It was the cold, dark years of the 1940s in Nazi Germany. An entire nation looked on approvingly as ordinary soldiers committed murders and atrocities on 6 million defenceless Jews. It took the courage and humanity of one wealthy rogue, enigmatic and reckless, heedless of risk, a con-man, to make a difference and save 1200 Jewish lives.
Schindler’s List tells the story of that man. The movie, directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a book by Thomas Keneally, is one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time. It won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, a host of Golden Globes, several British Academy Awards, and even a Grammy for the film’s musical score.
But it is much more than just a fine film. It is a moving tribute to Oskar Schindler, a rich Nazi businessman who risked his life to protect the Jews working in his factory. Before the Second World War, three-fourths of all Jews lived in Poland. After the War ended and the Nazi regime was dissembled, there were found to be less than 6000 of them left alive in Poland whereas the Jews that Schindler saved were more than 4000 in number. These Jews are known today as the Schindlerjuden, or Schindler’s Jews, and it is their story that the film chronicles.
The most compelling feature of Schindler’s List is the dichotomy of its main character. Oskar Schindler would have been an easier man to understand if he’d been a conventional hero, fighting for his beliefs. The fact that he was flawed – a drinker, a gambler, a womanizer, driven by greed and a lust for the good life – is what draws us to him. And the movie does not shy away from showing us the complete picture. There is no attempt to whitewash his initial motivation to become wealthy and bribe his way into the Nazi party at the cost of the unpaid Jews working in his factory. And yet, by the end of the film, we watch as this self-described “profiteer of slave labour” is thanked by Jews with tears in their eyes for being their saviour and guardian.
How does such a huge change come about in him? The movie would have been a lesser one if it had even attempted to answer that question. No one knew, no one can ever know how a man like Schindler could have changed so completely, and tacking on a manipulative redemption scene would have been an insult to his memory. Spielberg said much the same thing to himself: ” I got into a lot of arguments with people saying we need that big Hollywood catharsis where Schindler falls to his knees and says, ‘Yes, I know what I’m doing – now I must do it!’ and goes full steam ahead. That was the last thing I wanted. I did not want to bring in a Camille moment, some kind of explosive catharsis that would turn this into The Great Escape.”
In fact, subtlety is one of the hallmarks of this exquisite film. Spielberg’s restraint and his understated approach are palpable in every frame. During most of the film, Schindler engages in a game of cat-and-mouse with the Nazis to dupe them out of killing his Jews, yet making them believe he is on their side. Yet, nowhere in the movie will you be able to find the truth explicitly mentioned. Schindler leaves it to his accountant, Stern, and Spielberg leaves it to us to understand the unsayable that Schindler is using his factory as a con game to cheat the Nazis of the lives of his workers. The movie is a rare case of a man doing the opposite of what he seems to be doing, and a director letting the audience figure it out by itself.
Another example; in one of the most difficult scenes to watch, the Jews are made to take their clothes off and run around the camp. It is an exercise of degradation and humiliation, but nowhere do they actually say they are feeling humiliated. Instead, you can see it – in the way they hold their bodies and clutch their clothes fearfully.
The actors playing the Jews did a great job in their roles. Spielberg cast children of the Schindlerjuden for key Jewish-speaking roles, and also hired Catholic Poles for the survivors. In fact, the movie’s links to the real Schindler Jews are many. The idea for the movie really started when one of them, Poldek Pfefferberg, made it his life’s mission to tell the story of his saviour and approached Thomas Keneally, and through him, Spielberg, to make a movie. Then during filming, 128 Schindlerjuden joined the crew to film the epilogue where they pay their respects to Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem. Most of these people had at one point or the other been directly protected by Schindler, and had seen the ruthlessness of the Germans outside his factory, like that of Amon Göth, the SS officer who provides insight into the twisted Nazi mindset.
His is the most chilling portrait of all; his is the character that stays with you in your nightmares long after the movie is over. And Ralph Fiennes, in his intricate, savage portrayal of the Nazi commander, becomes Amon Göth himself, where the actor becomes indistinguishable from his persona. As Amon Göth, you can see the evil and coldness flit across his eyes and his is a performance that has the ability to both mesmerize and repulse.
On the other end of the spectrum is Liam Neeson who plays Schindler, and whose warmth and charisma radiates across the character he plays. And then there’s Ben Kingsley playing the unsung hero – Schindler’s accountant, right-hand man and silent conscience, Itzhak Stern. It’s another stellar performance, and if this were any other movie, his subtle acting would have stood out from amongst the rest. But this is Schindler’s List, in which each and every actor has delivered a performance so riveting that the movie allows you no respite. You feel drawn to the story, sucked into Nazi Germany, unable to distance yourself from the Holocaust scenes.
It doesn’t help that the cinematography is in stark black and white. Spielberg wanted to stay faithful to the images of the Holocaust that he had derived from the existing black-and-white photographs, so he refused to shoot the film even in a colour negative. And it pays off, giving the movie a dated feel and lending it authenticity. Only rarely is colour allowed to bleed into the frame, such as in the Krakow scene. As the killing and wailing reaches a fever pitch and the scene attains a dream-like quality for the watching Schindler, he sees a little girl in a red coat slip through the crowd, and his eyes follow her while the echoes of gunshots play in the background like a distant nightmare. The red of her coat seems to be only visible to Schindler, as if to say that his eyes have opened to the cruelties of the Nazis. It’s a beautiful scene, and one made possible by the excellent lens-work of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.
Despite the grisly subject matter, Schindler’s List is essentially about uncovering a kernel of hope and dignity in the midst of a monstrous tragedy. It’s about the triumph of humanity, about how empathy and sacrifice can flourish even in the midst of madness and violence. And most of all, it honours the memory of a man who deserves to have his story told to the rest of humanity.