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Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Already as close to a canonized masterpiece as a film can get a mere ten years after its release, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List seems to these eyes a misguided failure that aims to please where it should instead be challenging and confronting. In the opening minutes, when we watch the Polish Jews registering after the loss of the war to Germany, the camera is more concerned with the chaos and excitement of the event than the dehumanization. What should be the first in a line of intolerable acts is a snappy set piece. Close-up after close-up of people stating their names to the camera doesn’t dehumanize these people. It does the opposite. The script demands that the Jews be humanized, though, and since this is an expository scene, it has an apparent function as entertainment to serve before it serves the people it’s portraying. It might be churlish to complain about such things, but these sins are revisited repeatedly throughout the film and come to a head in Schindler’s (or, more accurately, Liam Neeson’s) climactic speech. While it works, somewhat, as an inversion of the God complex that Schindler’s foil Amon Goethe clearly has, it is factually inaccurate, brazenly manipulative, and so capable of presenting Schindler as a saint that it allows the audience feel alright about the horrors they have witnessed over the previous three hours.
The introduction of Schindler, in sharp contrast to the introduction of the Jews, is loaded with a sense of mystery. There are at least twenty shots of him before his face is shown. Again, there are narrative needs for the movie, but they seem at odds with the film’s larger agenda. The Jews are simple. The Gentiles are complex. Spielberg approaches this material with the moronic assumption that a non-Jew would have to search his soul to comprehend the atrocities of the Holocaust in a way that a Jew would not. He seems to see himself as our tour guide on that unnecessary hunt. This simplicity is tempered somewhat by Ben Kingsley’s role, but the weight of the race is too much to shoulder, even for him. Embeth Davidtz’s turn as an abused woman could scarcely be said to work in such a capacity, and the rest of the Jews are scarcely developed at all. The tiny character arcs they’re given feel closer to running gags. The Jewish experience here is one of petty ironies and grim humor. It’s a senselessly reductive way to look at this defining tragedy in a people’s history.
Schindler is a more dynamic figure, but even so, he’s disappointingly drawn. From his initial mystery emerges a man who appears to be a devil of sorts, striking up an unfair business venture with desperate Jews. A flagrant swindler, he tells his right hand man that he’s good at “presentation” and not the “work” (which is why, perhaps, the huckster Spielberg found himself attracted to this man’s tale above all other Holocaust stories). He’s an intriguing figure for as long as he remains elusive, but it all crumbles away in a matter of scenes. From the moment he’s confronted with the death of a one-armed Pole who thanked him for saving his life, Schindler’s conversion is completely inevitable (in no small part, thanks to his proximity to Gandhi). Spielberg doesn’t realize he’s overplayed his hand in telegraphing his protagonist’s conversion, however, and continues to milk visual comparisons between Schindler and Goeth, the maniacal villain of the piece.
As Schindler’s conversion becomes more complete, and his goodness more absolute, his relationship with Goeth changes, moving to the point where Schindler must make a deal with the greater Devil that is Goethe in order to save lives. It’s a superficially interesting shift, but one that’s dramatically flawed, since Schindler has no price to pay, beyond financial ones, for making the pact. One can scarcely care about the fate of Schindler’s riches when the Holocaust is going on, despite Spielberg’s constant demonstrations of Nazi opulence. As for Goeth, from his introduction, in which he shows up at the death camp and complains about the state of his “villa”, Ralph Fiennes brings energy to the movie, but it’s the sort of energy that promises to take it easy on the audience’s ethics. He’s unremittingly evil and a clear madman. As a result, he gives the audience a villain to blame the horrors they witness on, simplifying their moral attitude. His indiscriminate killing doesn’t make us more aware of the indiscriminate killing of the masses. It distracts us from it, putting a human face on something too scary to warrant one. Even the scenes meant to make Goeth most human, such as his flirtation with his maid or a brief flirtation with the notation of forgiveness only turn him into a two-dimensional character who flirts with being a three-dimensional one.
Effective moments are scattered here and there throughout Schindler’s List. In one, Schindler retrieves his lackey Stern from the death train by fighting bureaucracy with bureaucracy (it’s the stamps and ledgers, tools of the administration, that are the recurring forebears of mass death -- and a more formidable and believable villain than Fiennes’ Goeth). Even that high point is deflated, though, by the decision to make the train leave pull out of station and turn the rescue into an action scene. There’s a mini-drama between mother, daughter and childhood friend during the evacuation sequence that is genuinely devastating because it centers on complex moral choices, made in an instant, but that is followed by the memorable and risible “girl in the red dress” scene, which carries as trite as message, and score, as possible. Tellingly, like Spielberg, Schindler identifies with the child above all others.
There’s no trust here from the director that the audience might draw its own conclusions or be able to still fathom the horrors of the Holocaust if the lines between good and bad aren’t distinctly drawn (consider the scenes at the end of The Pianist, in which the titular character befriends a German officer for a comparison). The feel-good moments are effective at showing how humanity continues to thrive under even the worst circumstances (the gift the Jews make for Schindler at the end of the film is the lone touching moment in an obscenely congratulatory last act, thanks to the loaded imagery of the gold teeth). The horrible scenes are indeed capable of showing us some of the evils humanity is capable of. Still, there's not enough in the gray area in-between. In every scene I see technical artistry, and in almost every scene I see ideological concessions. Most irksome, probably, is the way that Spielberg reminds the audience that God’s presence is seen everywhere during this tragedy. Time after time, the impossible odds are beaten. Schindler scores a natural 21 in a game of blackjack to save a woman. Two guns repeatedly jam, resulting in another saved Jew. Schindler has another, wildly unlikely encounter with the girl in the red dress. Most offensively, perhaps, is karmic retribution doled out at Goeth’s hanging. One might say that suggesting all of this demonstrates great faith, but to me it seems an insult to those who died. Spielberg’s movie favors the chosen few among the chosen people enough already without him explicitly claiming God is on their side. Even if none of that strikes a viewer as problematic, I don’t think simpleminded polemical techniques such as showing Nazis playing Mozart while they annihilate Jews or cutting to Nazis clapping at a party while a woman is beaten in the basement below help anyone to further understand the situation.
John Williams’ score is sometimes damned good, railroading over the scenes as it unifies them and makes them flow as one, and at other times as maudlin and obvious his worst work. Janus Kaminski’s rich black and white cinematography would be the film’s prime achievement if it were placed in another film with less sticky moral questions surrounding it. Flipping back and forth between an exaggerated movie-ness and a pseudo-documentary realism, it rarely looks less than inspired. The eye lights used in the Nazi clubs are as rapturous as the holy light cast upon the blessed Jews working to make Schindler’s porcelain pots (Amistad be damned, there’s no doubt here that slavery is preferable to death). It’s so gorgeous that taking pleasure in it seems wrong, given the subject matter. Like so many of Spielberg’s choices, the stylization distracts from the horror that should be staring the audience in the face. Worse still, is the consistent familiarity of the images. Spielberg utilizes the visual touchstones of the Holocaust (the trains, the death camps, the harvesting of artifacts from those doomed, and so on, all shot in black and white to more readily recall file photographs) to extract immediate audience identification, but in doing so creates a vision of the Holocaust that is immediately familiar to us and thereby more comfortable.
Schindler’s List is admirable for many reasons. It is impressive in scope, has excellent production values, a moderately committed vision, and a willingness to tell a story of importance to those who might not be predisposed toward it (though the pandering that the approach entails turns that into a fault). Though Stanley Kubrick has already perhaps made the definitive criticism of the movie, it’s apt enough to repeat. “Schindler’s List,” he said, “was about 200 Jews who lived. The Holocaust is about 6 million Jews who died.” This attitude can be seen in action on a smaller scale in the way that Spielberg stages his Krakow ghetto evacuation. In it, one man’s plan to escape through the sewers becomes the defining narrative of the sequence. True to Hollywood form, the focus is squarely on the survivors and not on the victims. The mindset also turns up on a larger scale near the film’s end, in a tasteless suspense scene that mines thrills over whether the titular list will arrive in time to save the Jews from getting gassed in a death camp. In her exalting New York Times review, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Spielberg has made sure that neither he nor the Holocaust will ever be thought of in the same way again.” Since I see Schindler's List as a movie riddled with compromise, misplaced showmanship and audience-pleasing spectacle, I worry that statement might be right.