Schindler’s List: Steven Spielberg’s elegy for the human conscience
“Every time I go to a movie, it’s magic, no matter what the movie’s about.” – Steven Spielberg
Many consider Schindler’s List to be Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus as well as one of the most powerful films to have ever been made. Others have accused Spielberg of wrongly appropriating the tragedy of the Holocaust in order to pander to the sentimentality of the melodrama genre and giving the despicably tragic incident “a happy ending.” Despite all the criticisms of the project, it cannot be denied that Schindler’s List was a successful film by most conventional metrics. It made $322 million worldwide on a $22 million budget and swept the Academy Awards, earning 12 nominations and winning in seven categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. Spielberg’s film did so well that it forced celebrated auteur Stanley Kubrick to abandon his own project about the Holocaust. When asked about Schindler’s List, Kubrick said: “Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.”
An epic historical drama about the contentious life of a Nazi party member who saved Jewish people from being persecuted is a pretty ambitious task and it had a long list of suitors as well. As early as 1951, Holocaust survivor Poldek Pfefferberg approached maestro Fritz Lang to make a film about Schindler. On top of that, Walt Disney also approached Schindler in the 1960s but nothing ever materialised. Although Spielberg acquired the rights for Australian novelist Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark in 1983, he did not feel that he was psychologically prepared to undertake this demanding yet necessary task. He tried to get accomplished filmmakers such as Roman Polanski, Sydney Pollack and Brian De Palma to make Schindler’s List instead. At one point, even Billy Wilder expressed his interest in directing the film as a memorial to his family, many of whom perished in the Holocaust. Ultimately, Martin Scorsese was attached to the project in 1988 and Spielberg traded him the 1991 remake of Cape Fear in exchange for the opportunity to direct Schindler’s List after reading Steven Zaillian’s script. The filmmaker has maintained that the film was an exigent chronicle of arguably the worst chapter in human history, especially because of the rise of neo-Nazism and Holocaust denial. He said: “My primary purpose in making Schindler’s List was for education. The Holocaust had been treated as just a footnote in so many textbooks or not mentioned at all. Millions knew little if anything about it. Others tried to deny it happened at all.”
Emphatically presented in the subtle chiaroscuro of black-and-white, Schindler’sList drains the colour from the violent world of that time in order to launch a poignant lamentation for the countless people who lost their lives to the radical extremism of the Nazi party and the insanity of widespread racism. Of course, it does not account for most of the six million people who shall remain voiceless but chooses to approach the difficult subject matter through the lens of Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson). Schindler is a deeply flawed protagonist, a parvenu with polished social skills who makes a fortune out of the slave labour of the Jewish people and uses his influence to cheat on his wife. From the very beginning, we see him proudly wear a Nazi badge and win over Nazi officials who would help him later on in life. The camera whimsically sways with the music, betraying the impending tragedy and destruction. However, Janusz Kamiński’s stunning cinematography changes as things get worse. Chaotic blocking and frantic editing add to the atmospheric claustrophobia of being hunted, packed into small spaces and being killed without any hesitation. John Williams’ melancholic score and violinist Itzhak Perlman’s performance of the iconic theme song nicely underline the inconceivable grief and horror evoked by the events on-screen. Schindler’s List is a well-crafted film and there is little doubt that it has become the popularly accepted cinematic representation of the Holocaust—but does it deserve that title?
“It means nothing. Nothing is shown, not even the story of this interesting German, Schindler. The story is not told. It is a mixed cocktail,” one of the most vocal critics of the film, French New Wave genius Jean-Luc Godard, said. “[Spielberg] used this man and this story and all the Jewish tragedy as if it were a big orchestra, to make a stereophonic sound from a simple story.” Despite being correct about Spielberg’s proclivity for the spectacle, Godard’s criticism does not do justice to the undeniable appeal that it had for mainstream audiences. It is true that the moment one tries to convert the historic into the cinematic, the dialectics become more abstract and we descend into the realm of the “fictionalised”. At its core, Schindler’s List is an elegy for the loss of the human conscience that led to so many underserved deaths but it is also a continuous search for hope. Spielberg shows us the coloured flames of the candlelight as well as the memorable scene where the girl in red runs through the black and white ghetto, surrounded by bloodshed and the terrifying spectres of war. Is she the personification of the abstract ideals of hope and innocence? If she is, Spielberg does not remain subtle in his statement when he shows us her corpse being fed to the mass graves of a concentration camp. While looking at the burning bodies of innocent victims, SS officer Amon Göth (played by Ralph Fiennes) sighs and tells Schindler: “The party’s over.”
Schindler’s story becomes a philosophically interesting one when we see the two major influences in his life: the extremely dangerous Amon and the silent witness Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), a resourceful accountant who becomes the voice of conscience in the film. He forges documents to help his community and does not say a word when Schindler lashes out at him but his silence is enough. Spielberg consciously moved away from the usual conventions of documentaries which are associated with works about the Holocaust and paved the way for a lot of narrative features on the subject, like Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist and Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008). In Schindler’s List, Spielberg oscillates between the symmetric framing of cinematic shots and the asymmetric chaos of genocide, a result of unabashed cruelty which destabilises the medium itself. There are some truly disturbing scenes in the film that defy the allegations which claim Schindler’s List is a consumable version of something as horrific as the Holocaust, including the one where Amon picks up a rifle and kills Jewish prisoners arbitrarily while casually smoking a cigarette and another haunting scene where hundreds of Jewish children are packed onto trucks headed for Auschwitz. They do not know that they have been sentenced to death, they smile and wave. One child breaks away from the group and hides in a hole filled with human faeces. Covered in shit, he looks up at the light coming in when the other children who were already hiding in there ask him to leave. With that one scene, Spielberg proves that nothing much can be said when it comes to articulating the evils of the Holocaust.
The unlikely redemption arc of Oskar Schindler comes to an end when German forces finally surrender. Before that, he spent almost all of his money to keep a dysfunctional munitions factory running and to save the women who had been mistakenly taken to Auschwitz. Disillusioned with his efforts, he keeps telling Stern, “I could have done more. I didn’t do enough.” Spielberg’s depiction of the march of the liberated Jewish prisoners has been denounced as disrespectful to the ones who did not make it out but those who were saved by Schindler and their descendants still remember his contribution. He is the only former member of the Nazi party to be buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion. Spielberg used his film’s profits for setting up the Holocaust Memorial Project, which has documented the memories of some 50,000 Holocaust survivors. Schindler’s List does not ask the audience to humanise a Nazi, it only questions whether redemption is still possible.