Kingsley has a less flashy role, but his portrayal of the wary and wily Stern is perfect.  The supporting cast is solid.  Special note goes to Embeth Davidtz as Helen Hirsh who lives in constant fear of Goeth’s mood swings.  The scene where he soliloquys to a petrified, very vulnerable Helen and goes from positing that Jews are not subhuman vermin to ruthlessly beating her is a strong scene with great acting.  There are several scenes in the movie that showcase the talents of the cast. 
                The plot is linear and traditional.  There are surprises within the structure, but the general flow is toward your typical Spielberg positive ending.  Thankfully, the ending is relatively true so it does not come off as contrived.  Although there is no evidence for it, you would think Spielberg looked hard for a Holocaust script that had a happy ending.  Those are pretty rare.  (“Escape from Sobibor” had already been filmed.)  The themes are fairly clear.  Obviously redemption is one of them.  Some others are that evil exists and can’t be cured.  One man can make a difference is another.  Lastly, the movie emphasizes the role of conscience in human behavior.  Goeth’s lack of conscience makes him, not Helen, subhuman.  The film is thought-provoking.  You can’t watch the movie without wondering what you would have done in the situations presented in it.
CONCLUSION:  “Schindler’s List” is the best Holocaust movie.  You can argue that it is not relentlessly bleak enough to truly replicate the horror, but that would have defeated the purpose of reaching a mass audience.  As a high school teacher I have no problem with this compromise.  The movie has enough horror to teach fools that the Holocaust was horrific.  There is nothing wrong with having positive role models in a Holocaust film.  Once again (I feel like a broken record), if you consider "Schindler's List" to be a war movie it is clearly underrated at #31.  However, I have to admit that when I think of war movies, I do not think of this movie.
POSTER:   Simple, effective, but inaccurate.  grade =  C  

the trailer

TRAILER:  The movie has no color and the trailer has no dialogue.  The trailer is unclear what the movie is about (it looks like a concentartion camp movie), but it is intriguing.  grade = A   

the girl in red scene


  1. Spielberg does have a tendency to pull rabbits out of hats to contrive a happy ending (e.g. the son's miraculous survival in War of the Worlds). The ending of Schindler's List almost gives the impression that the death camps were liberated and then the modern state of Israel was founded one week later. But maybe some such compromises are necessary if one wants to reach a mass audience. Even a "message" movie has to have some entertainment value. If it's too bleak and unappealing, no one will watch it, so they won't get the message, anyway. A case of needing a spoonful of sugar to help get the medicine down.

  2. the war movie buffAugust 2, 2012 at 7:12 PM

    Totally agree. I am not a Spielberg fan because his movies tend to manipulate the audience's emotions in a phony way. I did not mind the ending of SL mainly because it is fairly close to the truth. You mention "War of the Worlds". I can not stand that movie partly because of the utterly ridiculous ending. That is also the movie where Spielberg has unarmed civilians moving with the "getting its ass kicked" military TOWARD the aliens.

  3. I will have to watch it again. I remember finding it quite corny.
    I thought The Pianist and some others were far better.
    I find it highly manipulative. I don't agree about having to be positive, I don't even think you need to reach the masses, a few of the right people would be enough.

  4. I am not a big Holocaust movie fan so I have not seen The Pianist yet. I will see it in the next week and add to this post so please watch for it. I do feel that SL gets treated similar to Saving Private Ryan. I can't understand the hate shown these movies (I am not referring to you BTW). I recognize they are not perfect, but they are still excellent films.

  5. I didn't know there were such anti SPR and SL feelings. I suppose because they overshadow many, very probably better movies. It's tiring after a while to hear the same movies mentioned all the time. And they are both cheesy and glorifying.

  6. the war movie buffAugust 4, 2012 at 8:35 AM

    Any time you have movies that are critically and publically acclaimed, you will have people who try to elevate lesser films above them. A good example is those who insist Hamburger Hill is better than Platoon.

    I think you hear a lot about them partly because they are legitimately outstanding.

    I define cheesy as low budget effects. I think you mean schmaltzy which means overly sentimental. I disagree that either movie is cheesy or schmaltzy.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.