What is there to say about Schindler’s List except that it is necessary viewing for its depiction of Shoah, suggesting that, literally, out of the ashes beauty and hope will rise. It would be rather callous to call Steven Spielberg’s film pure entertainment. True, he comes with a pedigree that includes such escapist classics like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park. However, Schindler’s List is a far different creature and it is arguably his most significant film. It is so moving on a heart-wrenchingly beautiful level. Because great films are more than entertainment, pure and simple. They are affecting, tapping into some deep well inside of us that causes us to laugh, to cry, and have feelings.
Schindler’s List shows us the horrors of the Holocaust without dumbing them down. We see those getting shot. We see the naked bodies. We see the mass graves and the billowing ashes. It can be hard to watch. Abrasive in its content, but not in its form. The film itself is beautifully cast in black-in-white with the most moving of compositions by John Williams and poignant performances by many. But permeating through all of this is, of course, the tragedy, but with the tragedy comes the hope which is crucial to a story such as this.
Spielberg’s reference point is one man named Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who not only was a war profiteer and womanizer but a member of a Nazi party. He’s not afraid of ingratiating himself with the right people to make a pretty penny off the imminent war because in his mind it’s all good business acumen. And aside from his affiliations, what’s not to like about him? He’s well-groomed, a gentleman, and charismatic. It still would be a far cry to call him a hero, at least not yet.
With his main motive still being money, he makes contact with a Jewish man named Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) who not only has the bookkeeping abilities he is looking for but also connections to the black market and Jewish investors. So as the ghettos in Poland fill up to the brim, Schindler is quick to capitalize, offering the Jews more practical resources in exchange for their money. They get something, but he’s the big winner. He begins to set up his factory for the production of pots and pans which proves to be a lucrative business, especially with most of the bigwigs on his side. At the same time, he takes on Jewish laborers since they’re cheap, and Stein is able to save them from a fate of a concentration camp or being shot.
Our primary villain, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is ordered to start a new camp and just like that the ghettos are closed and the Jews are forced out. He is a despicable creature and a sadist to the max, exemplified by the many people he shoots from his balcony in the mornings. There’s no provocation for it. He just does it because he can. He is not the type of man you can seemingly deal with normally, and yet being a man with immense charisma, Schindler does just that, all in the name of business.
But Schindler too sees the chaos, destruction, and killing that is going on. He can not try to underplay it now since he has seen it all firsthand. But there is a point in the film where his focus slowly evolves from a desire to make money to actually saving Jews from complete annihilation. The most obvious moment occurs after he sees the little girl in the red coat lying in a wagon, dead. Moments earlier he had seen her scampering through the streets, an innocent beacon of color amidst the chaos. What is the world coming to when a girl such as this can be killed for no apparent reason? It begs for a response from Schindler. He can no longer be a passive observer and so he does take action.
With the aid of the ever faithful Stern, Schindler is able to construct a list of over a 1,000 Jews to save from the concentration camps. As the war is going poorly for the Germans, Goeth is ordered to transfer his prisoners to Auschwitz, and although Schindler almost loses all his workers, he is able to save them by literally buying all their lives from Goeth. He spends his entire fortune to save them as well as ensuring that his armament plant does not actually make any working shells. It’s bad business, but it is all in the name of one of the greatest acts of humanity he could perform.
In one final word to the people, Schindler protects his Jews one last time, daring the Nazis working at his factory to kill them or go home to their families as men. They silently choose the latter, and he flees the camp as a war profiteer. He breaks down looking at the few possessions he has left suggesting that more Jews could have been saved with them, but the Jews in front of him, represented by Stern, point out the great good he did. They bestow upon him a ring with the inscription: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”
He is gone now and the story of Schindler’s Jews is not yet complete, because they do not know where to go, but they head out with purpose making their way towards the future. And it is in this moment that their story stops being a memory and breaks on into the present. It is a wonderfully powerful device from Spielberg that evokes an overwhelming flood of emotion. In a line of solidarity, the Schindler Jews walk forward toward the grave of Oskar Schindler. Nothing can quite explain the feelings pulsing through the body as we watch actors and their real-life counterparts laying stones on the grave of this man, much like the Israelites laying stones down in remembrance of what their God did for them. In one final moment, Schindler’s wife lays one final stone and Liam Neeson lays downs a final rose and we see his imposing but solitary silhouette off in the distance. It’s magnificent, to say the least.
Out of the many scenes that become ingrained in the mind, there were two that especially resonated with me. One of them occurs when the children were trying to evade capture and imminent death. In such a life or death situation they willingly resolved to literally swim in the urine of the outhouse. Another scene that got an immense reaction from me was when all the naked women, with their hair now cut off, are herded into the showers. Both they and the audience think this is the end of their lives so it is almost a cruel trick when water begins flooding from the shower heads. I’m not sure the last time I have felt so much anxiety as an observer. It’s hard to discount.
There are so many great performances big and small, but Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes are both superb. We always love a good anti-hero or at least a complex one, and Oskar Schindler fits that bill beautifully. Also, we love the same in our villain, and I must say although I absolutely despised Goeth for all his evil, I must admit that somehow I still felt sorry for him. He was only a cog in the machine, a lonely man who was really so insignificant, in spite of what he wanted to believe. He shoots Jews, beats them, and yet can have such a twisted and somehow intimate relationship with his Jewish maid Helen.
For over 20 years this film has been a beacon of hope and fragment of truth from a period of history that contains so much darkness. Hopefully, it can continue being that touchstone to the past so that there is never the danger that anyone would forget these catastrophic events, but also the heroes like Oskar Schindler who through their actions were able to do a great deal of good.