I didn’t see Schindler’s List for the longest time. I understood it was an excellent film, but I was very reluctant to watch a Holocaust drama, even a well-done one. It’s not exactly a subject I would want to go to for light entertainment, and I would need to be in the “right mood” for something like that. I did eventually see it, but then something happened that I wasn’t expecting. I was also a big Seinfeld fan, and there is that episode where Jerry’s parents are visiting, and Jerry wants time with his girlfriend which led to the two making out during Schindler’s List. Jerry and his parents being Jewish, this does not go over very well with the elder Seinfelds or the girlfriend’s parents. But Elaine was dating Judge Reinhold, and he was mostly known as a “close talker,” but he took a real liking to Jerry’s parents. Anyway, at the end of the episode, when Jerry’s parents return to Florida, he starts going nuts about all the thing he could have done with the Seinfelds but didn’t. It was a weird thing that didn’t really make much sense to me.
And then I saw Schindler’s List, and the end of the film had Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler doing the same thing. And I thought, my God, Seinfeld really went there…
But here we are, the film that is probably Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece. Given his own Jewish heritage, it may also be his most personal. You can certainly view Spielberg’s career as the pre- and post-Schindler’s List periods. The big difference is that, starting with Schindler’s List, whatever it was that Spielberg did where his films could be both family-friendly entertainment and have a great deal of artistic merit seems to be gone. True, even his weaker work still shows a good deal of craftsmanship, but he seems to alternate now between serious films and popcorn movies.
As it is, and as good as Spielberg’s past work has been, and heck, as good as much of what he made going forward, I get the feeling that this is where Spielberg decided to show what he could really do when he wanted to. Every cinematic move and trick he’d learned as a director going back decades. I remember being in college and watching The Color Purple with a friend and just as what would have been a lesbian sex scene was starting only to have Spielberg pull the camera away, to which my friend gave a little clucking sound and said something about it was a typical Spielberg move to chicken out like that. Granted, that film came out in 1985, and the social and political climate at the time probably wouldn’t have allowed anything more graphic than the two women looking each other in the eye and giving each other from fairly mild kisses, but she still thought Speilberg could have pushed the envelope a little bit more.
No one would say Schindler’s List is chickening out in any way. Even beyond the Holocaust material, as dark as it is, the film contains heavier swearing and sex scenes than pretty much anything else in Spielberg’s filmography up to that point. If it was felt Spielberg was in any way holding back up to this point, then a small moment when Oskar Schindler, after visiting the odious Nazi Amon Goth (Ralph Fiennes), has to brush what is no doubt human ashes off his car should have silenced anyone who thought he was going to go easy on the audience with this one.
And that’s one of the more subtle moments in a film filled with moments of not just Goth but Nazis and even a few regular citizens treating the Jews of the film as some sort of subhuman monster where their only purpose is to work until they can’t work any more. Goth may be particularly monstrous, what with his picking off random camp inmates with a sniper rifle just to amuse himself, but there’s a high level of evil going on throughout the film. When the Jews are rounded up in the Ghetto, a horrifying scene on many levels, we see the lengths they go to in order to hide and the lengths the Nazis go to make sure none of these methods are successful. It is that Nazi level of thoroughness that actually allows Schindler to save the many lives that he does in many ways, but seeing the SS listening to floorboards with stethoscopes or gunning down fleeing people hiding in the sewers shows just how serious they were to exterminate a whole class of human beings. And since we distinctly see a young girl screaming, “Goodbye, Jews!” in the streets, we know it wasn’t just the uniformed personnel who felt that way. Meanwhile, as the Jews are continually demeaned over and over before they even get to a camp, we see a people who keep assuming the worst has past because no one could possibly be that evil.
And then we see Goth with his sniper rifle.
Fiennes is magnificent as a magnificent bastard, one of two actors to really have his career take off as a result of this film. The other, of course, is Neeson. Oskar Schindler is not, when we first meet him, much of a good man. He’s used to bribing his way to get his own way and cheats heavily on his wife (she knows and may or may not mind depending on how you interpret the scene). He’s a member of the Nazi party, but then something happens in him. Watching the round-up of the Jews from a tall hill, particularly the little girl in the red coat (one of the few instances of color in Spielberg’s largely stark, black-and-white photography), the audience can see the concerns going through his mind. He may not be what most would consider a good man at first blush, but this is clearly not what he signed up for.
It’s worth noting that he still hasn’t gone as far as he will eventually, but as the film progresses, as he bonds with Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern and Goth’s abused Jewish maid Helen, he takes it upon himself to save as many as he can. I read the novel that this film was based on, itself based on fact, and there were a few things that jumped out as I read it. One was that Schindler wasn’t the only factory owner with a conscience back then. He was just the most successful. The other was that Schindler was actually not a particularly good businessman for peacetime. All his skills worked best in a more freewheeling wartime economy, and once the war ended, Schindler spent the rest of his life living off charity from the very Jews whose lives he saved.
This is a hard film to watch, even as it shows one man becoming a better one, but it wasn’t meant to be easy. This was a story of a genocide, an attempt to wipe a people off the face of the Earth, and the sort of people who were far too common back then and may be far too common even now. It would be nice to live in a world with more Schindlers and less Goth, but it would be even better if we could live in a world that doesn’t even need a Schindler.
NEXT UP: We’ve got a film about divided loyalty between love for a brother and love for the brotherhood of humanity in the 1954 drama On the Waterfront.