In German-occupied Poland during World War II, industrialist Oskar Schindler gradually becomes concerned for his Jewish workforce after witnessing their persecution by the Nazis.
Schindler’s List is, arguably, the defining Holocaust film. I remember having to get a waiver signed when I was in the eighth grade, so we could watch the film once we finished our Holocaust unit. (Yes. We had a Holocaust unit.) Eighth grade was the first and last time I saw that film. Until now.
Watching Schindler’s List in today’s social climate is horrifying. Mainly because, as we all know, different aspects of history have begun to repeat themselves and if you’re not scared, then you haven’t been paying attention.
For those unfamiliar with the film and the subject matter, Schindler’s List follows an opportunistic business man named Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson. He arrives in the town of Krakow, Poland at the same time the Nazi regime begins to seperate the Jewish people from the rest of the town. He employs the help of a Jewish accountant by the name of Itzhak Stern, played by Ben Kingsley, who has a number of contacts, black marketeers and Jewish investors among them. Schindler, a German member of the Nazi Party, bribes officials to get a factory in order to produce things such as pots and pans. He sees this as a grand opportunity to become very wealthy very quickly. Stern ensures that as many jews as possible are listed as Essential Workers, in order to keep them from being taken away to the work camps. Then enters Amon Goeth, an SS officer played by Ralph Fiennes, who is there to oversee the construction of the Plaszow Concentration Camp. A liquidation of the Krakow ghetto is ordered and Oskar Schindler looks on in horror, focusing in on a little girl in a red coat. It is after this moment that Schindler’s priorities shift. He becomes focused on saving as many people as he can through his factory, using his good relationships with higher ranking Nazi officials to his advantage. In total, Oskar Schindler manages to save the lives of nearly 1,200 Jewish people, bankrupting himself and his company. And, even in the end, he doesn’t think he’s done enough. “I could have saved more” he says, through tears.
What’s very clear is that Schindler’s List marks the true end of director Steven Spielberg’s “Peter Pan syndrome” era. Following this film, Spielberg would direct Saving Private Ryan and Amistad, receiving several Academy Award nominations for the latter and several wins for the former. What is also clear when watching Schindler’s List is that the film is a love letter to Oskar Schindler and all those involved in helping to save as many people as possible during the Holocaust. Spielberg treated this film like a documentary, as evident by the text overlays on the screen throughout the film, giving information that is important for the audience to know. That’s part of the reason why Schindler’s List remains timeless.
When strictly talking about the art of filmmaking, Spielberg gave his all with this film. He was very conscious of his choices and what they would mean for the films visuals. For example, the choice to shoot the entire thing in black and white helped to give it that timeless, documentary feel. It also meant that, when showing violence, there would be stark contrasts. Each time the choice was made to juxtapose one scene with another, there was a reason. When Schindler first “finds” his new home in Krakow, we are simultaneously shown that and the family who had lived at the house arriving in their new dwellings in the Ghetto. The most effective use of parallel editing in the film, however, is the scene of Schindler celebrating his birthday with Nazi officers, spliced with a wedding taking place in the work camp among the workers, spliced again with Amon Goeth beating the jewish woman who he has working as his maid as he tries to seduce her. All of this unfolding before the viewers eyes at the same time. All of this provoking a lot of emotions.
The writing for Schindler’s List is remarkable. Written by Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s List won an Academy Award and a BAFTA for it’s screenplay. The language used throughout the film is so important. It all has to be perfectly timed to get the right emotions out of the viewer. Specifically, all the times where dehumanizing conversations were happening. Saying things like “a new shipment is coming in” when referring to human beings or “I lost a worker. I expect to be compensated.” when a person has been murdered. Language like that is sprinkled throughout the film and is one of the things that really draws the viewer in emotionally.
Those words, however, would be nothing without the performances behind them. Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler is captivating. He plays the switch so well from being driven by money to being driven by people, and saving as many as he could. The girl in the red coat really does a number on our boy Schindler.
Ben Kingsley does well as Itzhak Stern. Could they have found an actual Jewish actor in 1993 to play such an important character? Probably. Am I going to dwell on the fact that they didn’t? No. There’s literally nothing I can do about it.
Ralph Fiennes as SS-Untersturmführer Amon Goeth is horrifying. Fiennes truly walked the line of lunatic in this film. I’d argue that his portrayal of Amon Goeth is one of the scariest performances of all time. The look on Goeth’s face as he targets random people to kill, just because; it’s unnerving.
The end of the film continues the documentary feel by having all the Schindler Jews that were still alive at the time, paired with their film counterparts, pay tribute to the real Oskar Schindler at his actual grave. It was truly touching and the absolute best way to end this film.