Title: Schindler’s List
Release Date: 30 November, 1993
Oscar Ceremony: 21 March, 1994
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley
Nominees: The Fugitive, In the Name of the Father, The Piano, The Remains of the Day
“Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.” – Oskar Schindler
A 3-hour Holocaust film based on a true story, directed by Steven Spielberg, scored by John Williams and honouring the tragic struggles of the Jewish people is pretty much a perfect recipe for Best Picture. In fact, you probably don’t even have to watch it to know it’s going to win. Having said that, it’s also a huge responsibility to portray the subject in a way that would do it justice, but thankfully Schindler’ List happens to deserve every bit of its praise.
The story starts near the very beginning of WW2 in Kraków, Poland. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a German businessman and member of the Nazi party hoping to make a fortune. He decides to enlist the help of a Jewish accountant named Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) in order to run and finance the business of an enamel-producing factory. Schindler wants to hire Jews because they cost less, which also happens to work out well for Itzhak because that means the workers are deemed essential to the German war effort and thus saved from being transported to concentration camps or killed.
Meanwhile, a cruel and merciless SS commandant, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) arrives in Kraków to oversee the construction of a concentration camp. After its completion, Goeth orders the liquidation of the Jewish Ghetto, and Schindler witnesses the atrocities. He decides to form a relationship with Goeth in order to have the support of the Nazi party while he attempts to bribe officials to let some of the labor camp inhabitants go back to work for him in his factory. He masquerades this act as personal profit, but it obviously turns into a humanitarian act to save as many Jewish people as possible.
Like most people, I’ve been exposed to a great deal of Holocaust narratives throughout my life. You would think that by now, the subject would have become relatively familiar and thus would have allowed me to develop a certain immunity, but no. The impact NEVER wears off. Every time I see or hear a Holocaust story, I still can’t wrap my mind around how we ever let something like that happen. At first, Schindler’s List felt a little generic and slow, but by the end of it I found myself crying at every little thing. Add John Williams’ emotional violin score to the mix, and I honestly don’t think I have a tear left in me.
Indeed, there are lots of moments in the film that could be considered emotional manipulation. However, isn’t that the point? Also, is it actually manipulation if the real-life events were in fact as, if not more, horrible? Some episodes almost seem exaggerated, but they’re not; that’s how bad the situation really was. Is it insensitive to profit off of the tragedy of these historical events? That’s a complex question because either way, it seems like the story HAS to be told. If it’s purely done in documentaries and approached in an objective matter, it’s not sufficient in getting the point across. Schindler’s List often gives you the impression that you were there, and the feeling of realizing you’re just watching this on a huge flat screen TV from the comfort of your your beautiful apartment in your spoiled 2017 life really makes you reflect on how lucky you truly are.
This movie was a long time in the making. Ideas had been passed around since the 60s, but nothing ever stuck. Spielberg himself was presented with the opportunity in the early 80s, but waited 10 years because he felt that he wasn’t ready to tackle such a heavy topic at the age of 37. He tried to pass on the project to several other directors, including Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese, before finally taking it on himself. It was never an easy production; in fact, the atmosphere on set was so draining that Spielberg had Robin Williams come tell some jokes and lighten everyone’s spirits. He also watched episodes of Seinfeld at the end of the day to keep himself sane. In the end, he could not accept the profits he stood to make from the film because he considered it to be “blood money.” Instead, he used the proceeds to found the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, a nonprofit organization to honour and remember the survivors of the Holocaust by collecting personal recollections and audio visual interviews.
Except for the first and last scene, the film is shot entirely in black and white, which contributes to the time period accuracy and gloomy feel of the context. The story is interspersed with close-ups and personal accounts from Jewish people, which often gives you the impression of watching a documentary. It also reminds you that what you’re watching is grounded in truth; these were the daily lives of regular people during WW2. Spielberg strategically chooses to use colour for one particular aspect of the movie: a little girl walking in the crowd, wearing a red coat. The colour makes her stand out and become a distinguishable individual in a sea of people who would otherwise have little effect on us. This later contributes to a heightened sense of grief and shock when Schindler eventually spots her in a pile of dead bodies. The killings suddenly become that much more personal, regardless of who you are and what relationship you have with the victims.
In addition to portraying some of the tragedies that happened during the Holocaust, Schindler’s List also portrays the concept of good and evil and the moral responsibility of those who have the power of doing something in the face of wrong. Oskar Schindler was a fortunate man and he ended up realizing it. By being at the front of the line during the atrocities of WW2, he was able to develop empathy and see more clearly than any other man in his ranks. Despite his status as a member of the Nazi party, it took courage to do what he did and while I would like to think that I would have done the same, I don’t know if that’s true.
Some critics may be torn over the fact that the film sometimes offers a ray of hope in a situation where there shouldn’t be. There are a few scenes where Jewish victims manage to have everyday conversations or even get spared a tragic death. There is a specific instance where it seems like a group of women is going to get gassed, but they manage to be saved. It’s a feeling of great relief, but it also begs the question: what about all the other people who weren’t so lucky? We must not forget that in most cases there was no way out, no joy, no hope. I personally found nothing wrong with Spielberg’s portrayal. The movie never downplays the tragic nature of the Holocaust and spares no expense at showing us how horrifying life had become for Jewish people during WW2.
Sometimes, it’s okay to show a little hope. People need it. People need to believe that even in the darkest of times, there is still good in the world and ultimately, that good can triumph.