It’s a familiar scene: a domestic kitchen, rustic in style, and in its way, timeless. A family gathers around the table, sharing a moment of prayer. The camera singles out a young Jewish boy – the embodiment of innocence, possibility, legacy, and Spielberg himself – who will bear witness to what is to come. Time passes and the scene fades, becoming monochromatic as the candle gutters and goes out. And so begins ‘Schindler’s List’, Spielberg’s monumental masterpiece: an uncompromising and unsentimental drama of the persecution of the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazi regime, and the Czech industrialist who conspired to save them.
Liam Neeson, as Oskar Schindler, is a pragmatic materialist – the kind of man who entertains SS officers just to sleep with their dates, and treats his Nazi Party badge as simply another item of his wardrobe. He is far from a hero driven by a righteous moral code. “I’m a Jew,” says Itzhak Stern, explaining his confusion upon meeting his prospective employer. “Well,” replies Schindler, unfazed, “I’m a gentleman. There we are.” Self-styled and arrogant, Schindler is the product of his own fantasy, blessed with total faith in his abilities and determination – and it’s this very self-belief that enables him to save the countless lives he does. Presented with the Nazi regime and the onset of war, he sees a business opportunity – booming prospects, convenient labour – and does as any good capitalist would do: capitalises. “Presentation” is his mantra, and Schindler knows how to put on a good show.
While the antihero is common figure of cinema, it’s the extremities of Schindler’s uncommon surroundings – the Holocaust – that throw his actions into such stark relief. Of course, Schindler is hardly the heartless manufacturing machine he presents – one totally motivated by personal gain (it would hardly be a Spielbergian story if he were). But the idea that he might be what he appears – shallow, vapid, self-serving and amoral – is what makes him such a fascinating, complicated, and ultimately timeless character.
SCHINDLER'S LIST - TRAILER
Schindler’s journey is a twist on the archetypal hero’s journey of discovery, conquest, and triumph. No triumph is made from his business ventures or conquests at the expense of his rivals – instead, Schindler’s journey is entirely towards humanity, instigated and supervised by his tireless accountant and confidant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley). It is Stern who realises the possibilities of his employer's position, and who places him time and again (often against his wishes) into the role of saviour. What makes Oskar’s stumbles toward humanity so potent is not merely our knowledge that he already has it (no matter how stalwartly he denies it), but how pointedly his dramatic foil, SS Commandant Amon Goeth, lacks it. Impatient, deranged, and pathologically cruel, the film presents Schindler and Goeth as two sides of the same self-interested coin – how evil indeed exists when “good men do nothing."
A sequence midway through the film sees Oskar’s evolving ethos put into practice as he imparts the nature of “true power” to the trigger-happy Goeth: showing mercy in the face of violence. Taking the advice to heart, Goeth appears at first to be genuinely changed, sparing those he would otherwise have executed without compunction. But his capability for change is really just mimicry, shockingly demonstrated with a confession of love - despite his embracing racist ideals - to his Jewish maid. Humanity, for Goeth, is impossible, for unlike Schindler, there is no humanity within him to be drawn out through his actions. With appropriate irony, Goeth is revealed to be as primitively evolved as he believes the Jews to be.
While undoubtedly his most personal film, ‘Schindler’s List’ is also Spielberg at his most absent. The film’s look and feel are dramatically different from the auteur’s usual style, employing intimate verite camerawork and stark black and white photography. The effect is profoundly documentarian, placing the viewer inescapably in the crowded streets of Krakow, the opulence of the Nazi soirees, the terror of the ghetto purges, and – horribly, inexorably, traumatically – into the concentration camps.
It’s because of these concentration camp scenes that ‘Schindler’s List’ blurs the lines between a conventional film and an historical document. Few films have ambitioned to put facsimiles of the death camps on film – fewer still have done so with such unflinching detail and visceral bleakness. Spielberg takes the Holocaust’s worst images of static horror and makes them live, breathe, and burn. It’s one thing to see emaciate inmates bloodied and bruised in photographs – quite another to see their tears, hear them scream, watch them die.
‘Schindler’s List’ stands apart among Spielberg’s filmography.
The film is consistently difficult to watch, not for the fidelity of its images or the framing of its camerawork (all of which are immaculate and tightly controlled), but for the sheer amount of distressing content Spielberg places before his lens. But this difficulty is important – for as much as ‘Schindler’s List’ is a chronicle of atrocities, it is also the remarkable true story of singular ingenuity and survival. The two elements in conjunction (and the mastery with which they’re entwined) are what make ‘Schindler’s List’ so powerful and important.
‘Schindler’s List’ stands apart among Spielberg’s filmography. For a man known for his cinematic confections (for giving the world giant sharks, mischievous aliens, intrepid explorers and rampaging dinosaurs), his rumination on compassion and genocide is not a film easily deciphered. Endured more than enjoyed, it lacks the sparks of wit that temper the horrors of ‘Amistad’ and ‘Munich’, or the generic conventions that make those films courtroom dramas or espionage thrillers. Aware of the implicit weight of his subject matter, Spielberg allows no element of the film’s production or moment of screen time to take precedence over another for the sake of style or overt manipulation. Direct and unadulterated, ‘Schindler’s List’ is a confronting tragedy; Spielberg does not pull away from this reality, nor do anything to subvert it.
As a cinematic cornerstone, ‘Schindler’s List’ leaves a legacy of unparalleled images seared into the viewer’s memory: piles of empty suitcases, stacked beside mountains of shoes and clothes; the sweaty skin of Amon Goeth, the most detestable villain ever put to screen; black blood gushing from raw bullet wounds; the crowd of woman and girls, hysterical and naked beneath the showers at Auschwitz; the little orphaned girl, wandering alone in her dull red coat. Under the weight of such trauma, it’s hard to imagine anything remotely hopeful survives, yet it does. Spielberg’s natural predilection for sentimentality is supported by history, and rightly so - its coda sequence, in which the surviving Schindler Jews place stones on his grave, accompanied by the actors portraying them, is one of the most powerful affirmations of hope committed to the screen.
As he prepares to become a wanted criminal for his involvement with the Nazi Party, Oskar Schindler cries, shaking his accountant’s hand for what may be the last time. “I could have got more,” he laments, realising the value of his car, his effects, his Nazi party badge, and the lives they could have bought. It’s only now, when the battle is won, that he comes to understand the insubstantial cost of a human life. And that is ‘Schindler’s List’s' enduring legacy: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”