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 — that actually transcends its medium. That is to say, “It’s more than just a movie.”
For me, and perhaps for many my age, it was the first to do so.
It’s a feat that few films can legitimately claim, either in their time or, more significantly, over time.
Schindler’s List created a singular cinematic experience that few people had ever had, before or since, with a subject matter so ubiquitous, no less, that it’s virtually a genre unto itself.
It’s a gut-turning depiction of genocidal masochism; a portrayal that came as close as any movie ever had 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 that Steven Spielberg didn’t even intend to articulate — and yet he did, particularly in the film’s final moments.
Such profound truth is only reached when a story is told with an unflinching integrity. Here, that truth goes beyond what is so gruesomely, prodigiously captured. Symbolically, Schindler’s List charts the spiritual path that a soul must take, not only in this life but also into the next, to the very seat of judgment.
I’ll unpack that in a bit. But first, the film itself.
Oskar Schindler was a war profiteer and member of the Nazi party who, under the guise of business for the war effort, ultimately used his own power and wealth to help save over 1,100 Jews from certain death in Hitler’s concentration camps. This was all done at his own expense, and at the risk of his own life.
And yet he was an enigma.
For most of his adult life, Oskar Schindler was a self-aggrandizing philander who schmoozed and paid off the political elite. It’s how he enriched his business and himself, all while taking advantage of cheap, marginalized ethnic labor.
He was Donald Trump.
Then, in an age of extreme crisis and stark inhumanity, his conscience gripped his soul.
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 man-made systemic Holocaust? You may think you know but you really don’t.
More importantly: would you rise to such a moment in the same way, with the same courage and sacrifice?
And more relevantly, as we look around the world today, are we? Or does the West still look the other way in the face of modern fascisms, whether they be political or religious (or often intertwined)? Does our creed of “Never Again” cower in the face of politically correct cowardice?
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. In a brilliant creative stroke that’s at first subtle, then dynamic, that girl and her red coat stand out to Schindler amongst the chaos. She stand out to us, too, in this black-and-white film.
From that moment, Schindler’s soul begins to wrestle with his ambitions.
Previous, isolated incidents may have pricked his conscience, but his response was usually anger, not guilt. His greed would easily suppress his humanity. No more.
This is the true story of how a Donald Trump becomes a Moses.
Schindler’s turn is gradual, not instant, and it comes with great resistance. But when the turn finally shifts, Spielberg defines it for Schindler (and us) by allowing him to glimpse the fate of that little girl in the red coat, and what became of her. It’s a powerful bookend.
Moving forward, there’s no turning back; Schindler’s every effort is to save as many Jews as he can, and not just indiscriminately. His compassion is strategic, rescuing entire families — husbands, wives, and children — in a way that could blow his cover. But those were the risks he took in order to save families that were being torn apart.
Schindler must contend with Nazi officers, soldiers and bureaucrats, but especially one in particular: Amon Goeth. Goeth was a camp commandant, and he’s 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 psychosis — to such callous evil. We’re not able to comprehend it; rather we see it, simply and fully, and how such schizophrenic brutality wields its perversity.
Spielberg realized that it’s just as important to see the aggressor’s pathology — in detail — as it is the victims’ experience. If our POV is limited to the victims, we’re left asking “But how?!” With Goeth, we see how.
Fiennes was so effective that it took a decade or more for him to be able to break out of the serious, brooding archetype he quickly became typecast in. (More recently he’s shown his range in comedies, with a sensibility both broad and dry and broad, and it’s such a stark contrast to what he conjures for Goeth).
In Goeth’s storyline we’re also given another, that of his Jewish maid Helen Hirsch. Goeth is enamored with her, even against his own deep-seeded anti-Semitic impulses.
Embeth Davidtz gives a powerful, heartbreaking performance as the used and abused Hirsch. She becomes another icon of survival from an unconscionable horror. She and Fiennes were both Oscar-worthy, but neither won.
The same is certainly true for the film’s star, Liam Neeson, in another career-defining performance. In an instant, his gregarious charm and commanding stature tell us everything we need to know about Oskar Schindler. And yet, over the course of three-plus hours, we see within Schindler every kind of soul-searching struggle…
…from selfish justification to selfless conviction, and every phrase in-between. We feel the moral weight of the burdens he carries.
Neeson’s performance is as rich and complex as you’ll ever see, yet it’s also made complete by Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern, the Jewish account who humbly (and strategically) served as Schindler’s financial accountant…as well as his moral one.
Schindler’s List is filmmaking on a whole other level — even for Steven Spielberg.
In the film’s opening sequence, Spielberg contrasts the austerity of Jewish ghetto life with the excess of Schindler’s. From the start, he’s not establishing a story but an experience; not a narrative, but characters. He does it all through visuals, not dialogue or exposition; through film language, not verbal language.
With a blunt artistry, Spielberg’s usually-slick camera goes handheld into those ghettos. It’s a new aesthetic choice for him, one that matched the veracity of archival footage. Long-time editor Michael Kahn cuts it all together with a crisp (at times aggressive) tempo.
That footage is then contrasted with our first glimpse of Schindler. He’s dressing for a party. The images are glossy and glamorous, they glide smoothly, and they’re edited with elegance. (This includes a Spielberg Oner as Schindler enters a dinner party, taking him from a wide frame at his entrance to a medium shot when he’s seated).
These two aesthetic contradictions remain throughout, as contrasts. The first has the feel of a documentary, at times capturing truly barbaric horrors. The second is more classically Hollywood. Then, in the climactic final hour, the two styles finally merging just as they do, symbolically, within Schindler himself.
Like all cinematic masterpieces, you get the clear sense that Spielberg was driven more by his gut-feeling and instincts than by any plan he had set, perhaps to a degree 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 out over all that he surveys. Below him is his indentured Jewish workforce. On the glass that separates the two, we see Schindler in the window’s reflection. On his face is pensive contemplation, and on the glass burns the reflection of a flickering fire — directly over his heart.
It’s an image so perfectly composed. Poetically, and at a key formative stage, it reveals Schindler’s internal struggle, both mental and spiritual. It’s subtle. It’s beautiful. It’s everything in a single frame. It’s art.
And then there’s that finale.
My own experience with it, and what it symbolizes for me, is on a religious level. I doubt it’s something that Spielberg intended, but it evokes something that I could not shake: The Final Judgment.
In the scene, Schindler is crippled by soul-crushing guilt, even in light of all the good that he did. As he collapses, he’s consoled and comforted by Itzhak Stern.
Perhaps like Schindler, this is how souls who are found to be righteous will be received by a Loving God. At first, those souls will experience an irreparable, inconsolable shame, of a kind that will bring to their knees. They will be overwhelmed by all that they could’ve done but failed to, by all that was within their power to do but didn’t.
Yet as they collapse under that weight, God will still hold them close as He whispers “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
I don’t claim to know exactly how The Final Judgment will go down, although in Matthew 25:31-46 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 we the separation of the sheep from the goats. Will you be a sheep (Schindler) or a goat (Nazis, and their enablers).
For me, the portrayal of this climactic moment works as a symbol for this eternal moment of truth. It may not directly parallel what’s taught by orthodox theology, but it’s the closest thing that I’ve ever seen to suggest what the nature of that moment could be like, and how even the most righteous of souls will be burdened by the crushing weight of repentance.
(End of Spoiler.)
Suffice it to say, that weight was felt by audiences in the here-and-now.
During its theatrical run, it was common for packed theaters to remain seated in stunned silence. As the credits rolled, that silence would be punctured by random cries and sobs, or even convulsions. The impact wasn’t simply emotional; it was spiritual. I’d never experienced anything quite like that before.
Schindler’s List is the greatest film of its time. Thematically and cinematically, it will endure as one of the most important of all time. More broadly, Spielberg’s impact on the history of movies and culture is clear yet incalculable (just as Schindler’s impact is on the Jewish people).
And yet, one thing remains certain: Schindler’s List was the film that Steven Spielberg was born to make.
Well done, good and faithful servant.
- In another Spielberg Oner (and also one of his longest), there’s a 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, entirely unbroken. It slowly shifts from a wide shot to a medium, and then finally into a close-up.
- Spielberg’s father figure in the movie industry was MCA Universal President Sid Sheinberg. It was Sheinberg who gave Steven Thomas Keneally’s book about Oskar Schindler when it was first published in 1982. Spielberg’s response: “It’ll make a helluva story. Is it true?” (Answer: it is.)
- Universal 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 it. During 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 those efforts came 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 he had been developing: a remake of Cape Fear. Both films would be each director’s next movie 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 the role needed to be played by someone without the baggage of a movie star. Audiences, Ford argued, needed to see Oskar Schindler, not “Indiana Jones”. It was the right call, but it also may have cost Ford an overdue Academy Award that has still eluded him.
- On days when the experience of shooting became too overwhelming, Spielberg would call his close friend and Hook star Robin Williams. In those calls, he would have Williams perform stand-up comedy over speaker-phone for the entire crew.
- This was the 2nd time that Spielberg released two films in one calendar year. His first 1993 movie came in the summer: Jurassic Park. Schindler’s was released in December. In 1989, Spielberg followed the same release pattern with, respectively, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Always.
- Spielberg refused to take a salary for the film. He felt that to do so, as a Jew, would be akin to taking “blood money”. Instead, Spielberg used his profits to start the Shoah Foundation. That organization would become the focus of his life during the next four years in which he would take a prolonged hiatus from directing. As the head of the foundation, Spielberg 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. That girl would survive and grow up to chronicle 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. His stated reasoning: “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.” For aesthetic influences, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski looked to German Expressionist and Italian Neorealist films.
- This was the first movie that cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shot for Spielberg. He has been Spielberg’s cinematographer on every one of the director’s films since.
- Spielberg has said that Schindler’s List was the first movie he ever made without using storyboards. Boards had been pre-production staple for Spielberg’s entire career, and he would every scene in every film, not just major sequences. For Spielberg, ditching storyboards for the most important movie of his career (and life) was another major step of faith. He felt it was one he needed to take because, to him, it’s the kind of movie that should be made from the gut, not the head. (He has since returned to storyboarding.)
- Spielberg also initially intended to shoot the film in German with English subtitles, not in English. He eventually decided against that over the concern that subtitles would be a visual distraction. He said that he didn’t want to give the audience an excuse or an out to look away (not even partially) from any of the brutality.
- Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, Schindler’s List won 7 total including Best Picture. Among them for Spielberg was with the overdue (and coveted) Best Director trophy. It was presented to him by Clint Eastwood, and the two would later collaborate on multiple film projects.. In addition, the Best Picture honor was announced and given to Spielberg by Harrison Ford, whose own film The Fugitive was competing that year for the same prize.