Schindler’s List – The List Is Life

Schindler's List Poster
Schindler’s List Poster

“Schindler’s List” is a historical drama, based on the biography of Oskar Schindler by Thomas Keneally, written for the screen by Steven Zaillian and directed by Steven Spielberg. It is considered Spielberg’s greatest movie till date and is a benchmark in art direction, cinematography and crowd control. Spielberg’s unique ability in his serious films has been to join artistry with popularity – to say what he wants to say in a way that millions of people want to hear. And he has done just that. The lead trio of Liam Neeson, Sir Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes also delivered an amazing and singular performance. The score by John Williams also helps build the required seriousness and emotional level to appreciate the movie. “Schindler’s List” earned 7 Academy Awards, 74 other awards, was nominated for two more Academy Awards and is ranked 7­th in IMDb’s Top 250 movies list.

Schindler would have been an easier man to understand if he’d been a conventional hero, fighting for his beliefs. The fact that he was flawed – a drinker, a gambler, a womanizer, driven by greed and a lust for high living – makes his life an enigma. He was a man who saw his chance at the beginning of World War II and moved to Nazi-occupied Poland to open a factory and employ Jews at starvation wages. His goal was to become a millionaire. By the end of the war, he had risked his life, spent his entire fortune to save those Jews and had defrauded the Nazis for months with a munitions factory that never produced a single usable shell. To top it all off he was an active Nazi Party member.

"Not the work. Not the work...the presentation."
“Not the work. Not the work…the presentation.”

I’d make sure it’s known the company’s in business. I’d see that it had a certain panache. That’s what I’m good at. Not the work, not the work… the presentation.

Why did he change? What happened to turn him from a victimizer into a humanitarian? It is to the great credit of Steven Spielberg that the movie does not even attempt to answer that question. Any possible answer would be too simple, an insult to the mystery of Schindler’s life. The Holocaust was a vast evil engine set whirling by racism and madness. Schindler outsmarted it, in his own little corner of the war, but he seems to have had no plan, to have improvised out of impulses that remained unclear even to himself.

The movie is a staggering 184 minutes long, but like all great movies, it seems too short. It begins with Schindler (Liam Neeson), a tall, well-groomed man with an intimidating physical presence, visiting a nightclub frequented by the top German brass. He wears a Nazi Party badge proudly on the lapel of his expensive black-market suit. Throughout the movie there are scenes that convey his lust for recognition and power. He sends expensive wine to the officials and their girls at the club and gets them to come over to his table and builds strong connections which would later help him in acquiring the necessary permissions to help open a factory to build enamel cooking utensils that army kitchens can use.

Itzhak Stern
Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern

Schindler’s genius is in bribing, scheming, conning. He knows nothing about running a factory and finds Itzhak Stern (Sir Ben Kingsley), a Jewish accountant, to handle that side of things. Stern moves through the streets of Kraków, hiring Jews for Schindler. Because the factory is a protected war industry, a job there may guarantee longer life and most of the Jews are more than willing to work.

Spielberg develops the relationship between Schindler and Stern with enormous subtlety. One time Stern forgets to take his work card with him and is consequently put on a death train but Schindler rescues him. At the beginning of the war Schindler wants only to make money and at the end he wants only to save ‘his’ Jews. We know that Stern understands this and thus he occasionally hires people who are ‘non-essential’ in an enamel ware factory like the one-handed Mr. Lowenstein (Henryk Bista) among many others. Even when Schindler finds out about this, he doesn’t try to stop him. But there is no moment save the end when Schindler and Stern bluntly state what is happening, perhaps because deep down inside themselves they both know what’s right. At the end, Schindler has Stern make a list of some 1,100 workers who will be transported to Czechoslovakia. “The list is an absolute good”, Stern tells him. “The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.”

I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know. If I’d just… I could have got more.
If I’d made more money… I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I’d just…
I didn’t do enough!
This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this.
I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t! And I… I didn’t!

This subtlety is Spielberg’s strength all through the film. His screenplay isn’t based on contrived melodrama. Instead, Spielberg relies on a series of incidents, seen clearly and without artificial manipulation, and by witnessing those incidents we understand what little can be known about Schindler and his scheme.

Amon Goeth shooting people from the balcony of his villa in Plaszow
Amon Goeth shooting people from the balcony of his villa in Plaszow

We also see the Holocaust in a vivid and terrible way. Apart from the scenes from the Kraków Ghetto, the Forced Labour Camp and Auschwitz, Spielberg gives us a Nazi prison camp commandant named Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) who is a study in the stupidity of evil. From the balcony of his ‘villa’ overlooking the prison yard, he shoots Jewish inmates for pre-breakfast fun. Schindler is able to talk him out of this custom with an appeal to his vanity so obvious that it is almost an insult. Goeth is one of those weak hypocrites who upholds an ideal but makes himself an exception to it; he preaches the death of the Jews, and then chooses a pretty one named Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz) to be his maid and falls in love with her. He does not find it monstrous that her people are being exterminated and she is spared on his affectionate whim. He sees his personal needs as more important than right or wrong, life or death.

The more you see of the Herr Kommandant the more you see there are no set rules you can live by, you cannot say to yourself, “If I follow these rules, I will be safe.”

Shooting in black and white on many of the actual locations of the events in the story (including Schindler’s original factory and even the gates of Auschwitz), Spielberg shows Schindler dealing with the madness of the Nazi system. He bribes, he wheedles, he bluffs, he escapes discovery only by the skin of his teeth. In the movie’s most audacious sequence, when a trainload of his employees are mistakenly routed to Auschwitz, he walks into the death camp himself and brazenly talks the authorities out of their victims, snatching them from death and putting them back on the train to his factory.

Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.

Coming to the acting and the actual scenes I would’ve have to say that they are an absolute delight to watch and emotionally moving. Sir Ben Kingsley is very good as the Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern. There are some very moving scenes involving him and Schindler. Ben Kingsley has showcased the changes in Stern and Schindler’s relationship from that of owner and accountant to that of close friends in a very subtle and realistic manner.

Schindler and Amon Goeth
Schindler and Amon Goeth

Raplh Fiennes gives his best performance in a serious role as the psychotic commandant Amon Goeth. The coldness in his eyes, the way he enjoys killing people before breakfast from his balcony and killing people because they mean nothing to him are very unsettling and make his character look even more psychotic. But at times he conveys vulnerability and emotions. He talks to Helen about how he loves her and would like to grow old with her. But then the sudden fall-back to his old self will send a chill down your spine.

Liam Neeson’s portrayal of Schindler is nothing short of awesome. His expressions when meeting with Stern for the first time, the first time he witnesses the liquidation of the ghetto and the time when Mr. Lowenstein visits him to thank him for giving him a job are very impressive and reveal a lot about Schindler and the changes he goes through the film. Towards the end he delivers two amazing performances. One when he hears about the war officially ending and giving the speech in his new factory at Brinnlitz. The other at the very end when he is about to flee and is gifted the ring made by his employees and a letter explaining the situation to the army in case he is caught and tried for profiting from slave labour. At that moment Schindler breaks down and starts measuring the worth of every man and realising how many more he could’ve saved had he not wasted so much money. He even thinks about how his gold Nazi Badge could’ve saved one more Jew. He feels guilty about not being able to save that ‘one more person’.

Schindler crying after being given the gifts from his workers
Schindler crying after being given the gifts from his workers

“Schindler’s List” shows us how parts of the Holocaust operated, but does not explain it, because it is inexplicable that men could practice genocide. Or so we want to believe. Religion and race are markers that we use to hate one another, and unless we can get beyond them, we must concede we are potential executioners. The power of Spielberg’s film is not that it explains evil, but that it insists that men can be good in the face of it, and that good can prevail.

The French author Flaubert once wrote that he disliked Uncle Tom’s Cabin because the author was constantly preaching against slavery. “Does one have to make observations about slavery?” he asked. “Depict it; that’s enough.” And then he added, “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” That would describe Spielberg, the author of this film. He depicts the evil of the Holocaust, and he tells an incredible story of how it was robbed of some of its intended victims. He does so without the tricks of his trade, the directorial and dramatic contrivances that would inspire the usual melodramatic payoffs. Spielberg is not visible in this film, but his restraint and passion are present in every shot.

Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.

At the end of the film, there is a sequence of overwhelming emotional impact, involving the very people who were saved by Schindler. We learn that “Schindler’s Jews” and their descendants today number about 6,000 and that the Jewish population of Poland is 4,000. The obvious lesson would seem to be that Schindler did more than what a whole nation did to spare its Jews. That would be too simple. I would like to believe that the film’s message is that one man did something, while in the face of the Holocaust others were paralyzed. Perhaps it took a Schindler, enigmatic and reckless, without a plan, heedless of risk, a con man, to do what he did. No rational man with a sensible plan would have gotten as far. The movie began with a list of Jews being confined to the ghetto. It ends with a list of some who were saved. The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.

The list is an absolute good. The list… is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.

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