Friday, February 6, 2015

Schindler's List (Best Picture 1993)

In my opinion Schindler's List is one of those films that gets worse the more you see it. The first time through everything packs an emotional punch, and it "feels" right. Upon further viewings, however, you start to see the artificiality. The set-up starts to get in the way of the story.
So first of all, let me ask this: why is this film in black and white? What is so artistic about black and white photography that necessitates this film be shot that way? Or put another way, why isn't this film in color? I have seen so many World War II films shot in black and white that I believe that color would help *add* to the realism, not detract from it. After all, these events really happened. They were in color while they were really happening. Why add a layer of artificiality by denuding real-life color? Conversely, if there is an overwhelming reason why the film should be filmed without color, why then is the beginning and ending IN color? It's almost as if Director Steven Spielberg and the producers were saying, "this part in color is real. Look, these are even the real people. The actors are in black and white....because they are only play acting."

After watching the film again I did a little investigation and I have read that Spielberg wanted to film without color because he saw this film as a pseudo-documentary, and also symbolically as black-and-white Good vs. Evil. However, in my opinion color is realistic, and to denude the film of color only adds to its artificiality, not to its realism.

Anyway, that was my first stumbling block in really appreciating this film.

The story is relatively straight forward. A non-Jew named Oskar Schindler wants to take advantage of the Nazi invasion of Poland by hiring Jews for his factory. He is a fantastic capitalist. He makes money, which is all he cares about. As he is a witness to the destruction of Krakow, he gradually softens his heart to the plight of the Jews. When the labor camp is eventually shut down, he "buys" his employees from the Nazi regime in Poland and travels to Czechoslovakia with them, saving their lives.
The wonder of the film (and the story) is in the details. Simply, the film shows one man's journey as he embraces Good over Evil. It is telling that Liam Neeson, who does an admirable job as Schindler, did not win Best Actor for his work here. (He lost to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.) In my opinion, this is because the screenplay didn't give him enough of a character to really sink his teeth into. He sees a girl in a  red coat (the only color in the film) and then he suddenly begins to soften his heart? It just doesn't make sense. We never understand just what pushes Schindler from heartless to heartful; what pushes him over the edge to make him start to see his employees as more than commodities? He does heartless well ("If you had been killed, where would I have been!?" he screams at his accountant) but he doesn't have as many scenes to show his transformation into a Good Man. His last scene, when he breaks down crying that he could have done more, is emotionally wrenching and well done. But for a man who had to be "cool and collected" for the majority of the film, it is disappointing to not get more.

Ralph Fiennes as Commandant Goeth of the Krakow Labor Camp is likewise the poster child for Evil. He is not given very many chances to be Good, although he does help Schindler out of a jam or two and he does not murder every Jewish prisoner when given the chance. In a painful scene he flirts with his Jewish maid, then beats her and possibly rapes her. In another disturbing scene he takes his rifle and, from the balcony of his home overlooking the labor camp, shoots innocent people for no particular reason. Schindler tries to explain him to the maid and to his accountant, but we never really see why he is the way he is. And again, the script doesn't give Fiennes any scenes to be anything except Evil.

Ben Kingsley as the accountant, Itzhak Stern, fares the best of the leads. He plays his role wonderfully, as a cornered animal knowing that he has no power to do anything directly. He works behind the scenes, forging documents for his friends. He always keeps his eyes averted when dealing with Nazis, but looks Schindler in the face. In fact, he is playing two different characters, as he is quiet and in the background in every scene he plays with anyone besides Schindler. Also he, more than Schindler, is the point of view for the audience. He recognizes before we do that Schindler has begun to change; he gently prods Schindler into doing more and more Good until they eventually work together to save the employees.

But this is what I meant when I say that the film does not stand up to the test of time. The first time you see it, you are shocked by these events. You flow through the story with the actors bringing you along to the epic conclusion. The second time you see it, however, you want to know why Goeth is the man he is. You want to know why Schindler started to care for the Jews, and his wife, and his country. You want to know more. The third time you see it, you know that what you see is what you get, and you don't appreciate that the story is centered on a man you don't end up ever knowing. Atleast, that's my take on it.

The film is definitely great. Everyone should see it. However, it is sadly not a Great Film.

Schindler's List
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1993*
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen,
and Branko Lustig
Directed  by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Steven Zaillian
Based on the book by Thomas Keneally

I don't know if this is an official trailer, but it looks like it is.
Check out the lighting and the *staging* of the scenes featured in this
trailer and tell me it doesn't feel artificial to you!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Fugitive
In the Name of the Father
The Piano
The Remains of the Day
Compared to the rest of the nominees, it is no surprise that Schindler's List won Best Picture. Even overly long and lacking character depth, it is still head and shoulders above all of these other films. The Fugitive is a fun film with Harrison Ford as the man on the run; Tommy Lee Jones won Best Supporting Actor for his role as the lawman intent on capturing him. In the Name of the Father is a melodrama about the 1974 IRA bombing incident where innocent men are imprisoned. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson. The Piano is a character-study between deaf-mute Holly Hunter and her daughter in turn-of-the-century New Zealand. Hunter won Best Actress, and Anna Paquin won Best Supporting Actress (at age 11). The Remains of the Day stars Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson as butler and maid in stiff-upper-lip WWII era England. Tellingly, Hollywood's first main-stream film about the AIDS crisis, Philadelphia, was not even nominated.


  1. You make some interesting points, Russell. Like you, I found Schindler's List lacking, but did so on first viewing. This is in part because I saw it for the first time just the other week, after plenty of "horrors of war/Holocaust" cinema since it came out. The shocks don't shock like they would have at the time, so i was already looking at its artificiality as you call it, and most worrisome of all from my perspective, the whole idea of the film centering on the White Savior, a trope I've come to detest. By all means, lets make a film that exposes human rights abuses/racism/etc. and let it be from the point of view of the "good member of the oppressor race". I hate that. In my own review, I compared Schindler's to whatever crap sports movie Kevin Costner is currently starring in, because it's the same kind if picture.

    And in the end, I felt deceived that Schindler's List, reputed to be the first and final word on the Holocaust (in cinema) wasn't about the Holocaust at all.

    1. While I was watching this it never even occurred to me that it was another one of those "White Savior" stories, but it so obviously is! Thanks for commenting on that.
      I would love to see a film version of the book "This Way To the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen" by Tadeus Borowski (sp?). It is still the greatest book about the Holocaust I have ever read. Besides MAUS, of course.