This was my first time watching Steven Spielberg’s 1993 drama Schindler’s List but I felt like it was already a part of my understanding of the world. It’s almost as if Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice have held places in my cultural Rolodex as examples of the most depressing displays of one of the most gruesome human rights disasters of Western civilization. The film met those expectations. Coming off a strong run of Westerns, I was looking forward to finally doing the cinematic equivalent of putting a face to a name.
Spielberg brings a signature touch to the subject matter. Beginning with the choice to film in black and white, and deepening with a character focused approach to the horrors of the moment. The film opens with images not often associated with Krakow in the early 1940s. Opulent dinners and piles of cash hark back to cabaretesque prewar sensibilities — a show of affluent people fiddling while Rome burns. We’re greeted by the shiny smile of the leading man, Liam Neeson, who polishes up his swastika button and plots a path to fortune using the newly emerging political system.
Like a true war profiteering opportunist he manages to carve out a life for himself by exploiting a system which was in the early phases of methodically stripping away the humanity of a class of beings. As each pillar of civility is removed and quiet Poles look on, Oskar Schindler climbs a ladder affixed to the backs of the oppressed while investing in elaborate bribes of Nazi officers. If this makes Schindler sound despicable it’s because in many ways he is. But he’s also charming, and Spielberg manages to paint him with a scoundrel like endearment, as if he was infiltrating the Nazi party in order to use their exploitation against them. He is a fly in the ointment of their grand design, and they are so hypnotized by his flattery and his smuggled gourmet gifts they don’t pick up on the sleight of hand he is performing.
Spielberg uses this tactic in many of his films and his particular brand of execution often results in magic. By focusing on dimensional characters who exude familiarity and at least one streak of goodness, Spielberg can use setting, character dynamics, and cinematic surprises to lay a track to guide the emotional reaction of the viewer — think Dr. Allen Grant of Jurassic Park or Peter Banning in Hook or even Indiana Jones himself. His protagonists reveal their flaws early, and yet we continue to root for them as extraordinary circumstances push them to acknowledge the tether of their shortcomings. Schindler guides us through the turmoil of Krakow’s fall to the Nazis, and Spielberg, wisely gives him an untouchable totem of goodness in his reluctant sidekick Itzhak Stern, played by Ben Kingsley, to properly light his best angles. Stern is approached by Schindler to run his business, and as Schindler finds success, Stern continues to use the factory as a shield for the vulnerable against the incoming doom. When Stern is sent to a work camp, Schindler continues to use and protect Stern — at first because he needs him and later because he loves him.
As the black and white filmography proudly proclaims from the opening frame, this is a film about duality and the conflict between evil and goodness. Schindler’s counterpart in this respect is SS Officer Amon Göth, as played by Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes is an extraordinary talent in this film, and conjures a man who is unabashed in his wickedness. He wakes up and hunts Jewish prisoners from his balcony for sport. He handpicks his maid and becomes sexually obsessed with her, resulting in him violently raping her after stating that she’s not human. Göth, unlike Schindler, gives no indication of political aspiration or pursuit of self interest, other than his devotion to promoting Aryan supremacy and subjugating human beings to slavery or death. Fiennes does a remarkable job portraying Göth’s soulless depravity, while also layering nuances of insecurity in a way that doesn’t excuse or justify the behavior, but merely expands on its origins. Göth is Itzkhak Stern’s opposite scale, with Schindler occupying the balance - morally searching for a spot of gray within the black and white, while continuing to take advantage of both parties.
Eventually, Schindler’s proximity to Göth allows him to notice his own approach toward the same slippery slope. After all, how different are they really? They both were using slave labor to maximize profits. They both chose to see the Jewish people as worthy of their respect only when it suited their motivations. Schindler never slaughtered people, but he bought extravagant gifts for the people who did, in order to increase his own earnings. There is a knee jerk repulsion as he starts waking up to the mass murder and human indecency that he is aligning himself with. So much so, he reverses course and uses his trunks full of money, working with Stern, to add names to a list of must have employees in order to save them for almost certain death. He puts them to work in a factory producing faulty war equipment until the war comes to an end. This great change in Schindler enables him to embrace risk in an effort to salvage his morals. This is the beating heart to a film which shows some of the most graphic displays of aggressive, hostile, racism that I ever hope to witness, but that also captures an innate goodness and capacity for self aware course correction with vivid and raw hopefulness. These extremes clash within Schindler himself, and the repercussions tremor out quietly over the course of viewing experience.
This movie screams Spielberg and is probably the best example of his adept skill at remaining mostly understated with powerful pops of emotion and tension. As I said earlier, this is a film that has come to represent the most depressing cinematic journey someone can take. While I agree it’s earned that distinction, it’s just as difficult to watch the real Schindler Jews pay respect at his graveside at the end of the film, and not feel a quiet ember of optimism stubbornly residing within the abundant horrors of cruelty.