Directed by Steven Spielberg (1993)
by Benjamin Leonard, Best Boy
Moviejawn's May print issue focused on sad movies. Schindler’s List was at the top of my list of movies I’ve avoided watching because I didn’t want to be sad. There were a number of other reasons I didn’t watch it. I grew up in a small town in Michigan (not very diverse) and the film wasn't readily available. I’ve never particularly cared for Liam Neeson and, at the time, Ralph Fiennes hadn’t been in anything that especially interested me. I also suffered from Two Tape Trauma. This is a condition many VHS viewers suffer from because they know they are in for a long haul if the movie requires two videocassettes to see the whole thing. Now, nearly 25 years after its release, I settled in to watch Schindler’s List.
The film tells the story of Oskar Schindler (Neeson), a war profiteer and member of the Nazi Party, as he sets up shop fabricating enamel cookware in occupied Poland utilizing slave labor. It’s clear that Schindler is a Nazi for business purposes. He has no issue doing side deals with the Jewish prisoners in order to get fine suits and other wares. He even ends up putting a huge amount of faith in Itzahk Stern (Ben Kingsley) by having him basically run his factory for him. The only thing that drives Schindler more than business is women. This gets him into trouble at various times, especially with his wife. The prison camp is run by the maniacal Nazi Amon Goeth (Fiennes). Goeth takes great pleasure in wielding his power over others. As Schindler witnesses Goeth and other atrocities, he becomes more compassionate towards the Jews and eventually actively works to save them.
In all, it was a very good story and poignant for our time. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to correlate a tale about a person so blinded by their desire to make money that they ignore the murderous bigotry of others around them to our current Profiteer-in-Chief. It puts the burden on each of us to find our own ways, no matter how small, to subvert and contradict the systems of oppression.
I was wrong about this film. It was not especially sad. It was horrific and outrageously gruesome but only occasionally sad. The saddest thing in the movie is how resigned everyone was to the normalcy of the tragedies that were their lives. Also, after the first half hour of setup, it did not feel overly long. The performances were all at least good and there were instances of greatness. Liam Neeson suitably alternated from charming to morose, Embeth Davidtz was heart-wrenching and tragic, Ralph Fiennes was ferociously evil and Ben Kingsley was as good as ever. None of the reasons I avoided the film were justified.
However, I do feel that Schindler’s List does have its flaws. My main complaint is the choice to shoot in black and white and how it was executed. A few times there are title overlays that are difficult to read. It would have been easier to follow if they’d just been put onto a black screen. There were a couple of scenes where the black and white really worked with the lighting, but there were many times more where the scenes were blown out or so dark it was difficult to see the action. A few objects in a couple of scenes were shown in color. These odd exceptions of fire from candles and a girl’s red coat prove more distracting than enlightening. After viewing the movie, I read that they were going for a documentary look. I don’t feel that it was successful in this attempt at all. The look was too stylized and polished and nowhere near gritty enough, especially for the subject matter. The fact that this won for Best Cinematography over Farewell My Concubine or The Piano is a bit baffling.
With that said, I do recommend this movie to anyone who hasn’t watched it in the last decade. It’s certainly not easy to watch, but it will be time well spent.