Excerpted with permission from Reel Jewish (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).
Perhaps the most famous Holocaust film to date is Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece, which won Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay (Steven Zaillian), best cinematography (Janusz Kaminski), best original score (John Williams), best editing (Michael Kahn),and best art direction (Ewa Tarnowska and Allan Starski).
Unlike some of its predecessors, which begin with clouds, birds, and other symbols of freedom, Schindler’s List begins with the somber lighting of candles and the Hebrew blessing over wine. Spielberg and screenwriter Zaillian, basing their work on Thomas Keneally’s book, did not really wish to concern themselves with lives before, but only lives during the Nazi horror. To have “opened it up” might have lessened its impact. Even a cloud would have been too glamorous.
“Who is that man?”
“Who is that man?” People in the story ask this question about Oskar Schindler more than once, making him as enigmatic a character as Rick Blaine in Casablanca–although in quite a different milieu–and one of the most intriguing characters in all of Spielberg’s filmography. A womanizer, gambler, opportunist, and member of the Nazi party, Schindler–skillfully played by Liam Neeson–hardly seems the type of man who would break down and cry, ever. But at the end, when he realizes that he could have saved even more lives than he did, that’s just what he does, shamelessly and uncontrollably.
Schindler saved hundreds of Jews by hiring them to work in an enamel factory, an industry that was relatively safe from the Nazi authorities because its products were needed for the war effort. But he needs help to run the factory, which the German authorities initially finance, and so he turns to a skilled Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern, played with understated brilliance by Ben Kingsley.
“They put up the money and I do all the work,” Stern says to his new boss. “What, if you don’t mind my asking, would you do?”
“The panache,” Schindler responds confidently. “The presentation.”
As Schindler begins to turn what was a bankrupt factory into a successful one, he reclines one evening on a comfortable bed and says to his mistress, “It could not be better.” In the very next scene, a Jewish woman in a ghetto home says to her husband, “It could not be worse.” At the same time as Schindler is enjoying his good fortune, he also acknowledges that it is not luck that’s responsible for it, but war.
Humor, Irony, and Horrific Images
Like The Hiding Place [a 1975 Holocaust-themed film], Schindler’s List is a movie comfortable enough with its cast, story, and intentions to use a little gentle humor. When Stern hires a man with one arm and Schindler angrily asks him about it,Stern calmly says about the man, “Very useful,” much to Schindler’s disgust. Moments later, when a suspicious Nazi officer asks Schindler why he hired a man with one arm, Schindler says, matter-of-factly, “Very useful.”
More significant than the humor is the irony. When the Nazi camp commandant Amon Goeth, played with chilling evil by Ralph Fiennes, admires Schindler’s silk collar shirt at a party, Schindler states with casual abandon, “I’dget one for you, but the man who made it is probably dead. I don’t know.”
In a story like Schindler’s List, humor and irony are very quickly and easily overshadowed by sheer horror: Jews with foolproof hiding places are suddenly caught because of noise they make when trying to sneak out; children don’t give a second thought to hiding in latrines filled with human filth; Goeth relaxes in a chair on his balcony shooting Jews in the courtyard indiscriminately as if it were a carnival game. It is Schindler’s List at its most uncomfortable.
“One day this will all be over,” Schindler says to Stern in the middle of all the insanity; “We’ll have a drink.”
“I think I should have it now,” Stern replies. It, too, is a chilling moment.
Schindler becomes quite skilled at saving his Jews. At one point he grabs a girl on her way to Auschwitz and shows her little fingers to a Nazi official to point out how it is only little fingers like hers that can polish the inside of small shell casings in his factory.
The End & the Aftermath
At the end of the movie, appropriately gray and damp, there is a light that shines on Schindler when he talks to the soldiers ordered to kill the Jews before the camp is disbanded. “Here they are,” he says. “This is your opportunity. Or, you can return to your families as men, instead of murderers.”
The soldiers go, without firing a shot.
Upon first hearing the story of Oskar Schindler, Spielberg knew that this was a motion picture he needed to make both as an artistic and as a personal statement. He became interested in the book upon its publication in 1982, though it was more than a decade before the film was completed. Although it does not concern itself with the previous lives of the Schindlerjuden (Schindler’s Jews), the film does present them after this period of darkness. Several of them are shown at the end, as we read in a postscript that the group Schindler saved has more than 6,000 descendants.
“There will be generations because of what you did,” Stern says to Schindler after presenting him with a ring the Schindlerjuden made for him. The ring has the inscription, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” And now there is a bigger world to appreciate the movie that was made about the one who saved lives.