Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.
231Released to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its original release, the Blu-ray of Schindler’s List continues to be one of the most harrowing movies ever made. I noticed while researching the film that Sainsbury’s have it listed as a horror title. This is simply incorrect, as horror implies fantasy and what we have here is something real. Terrible, horrifying and graphic, but still real.
We try not to give the plot away while reviewing movies on this site, but when it comes to Schindler’s List, this is simply not required. We all know about The Holocaust, the most infamous of genocides, but sadly, not the last. In the light of more recent events – the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, the massacre of the Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda and only in the last few months, the shocking actions of the Burmese Buddhist clergy stirring up hatred against the Rohingya, I think it is the corporate, clinical nature of the Nazis against not only the Jewish peoples, but also gypsies, the disabled and Russian prisoners of war that defines complete lack of human emotion about putting to death one’s fellow man. In other genocides we have seen neighbours settle old scores, mass hysteria drive mindless violence and religious convictions spur groups into participation, but none of these rival the state sponsored anti-Semitic hatred that was manufactured within German held territories in the years leading up to World War II.
This film is not about the Holocaust. It is about how one man’s greed and ambition was turned into compassion and how by his ultimately selfless actions, he saved the lives of around 1200 Polish Jews. Oscar Schindler was a moderately successful German businessman and Nazi supporter from a small unsophisticated town. As Germany invaded Poland and took over the businesses of the native Jews, he saw an opportunity to profit from the war. To him, the Jews were simply a cheap source of labour, but he also needed them to help set him up the operation in the first place. In the early days of the Ghettos, many Jews had taken with them jewellery and other valuables, as they were banned from owning or controlling businesses and property, openly trading or travelling freely. Schindler tapped into this hidden wealth and it enabled him to purchase a metal works, quickly transforming production to making army mess kits and cooking pots. Securing contracts with the military through bribes, he showed himself to have few scruples in his business dealings.
Liam Neeson delivers what is probably still the defining performance of his career. He comes across as the suave, ingratiating, greedy businessman just perfectly. Director Steven Spielberg was unwilling to cast such a star, reportedly concerned about “Movie star baggage”, but Neeson proved he could also bring humility and compassion to the role, seemingly understanding what was needed. Spielberg himself was unsure of his abilities to direct the movie, offering it to other Jewish directors – including Roman Polanski (who almost accepted and later went on to direct his own Holocaust movie – The Pianist), before he was persuaded that he did have the maturity to make the movie. Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern, the community elder and member of the Jewish council is at his self-effacing best. Stern has had to take the Jew’s fall from grace in his stride and to continue to support and lead his neighbours in their daily struggle to simply survive. It is he who recognises the compassionate side of Schindler’s nature, places at risk Jews inside the safety of the factory and finds him the investors to set up the operation in the first place. Without Stern, it is unlikely that Schindler would have saved a single Jew from extermination.
Possibly the only problem I have is around German labour camp commander Amon Goeth. Ralph Fiennes’ performance almost feels like a caricature at times. Trying to portray someone who was without doubt a sadistic murderer – reportedly never sitting down to breakfast without shooting dead at least one labourer first is quite successful, but he also comes across occasionally as weak and malleable. I do not believe that this would have been Goeth’s true character. To be a good commander and to have been escalated through the ranks from quite humble, non-German roots would have required a manipulative talent, coupled with the means to gain respect from his troops. He could have ruled the inmates with fear, but this would not have worked with his fellow SS officers and men.
There are many terrible, shocking scenes within the film, but for me, one that really instils fear is the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto. The sheer terror of being ejected from your lodgings, to be thrown onto trucks, split from your family, sorted into the fit and unfit and ultimately sent to your death is chilling to watch. Equally so the clean-up to find those in hiding, as men woman and children are simply mown down where they hid. It also introduces the “Girl in Red” – a young unnamed girl, maybe three years or so old that Schindler spots hurrying through the Ghetto, in-between the frightened populace and bullying soldiers. She is later to have a profound effect on Schindler, becoming almost the catalyst for his change in understanding about the way his business is protecting his workforce.
I must explain at this point for those that have not seen it, that the film is almost entirely shot in black and white. Only the prologue and epilogue are shot in colour, plus the “Girl in Red”, where a simple, single colour is applied to her coat. Spielberg and Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski decided on this approach for a number reasons, including giving the movie a more “documentary” style – also enhanced through the use of hand held cameras with simple prime lenses. It gave the production designers more challenges, as the sets had to contrast to the actors, bringing them out of the backgrounds. The monochromatic presentation also lends an air of reality and authenticity that other movies since have sought to capture. It feels like a period piece, made shortly after the war, not some fifty years or so later. Unusually, no archive footage has been used, with everything filmed and created from scratch. This included building the Plaszow labour camp almost in its entirety to give Spielberg the freedom to film from any angle.
A section of Auschwitz II was also built just outside of the gates of the preserved camp, as permission to film inside was not granted. Other locations included the original Schindler Factories and his apartment, all little changed at that time since the war. The cast of extras was made up with a majority of none-Jewish performers, possibly because for many Jews, the prospect of re-living the horrors of their parents and grand-parents, let alone working in Poland – then still quite anti-Semitic was too perhaps much to handle. The harrowing segments inside the camp with the notorious “Exercise” scene, where the men and woman are stripped and humiliated and then forced to run around the camp to prove their fitness for selection to work was one that even the crew struggled to cope with, with many opting not to be present on the day it was filmed. The sheer terror of the shower scene in Auschwitz is more chilling than any horror movie, with the woman clutching on to each other in what they expect to be their final moments of life.
As the war progressed and the Russians closed in, many of the camps in Poland were closed and all trace removed. This included digging up the decaying corpses of the murdered prisoners and cremating them out in the open. It is at this point that Schindler spots the red coat of the young girl he saw in the Ghetto, her body heaped on a cart with the rest of the dead. His anger with the ash that has landed on his car is almost instantly replaced with the realisation that Stern was right, he can save the lives of his workers through his factories by bribing officers and officials to allow him to keep his staff and their families. The war is in its final stages though, and it is not mess kits the army needs, but armaments and so he negotiates to reopen an engineering factory in his home town, bringing his workforce into what is now present day Czech Republic. The only thing is, what is the difference between allowing the deaths of his workers and killing soldiers with his shells? For Schindler there is no difference, so he sees the last of his money go as he hands out more bribes and avoiding actually making any useable armaments, holding out until the war is over.
With the coming of peace, Schindler has a dilemma. He is now the criminal, a member of the Nazi party and a war profiteer. After years of protecting his workers, now his salvation is in their hands. The workforce present him with a letter signed by them all attesting to the good things he has done, as well as a ring with a Jewish inscription. Dressed in his worker's prison clothing, Schindler departs the factory, fleeing into the night ahead of the liberating army.
The epilogue to the film tells us a little about what happened after the war. After a slightly hammed up execution of Goeth, and a brief narrative of Schindler’s post war traumas, we see the surviving real life Schindlerjuden – literally Schindler’s Jews, accompanied by the actors from the film, place stones on his grave in Jerusalem. This mark of respect is one recognised across the Jewish communities, as they pay tribute to the man who saved so many at no little personal cost.
This film remains one of the most fitting memorials to the Holocaust and really should be compulsory viewing for any that doubt the horror and humiliation the Nazis wrought on the Jews, Gypsies and disabled across occupied Europe. As dramatisations go, this does not sensationalise the story or attempt to sex it up. It may tell it through the eyes of a German gentile, but this just serves to strengthen the message.
A must watch movie.
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