Schindler’s List (1993)
(for language, some sexuality, nudity, and realistic violence)
Released: December 15, 1993
Runtime: 195 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Embeth Davidtz
(A section near the end of this review contains possible spoilers about the finale. That section is designated accordingly.)
Schindler’s List is one of those few films – indeed, one of those rare works of art – to actually transcend its medium. That is to say, “It’s more than just a movie.” For me, and perhaps for many, it was the first to do so.
Many films and filmmakers make that claim but few truly live up to it, either in their time or, more significantly, over time. For Schindler’s List, not only did it create a singular cinematic experience that few people ever had (with a subject matter so ubiquitous, no less, that it’s virtually a genre unto itself), but its gut-turning depiction of genocidal masochism was as close as any movie had ever come to recreating the 20th Century’s greatest systematic crime against humanity. It left audiences en masse shaken, and changed.
And like true art that transcends, Schindler’s List actually achieves a symbolism and power (particularly in its final moments) that Steven Spielberg didn’t even intend to articulate – but he did. Such profound truth is only reached when a story is told with this degree of integrity. Here, that truth goes beyond what is so gruesomely, prodigiously captured. Emblematically, Schindler’s List charts the soul’s spiritual path that must be taken in this life and into the next, to the very seat of judgment.
I’ll unpack that in a bit. But first, the film itself.
This is the true story of Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party war profiteer who ultimately used his own power and wealth – under the guise of business for the war effort – to help save over 1,100 Jews from certain death in Hitler’s concentration camps. This was all done not only at his own expense, but at risk to his own life.
And yet he was an enigma. For most of his adult life, Oskar Schindler was a self-aggrandizing philander who paid off and schmoozed the political elite to help better himself and his businesses, all which were taking advantage of cheap, marginalized ethnic labor. He was Donald Trump, but with a conscience.
Schindler was such a contradiction that his story should humble us; it should cause us to check our quickly-drawn assumptions about people to whom we’re morally indignant. Would Donald Trump rise to such a moment, in the face of such a Holocaust? You may think you know, but you really don’t.
More importantly: would you? And more relevantly, as we look around the world today – particularly the brazenly brutal holocausts and genocides perpetrated by the likes of ISIS – are we? The answer to that question is not only clear but damning. Yet any time an important WWII anniversary rolls around, we proudly and vainly declare “Never again”.
For Schindler, the turning point begins while witnessing the liquidation of Krakow by SS troops. It’s a dehumanizing act of calculated precision, one that Spielberg personalizes for Schindler through a little girl in a red coat (who stands out to Schindler amongst the chaos; and to us, too, in this black-and-white film). From this moment, Schindler’s soul begins to wrestle with his ambitions. Previous isolated incidents may have pricked his conscience, but his response was anger, not guilt, and his greed would easily suppress them. No more. This is the true story of how a Donald Trump becomes a Moses.
His turn is gradual, not instant, and it comes with great resistance. But when it does, Spielberg defines it for Schindler – and us – by allowing him to glimpse the fate of that little girl in the red coat. It’s a powerful bookend. Moving forward there’s no turning back; his every effort is to save as many Jews as he can, and not just indiscriminately. Schindler was strategic to rescue entire families – husbands, wives, and children – and would threaten blowing his cover to save families that were being torn apart.
Schindler must contend with many soldiers and bureaucrats, and one in particular: Amon Goeth, a camp commandant portrayed with chilling sociopathic sadism by Ralph Fiennes, in a career-making performance. The focus on Goeth allows us to put a face – and a life – to such callous evil. We’re not made to comprehend it but, simply and fully, see how its schizophrenic brutality played out. It’s just as important to see the aggressor’s pathology in detail as it is the victims’. If we only see the victims’, we’re left asking “But how?!” With Goeth, we see how.
Fiennes was so effective that it’s taken over twenty years for him to be able to break out of his serious and brooding typecast and into comedies both dry and broad (to which he’s amazingly adept, particularly in contrast to what he conjures here).
Within his storyline we’re given another, that of his Jewish maid Helen Hirsch, with whom Goeth is enamored even against his deep-seeded anti-Semitic impulses. Embeth Davidtz gives a powerful, heartbreaking performance as the used and abused Hirsch, yet another expression of survival in a time and place filled with an unconscionable variety of them. She and Fiennes were both Oscar-worthy, though neither won.
The same is certainly true for the film’s star (in another career-defining performance) Liam Neeson. His combination of gregarious charm and commanding stature tell us everything we need to know about Oskar Schindler in an instant, yet over the course of three-plus hours we see in him every variation of soul-searching struggle…
…from selfish justification to selfless conviction and every phrase in-between, and the moral weight of carrying such burdens. It’s as rich a performance as you’ll ever see, yet also made complete by Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern, the Jewish account who humbly but strategically served not only as Schindler’s financial accountant but also his moral one.
This was filmmaking on a whole other level, even for Steven Spielberg. Right from the start, we see the skill and vision of what’s to unfold as Spielberg contrasts Jewish ghetto life with that of Schindler’s. For the opening ten minutes, he’s not establishing a story but an experience. Not narrative but characters. All through visuals rather than dialogue or exposition.
While always artful, Spielberg’s camera goes handheld in those ghettos, a new aesthetic choice for him that matched the veracity of archival footage; long-time editor Michael Kahn cuts it together with a crisp (at times aggressive) tempo. That’s then contrast with our first glimpse of Schindler as he dresses for a party; glossy, smooth, glamorous, and edited with elegance. (Schindler’s portion includes a Spielberg Oner as he first enters a dinner party, taking him from a wide at his entrance to a medium when he’s seated).
These two aesthetics remain throughout, as contrasts – the first more hewn as documentary, at times capturing truly barbaric horrors, and the second is more classically Hollywood – before finally merging (as they symbolically do within Schindler himself) in that climactic final hour. Like all cinematic masterpieces, you get the clear sense that Spielberg was driven more by gut-feeling and instinct than any plan he’d set, perhaps like he never had before (or has since).
Yet he was also consciously crafting visual poetry, perhaps best exemplified in this image:
Schindler stands on high from his office, looking over all that he surveys – including his indentured Jewish workforce – but we see him in his window’s reflection, in pensive contemplation, as a flickering fire burns directly over his heart. It’s an image perfectly composed to reveal the man’s internal state and struggle at a key formative stage. It’s subtle. It’s beautiful. It’s everything in a single frame. It’s art.
And then there’s that finale.
(Possible Spoiler.) My own experience with it is on a spiritual level that Spielberg most likely didn’t intend, but I was provoked by the possibility of what it could represent: The Final Judgment.
In the scene, Schindler is crippled by soul-crushing guilt, even in light of all the good that he did. Perhaps like Schindler (who’s consoled and comforted by Itzhak Stern), those who are received by the warm embrace of a Loving God – even as He whispers “Well done, good and faithful servant.” – will likewise be overwhelmed by all they could’ve done, by all that was within their power to do, but didn’t. It will be an irreparable, inconsolable shame that will bring even the righteous to their knees.
For the righteous, the Bible says, must face judgment too. I don’t claim to know exactly how that will go down (it is a mystery, beyond sparse and specific Scriptural passages), or that the dynamic portrayed here mirrors any specific orthodox theology, but this may be the closest thing I’ve ever seen to possibly suggest the nature of its exchange, and its weight upon our souls. (End of Possible Spoiler.)
Suffice it to say, that weight was felt by audiences in the here-and-now. Packed theaters would remain seated in stunned silence as the credits rolled, punctured only by random cries, sobs, even convulsions. The impact wasn’t simply emotional but spiritual. I’d never before experienced anything quite like it.
The greatest film of its time, it will remain – both thematically and cinematically – one of the most important of all time. Spielberg’s impact on movies and culture is clear yet incalculable, but one thing is for certain: Schindler’s List was the film Steven Spielberg was born to make.
Well done, good and faithful servant.
- One of the longest Spielberg Oners is the scene in which Helen Hirsch shares with Schindler about the abuses she suffers at the hands of Amon Goeth. It’s an emotional confession that runs for 2:15, unbroken, slowly shifting from a wide then to a medium and then finally a close-up.
- MCA Universal President Sid Sheinberg, Spielberg’s father figure in the industry, gave Steven Thomas Keneally’s book when it was first published in 1982. Spielberg’s response: “It’ll make a helluva story. Is it true?”
- The studio held on to the book’s rights explicitly for Spielberg, but the project languished for ten years as the director remained reluctant to tackle the material he didn’t feel he was ready for. In that time, legendary director Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Apartment) sought to acquire the rights from Universal to make it as his final motion picture, but to no avail.
- Spielberg finally gave up the rights – to Martin Scorsese. Spielberg would remain on as producer, but during the filming of Hook Spielberg finally realized he was ready to tackle Schindler’s story. As a tradeout, Spielberg gave Scorsese a property that Steven had been developing: a remake of Cape Fear. Both films would be each director’s next after that deal was struck.
- Harrison Ford was Spielberg’s first and only choice to play Oskar Schindler, but Ford graciously turned it down, telling Steven that he needed to cast someone without the baggage of a movie star; that audiences needed to see Oskar Schindler, not “Indiana Jones”. Though hard to know for sure, it was a choice that possibly cost Ford an overdue Academy Award.
- On days when the experience of shooting became too overwhelming, Spielberg would call his close friend and Hook star Robin Williams to have him perform stand-up comedy over the phone for the entire crew.
- This was the 2nd time Spielberg had released two films in one calendar year, the first in the summer (Jurassic Park) and the second in December (this). The first time was in 1989 with, respectively, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Always.
- Spielberg refused to take a salary for the film, feeling that – as a Jew – it would be “blood money”. Instead, Spielberg used his profits from the film to start the Shoah Foundation. That would become the focus of his life during a 4-year directing hiatus, as the foundation went all over the world documenting video and audio interviews with as many Holocaust survivors as possible.
- The girl in the red coat was not an entirely fictional device; she was based on a real girl named Roma Ligocka, a survivor of the Krakow ghetto who was known to the residents by her red coat. She chronicled her life in the book “The Girl in the Red Coat“.
- Spielberg chose to shoot the 3+ hour film in black-and-white, much to the consternation of the studio, saying “It’s entirely appropriate because I’ve only experienced the Holocaust through other people’s testimonies and through archival footage which is, of course, all in black and white.” He and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski used German Expressionist and Italian Neorealist films as their primary influence.
- This was the first film that D.P Janusz Kaminski shot for Spielberg. He has been the cinematographer on every Spielberg film since.
- Spielberg said this is the first film he ever made without using storyboards, which had been pre-production staple for his entire career (and for entire films, not just major sequences). For Spielberg, ditching storyboards for the most important movie of his career (and life) was another major step of faith that he felt he needed to take, and that this movie should be made from the gut, not the head. (He’s since returned to storyboarding as before.)
- Spielberg also initially intended to shoot the film in German with English subtitles, not English speaking, but then decided that subtitles would be a visual distraction. He said that he didn’t want to give the audience an excuse or out to look away – even partially – from any of the brutality depicted.
- Nominated for 12 Academy Awards it won 7, including Best Picture, along with the overdue (and coveted) Best Director trophy for Spielberg. The Best Picture honor was announced and given to Spielberg by Harrison Ford, whose own film The Fugitive was up for the prize that year. Clint Eastwood presented Spielberg the Best Director award; the two would later collaborate on multiple film projects.