Directed and Produced by Steven Spielberg
November 30, 1993 (Washington, D.C.) / December 15, 1993 (United States)
This film tells the true story of German industrialist Oskar Schindler who saved more than a thousand mostly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust by employing them in his factories during World War II.
Some films I write about like a fanboy geeking out. Others I go into hesitantly because of the reverence I have for the movie and its general greatness. This writing falls more into the latter. Schindler’s List is one of the most powerful films ever made. It is emotional and powerful.
Schindler’s List is not an easy movie to watch. This is a creative highpoint for Steven Spielberg. A crowning achievement in fact. I say it is not easy to watch because it is a very serious and very downbeat film and a departure in tone for him. Schindler’s List is bleak at points. It can be emotionally crushing and just generally disturbing. It pulls no punches and does not try to soften anything.
Oskar Schindler is a hero to many, but this film does not paint him as a saint. They do a very good job of showing who he was warts and all. He starts out as an opportunist initially motivated by money who eventually through great risk to himself begins to scheme and work to save as many Jews as he can. Neeson approaches him as a man that likes to put one over on the Germans while the Germans tend to view him as rather harmless.
Liam Neeson was brilliant in this film. The man is known for action these days, but he is in reality an extremely talented actor. Here he turned in a multi layered performance of a less than pure soul that did a good thing. Neeson was not the commodity then that he is now and supposedly got the part for that very reason against other better known prospects like Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, and even Warren Beatty who sat in on script readings. And he killed it. All three have done great work but I cannot see them being effective in the central part.
The legendary (even then) Ben Kingsley portrays Itzhak Stern. Stern, while real, in this film is a composite of three real individuals. Aside from Stern, he also contains Schindler factory manager Abraham Bankier, and commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp Amon Göth’s (Ralph Fiennes) personal secretary Mietek Pemper. Stern’s character through his contacts in the business community and the black market makes it possible for Schindler to do what he does. He is able to get goods for production as well as other uses that keep what he is doing going.
We have three fine actors right there in Neeson, Kingsley, and Fiennes but that is not to say that the whole cast is not superb. Under the guidance of Spielberg they delivered amazing performances in a film that gets emotional reactions from you. I watch plenty of films and television and am rarely emotionally moved. I am talking where either I shed a tear or feel sad/depressed or just whatever. This movie was in a rare category that made me feel beyond a mental reaction.
Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes) is one of the more disturbing screen villains I have ever encountered. He is not some supervillain nor over the top psycho. He does what he does because he can and not because he is told. The environment he is in gives him that power and without societal constraints he easily lets out his inner monster.
Göth randomly shoots prisoner with no more concern than blowing his nose and has forced his Jewish servant Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz) into a relationship under the implied threat she goes into the camp. I am pretty sure this was fictitious (though it did occur among Nazi officers) and drives home just what kind of a monster he was. Schindler maintains a certain level of freedom and friendship with Göth through briberies of all sorts.
The film is shot in black-and-white which was done to make it look like a documentary film of the era. Gone are the sweeping Spielberg zoom shots he so often used before. He avoided his usual style and created something very special that makes you feel as if you are watching it as it happens. This was filmed over 72 days and on a lower than normal budget as Holocaust films were not seen as money makers.
The only moment of color in Schindler’s List is the girl in the red coat and is rather famous and rather shocking. While the character in the creits DOES have the same name as a real individual that DID survive, she was not actually inspired by any one individual. Her presence was meant to symbolize how obvious the Holocaust was while happening. Schindler seeing her dead after seeing her alive in a rather normal moment was the point in the film Schindler decided to really act.
As the film and the war ends, Schindler must flee the coming Red Army since he is not only a member of the Nazi Party but a war profiteer and attempt to surrender to the Allies. There is a moment where the SS guards stationed at the factory are going to kill the Jewish workers where he talks them down. It is a powerful scene where he convinces those soldiers to go home rather than commit a pointless act before they can.
The costuming is superb and for the length of this film that attention to detail along with the attention in the sets and the attention to the physical appearance of the characters pulls you in and you are an in active participant in the events that occur on screen. You are there and if you have any humanity in you, you were shocked and disturbed by what you saw and powerless to do anything.
This film had a decades long winding road from starting as a passion project to tell the story of an unlikely hero to being a finished film. Poldek Pfefferberg, one of the Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jews) as far back as 1963 worked to get a biopic done before it landed in the lap of Spielberg where it lingered a bit longer until he decided it MUST be made and it is a good thing that he did. What we got is an incomparable classic.
Schindler’s List is a fantastic piece of cinema. It is a true work of art. I cannot say this enough, but you must watch it!