Schindler’s List (1993)
Release Date: December 15th, 1993 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Steven Spielberg Actors: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Embeth Davidtz, Beatrice Macola
n September of 1939, the German army defeats Polish forces in a mere two weeks. The Jewish residents are required to register their families and are sent to the Krakow ghetto at a rate of 10,000 per day. Meanwhile, businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrives in the city with the hopes of profiting from the war, being showy, sociable, and having the face for the job, but having little experience actually running an enterprise. He goes to the Jewish Council to snag the services of an intelligent accountant named Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), with ties to the Jewish business community who can orchestrate the establishment of a company for him. By 1941, all Polish Jews are corralled into the tiny walled ghetto, while Schindler’s factory readies and he begins employing workers – many of who have no artisan skills but gain credentials through Stern. It’s quickly apparent that his selections result in greater freedoms and possibilities – a charitable development in a most uncompassionate time.
SS Lieutenant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) arrives in Krakow to oversee the construction of a new concentration camp called Plaszow. Once it’s constructed, the Krakow population is forcibly relocated, with a considerable massacre of the unwilling. Schindler loses his Jewish workers, but manages to befriend Goeth with a few blandishments and customary bribes, resulting in a new workforce and uncommon independence to restart his business. Eventually, Goeth is ordered to freight the prisoners to Auschwitz for the Final Solution, forcing Schindler to improvise further strategies to save the lives of his slave laborers.
There are perhaps countless moments in the film that are heartbreaking, graphically shocking, or principally unwatchable. But the importance of such filmmaking is painfully obvious. As a testament to suffering that should never be forgotten, and as an in-depth examination of nightmarish inhumanity, cruelty, and the rapid escalation of unchecked political sympathies and suasion, it’s an unnerving masterpiece. There’s a lamentable recurring theme of participants believing the worst is over, periodically and well before transportation to Auschwitz, and disbelief of the stories of executions (surely this genocide can’t be actually happening), debating with the justification that the preservation of their workforce is essential. Tidbits of pitch black humor are also included for the sake of visualizing the ignorance of Nazi actions, while an iconic young girl in a red dress (standing out amongst the colorless cinematography) demonstrates the scope of atrocities.
Based on a real man, Amon Goeth is one of the greatest of all screen villains. Yet he’s rarely ranked among movie monsters, perhaps because his basis in realism and fashioning from a horrendous historical moment is nearly beyond comparison to a fictional character (though details were certainly elaborated or entirely invented). Screenwriter Steven Zaillian might not have been capable of creating such a thing had he not actually existed. Kingsley’s turn, on the complete opposite end of the transgression spectrum, is equally impressive, displaying a certain subtlety to a magnificently important, heartfelt role. But it is Neeson who crafts the most unforgettable protagonist, with a steady metamorphosis from a greedy profiteer, then drastically shifting his outlook to that of a secretive benevolent accomplice, and finally to a savior – using his factory fortunes to buy individual lives.
Director Steven Spielberg masterfully incorporates music (from piano to guitar-accompanied vocals to somber violins to operatic bars), gorgeous black-and-white cinematography featuring stark lighting contrasts, and the careful examination of faces and expressions. There’s also a virtuoso visual contradistinction early on as Jews are crammed into assigned dilapidated buildings at Krakow, while Schindler stretches out on a roomy bed. Framing and imagery demonstrate artistry even while capturing subject matter of extreme obscenity. But the most fascinating concepts behind “Schindler’s List” are the approach to character development and showing the holocaust from the viewpoint of a sympathetic German. Although there is definitely an attention to recreating key happenings from the period, it’s more of a biography of an exceptional participant than a pseudo-documentary of the tragic account. This allows the film to potently tell a cinematic story while also chronicling history through devastating, authentically recreated holocaust milieus.
– Mike Massie