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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Schindler's List: Review

Oskar Schindler was a man who saw an opportunity at the beginning of World War II and moved to Nazi-occupied Poland to open a factory to employ Jews at starvation wages. His goal was to become a millionaire. However, by the time the war was over Schindler had risked his life and spent his entire fortune to save those same Jews and prevented the Nazis from taking them away. Why did Schindler change? What happened to turn him from a victimizer into a humanitarian? The director of the film, Steven Spielberg said that his film Schindler's List (the best film he's ever made) does not attempt to answer that question. Any possible answer would be too simple, an insult to the mystery of Schindler's life. The Holocaust was a time of anger and racism towards the Jews. Schindler outsmarted it in his own little corner of the war. But he seems to have had no plan, and simply improvised, motivated by impulses that remained unclear even to himself. In this movie the miracle of Schindler's decision is not just a piece of fiction, but a fictionalized story of something that actually happened.

The movie is more than three hours long, and like all great movies, it seems too short. It begins with Schindler (Liam Neeson), a tall, strong man with an intimidating physical presence, meticulously dressing with expensive accessories. He is shown frequenting nightclubs, buying caviar and champagne for Nazi officers and their girls. And he likes to get his picture taken with the top brass. He wears a Nazi party emblem proudly in his buttonhole. He has the best black market contacts, and he's able to find nylons, cigarettes, brandy: He is the right man to know. The authorities are happy to help him open a factory to build enameled cooking utensils that army kitchens can use. He is happy to hire Jews because their wages are lower, and Schindler will get richer that way. Schindler's genius is in bribing, scheming, and conning. He knows nothing about running a factory until he finds Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), a Jewish accountant hired by Schindler to handle his factory business. Stern moves through the streets of Krakow, hiring Jews for Schindler. Because the factory is a protected war industry, a job there may guarantee a longer life for those mercilessly persecuted because of their beliefs.

The relationship between Schindler and Stern is developed in slowly. At the beginning of the war, Schindler wants only to make money, but at the end he wants only to save "his" Jews. We know that Stern understands this. But there is no moment when Schindler and Stern bluntly state what is happening, perhaps because to say certain things aloud could result in death. This subtlety is Spielberg's strength all through the film. We also see the Holocaust in a vivid and terrible way. Spielberg gives us a Nazi prison camp commandant named Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), who is evil incarnate. From the top of his balcony, overlooking the prison yard, he shoots Jews for target practice. Schindler is able to talk him out of this custom with an appeal to his vanity so obvious it is almost an insult. Goeth is one of those weak hypocrites who upholds an ideal but makes himself an exception to it; he preaches the death of the Jews, and then chooses a pretty one named Helen Hirsch to be his maid and falls in love with her. He does not find it monstrous that her people are being exterminated, and she is spared due to his affectionate whim. He sees his personal needs as more important than right or wrong, life or death.

Shooting in black and white on many of the actual locations of the events in the story (including Schindler's original factory and even the gates of Auschwitz), Spielberg shows Schindler dealing with the madness of the Nazi system. He bribes, he wheedles, he bluffs, he escapes discovery by the skin of his teeth. In the movie's most audacious sequence, when a trainload of his employees are mistakenly routed to Auschwitz, he walks into the death camp himself and brazenly talks the authorities out of their victims, snatching them from death and putting them back on the train to his factory.

What is most amazing about this film is how completely Spielberg serves his story. The movie is brilliantly acted, written, directed and presented. Individual scenes are masterpieces of art direction, cinematography, special effects, even crowd control. Yet, Spielberg, the stylist whose films often have gloried shots we are intended to notice and remember, actually disappears into his work here. Neeson, Kingsley and the other actors make the film very realistic. At the end there is a sequence of overwhelming emotional impact, involving the actual people who were saved by Schindler. We learn that "Schindler's Jews" and their descendants today number about 6,000 and that the Jewish population of Poland is 4,000. The obvious lesson would seem to be that Schindler did more than a whole nation did to spare its Jews. That would be too simple. The film's message is that one man did something, while in the face of the Holocaust others were paralyzed. Perhaps it took a Schindler, enigmatic and reckless, without a plan, heedless of risk, a con man, to do what he did. No rational man with a sensible plan would have gotten as far. Spielberg depicts the evil of the Holocaust, and he tells an incredible story of how it was robbed of some of its intended victims. He does so without the tricks of his trade, nor the directorial dramatic contrivances that would inspire the usual melodramatic payoffs. Spielberg is not visible in this film. However, his restraint and passion are present in every shot.

Overall I found this film to be not only a groundbreaking form of cinema but a cathartic emotional experience as well. When the film is complete I stopped and thought about how this film was not a fictional story like Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park. This story about one business man who saved many Jews is real. If I were to rate this film I would give it a five out of five stars because it is truly an innovation in cinema history.


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