Friday, December 23, 2016

Schindler's List (1993)

USA, 195 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Thomas Keneally, Steven Zaillian
Photography: Janusz Kaminski
Music: John Williams
Editor: Michael Kahn
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagall, Embeth Davidtz, Malgorzata Gebel, Shmuel Levy, Mark Ivanir

At the time Schindler's List was new I was not entirely on board with the larger Spielberg project and I focused more on the problems I saw with the picture. I'm a little more on board now, and can see I missed a lot of what makes it arguably a great movie. There are great performances and its commitment to showing what the Holocaust and the German Nazi regime looked like is unstinting, the main reason the movie is so long and rated R ("contains some adult material"). It is ambitious about telling a simple, resonant story of the Holocaust, and erecting a broad sweeping vision of that context—the systematic abuse and murder of some 6 million Jews by German Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s.

Schindler's List is good, even great, because it doesn't flinch from showing the details. It learned well from Shoah the stories of what happened in the Holocaust. Shots and scenes in Schindler's List are often reminiscent of what we came to understand from the massive 1985 documentary and elsewhere. And yet, something nags at me when I look at Schindler's List. The movie often seems bloated and gaseous in memory, over-swamped by the excesses of its own good intentions somehow. I don't doubt the veracity but it often feels exaggerated for effect. And I still see the problems I've always seen with it. They still work to undermine the movie's best intentions and strengths. They aren't big problems, in terms of screen time generally, but somehow they puncture it, almost irreparably.

The first problem is the choice of language. All the primary dialogue is in English (with various distracting meaningless accents), while the sound design is otherwise heavily decorated with mostly German and some Polish, Yiddish, and other languages. On the DVD, all that goes untranslated even in the subtitles, which helpfully show only the foreign words. So, though we can usually glean some half-terrified sense of what the barking is about anyway (which doubtless is the effect sought), it's not meant to be literally understood, but rather to contribute to a disorienting, immediate, and extremely foreign experience.

Even as the movie is aimed at and intended for Americans (the ones who buy tickets and issue the Oscars), it also panders to American prejudices and biases. "Here is a foreign story from a very foreign place," it says by implication. "We'll make it easy for you to get the main points, and you will never need to feel implicated in any way." Movie marketers know well that subtitles do not play well with the mass audience, so fair enough, but the unfortunate result is that all these Germans and Jews and Poles speaking English to one another, with or without accents, starts to feel like make-believe, a fatal misstep for a movie as serious as this.

Another comparison with Shoah: the documentary forced us by design to do our own visualizing, but Schindler's List, as a formally fictional treatment, based on a novel, has complete latitude to stage its own vision for show, and does just that. In fact, it's hard to look at in many places, as we catch glimpses of the systematic degradation practiced in the ghettos and at Auschwitz and elsewhere, the depredations of a bureaucracy that ultimately forces people to wait in line naked for their own deaths. We see lots of wanton, unnerving brutalities of Nazis in full power. It is so realistic that Spielberg chose to shoot it in the ultra-realistic (figuratively speaking) black and white. The crimes of war we see may often be horror shows, but they are delivered from a safe and reassuring place furnished with comforting Spielberg touches, such as the language.

While we're on the black and white, that brings us to the problem of the girl with the red coat. I think I understand what's going on here. The girl's coat is only red when Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is looking at it, and the events of her fate (or of her innocence, more like) are critical turning points in Schindler's story, the German ne'er-do-well industrialist who sees war as the key to making a fortune. I think the idea is that her fate (or her innocence) is so vividly real to Schindler that it comes busting out of the gray world of the movie and shimmers red briefly. Nice idea, but it feels gimmicky (like Pleasantville later), driven by state-of-the-art special effects capability. Ultimately, for me, it's a reminder of the artifice. The dominant black and white until then effectively represented a gritty reality, as in the movie The Battle of Algiers. Now, the splash of red only served to remind that the black and white is equally an aesthetic choice, and makes it feel hollow.

There is kodachrome color in the closing minutes, of course, but it's part of such a shift in the picture that the color is only one aspect of another problem, the larger problem of the ending. This would also include the problem of Schindler's "I could have done more" breakdown. You might call it, more generally, the problem of the movie's saintliness. I'm not convinced the way I think Spielberg might be that if you're going to show demons in a movie you are obligated to also show angels. In real life, I'm sorry to say, I generally see a plurality of demons over angels—I'll concede to Spielberg that I see both.

I also embrace an idea of optimism as an ethical stance. I think it's practical to expect the best and work and hope for it (while also planning for the worst) and I think it's way too easy to fall into habits of thought and feeling that prolong despair. So I appreciate Spielberg's never-ending mission to remind us that everything always gets better again no matter what, even in the face of the European slavery trade, American slavery, the Jim Crow South, and now the Holocaust, to give a few examples of where Spielberg has done exactly that. No matter how bad things are, people are good, or some such. I just wish it didn't feel like so much hokum sometimes.

Be that as it may, Steven Spielberg's long-term quest for gravitas and to be taken seriously by the Hollywood establishment finally paid off with Schindler's List. The picture won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and was celebrated as an overdue corrective for Spielberg's long-term neglect. That was and still is weird, considering his simultaneous ongoing unprecedented commercial success in the industry. The year Schindler's List was released was the same year the first Jurassic Park movie came out. That's a useful context for thinking about Spielberg—as, in fairness, is the fact that he has taken no salary or proceeds at all from Schindler's List. The profits went to found the Shoah Foundation, a saintly act if ever there was one.


  1. I think Schindler's Lost may be the greater film, but Munich is the more mature one.

  2. Remember the Seinfeld where Jerry gets in trouble for making out at Schindler's List? Your analysis is interesting but my memories of the film are flickering at best. I do vaguely remember wondering when it came out why would you want to make the central protagonist of a historical epic ab the Holocaust be a born-again German industrialist? I know Spielberg gets a pass here b/c he's Jewish, okay, but the judgment? It's almost as bad as Mississippi Burning being ab white FBI agents from the north.