A quote from the Talmud says, “He who saves one life saves the world entire.” As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. This week is a major one, as it concerns what could arguably be considered Spielberg’s magnum opus: Schindler’s List, his epic historical drama film set in Poland during the Holocaust. Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s List is one of the most essential dramatized works ever made, as it offers vital educational material on one of the most shameful periods in human history.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
Thomas Keneally, already a successful author by this point, published his best-known work, Schindler’s Ark in Australia in 1982 (published as Schindler’s List in the U.S.). The novel was inspired by Poldek Pfefferberg (who is pictured in the film), a Holocaust survivor and a Schindlerjude, or a Jew who was saved by Oskar Schindler during the Holocaust. Over the years following the war, Pfefferberg had been trying to convince screenwriters and filmmakers to make a film based on Schindler. After a chance encounter with Thomas Keneally, he convinced him to write the book.
Universal bought the film rights to the novel, with Steven Spielberg intending to direct. Steven met Pfefferberg, and told him he would begin filming in ten years. However, in those following years, he began to have cold feet, wondering if he had the maturity required for a film about the Holocaust. He tried to pass the project off to other directors, such as Roman Polanski (a fellow Jew and a Holocaust survivor who would later direct The Pianist in 2002). Eventually, however, Steven decided he had an obligation to his family and to his heritage to direct the film himself.
Schindler’s List is largely set in Kraków, Poland, and it follows the Jewish community there during the events of World War II, as well as Oskar Schindler, a German-born businessman. After the Nazis take over and force the Jews to live in the ghetto, Schindler buys an enamel factory and begins hiring Jews as a cheap labor force. As the treatment of the Jews gets worse, Schindler has a change of heart, and shifts the purpose of his factory from a source for war profiteering to a safe haven, eventually creating a list of about 850 Jews to purchase and save from genocide.
After dipping his feet into serious subject matter for the first time with The Color Purple and then Empire of the Sun, Spielberg marks his full evolution into a mature filmmaker here with some of the most sophisticated and crucial work of his career. Where The Color Purple saw Spielberg acting as a mouthpiece for a cultural identity for which he had no perspective, Schindler’s List sees Spielberg perfectly situated, drawing from his Jewish roots to gain recognition for a people group he is a part of, while at the same time becoming more connected with his own Jewishness.
Before seeing Schindler’s List, if you were to ask me who I would choose to direct what could be considered the ultimate film about the Holocaust, I doubt I would have picked Spielberg. Spielberg is at heart a populist, and he is the preeminent authority over the commercial space, but at this point I wouldn’t quite consider him a great director of drama, as he tends to favor spectacle over human behavior, and his weakness for sentimentality would definitely be a disqualifying factor. But wow, does Steven prove himself here as a full-fledged cinematic master.
Not only is Schindler’s List as ruthlessly committed to objective treatment as Steven has ever been, it’s also uncharacteristically artistic. Famously, the majority of the film is in black and white. The film opens in color, with a Jewish family practicing the traditional Shabbat. The camera focuses on the candle, and the surrounding colors fade to black and white except for the flame, as it goes out. With one notable exception, the remainder of the film is in black and white, except for when the war is over, when another Shabbat is performed, with the candle flame again shown in color.
This stylistic choice centering on a Jewish tradition bookends the beginning and the end of the horrors of the Holocaust. Spielberg has been quoted as explaining his use of black and white as saying “the Holocaust was life without light.” This makes sense, as color, as well as the hope it represents, doesn’t return to the film until the eve of the war’s end. Except for the epilogue, the only other example of color comes from the iconic scene in which the little girl in the street wearing red is seen by Schindler from above during the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto.
Here, the little girl walks through the ongoing destruction unnoticed, with the red color of her coat being the only color visible in the scene. Schindler later sees her dead when the bodies are exhumed, and again the red is highlighted. Steven has explained his use of symbolism here as representing how the worsening situation for the Jews was obvious to the U.S. and others at this time, but like Oskar Schindler, they waited to get involved. The point in which the body is exhumed also marks the point in which Schindler decides to take action to protect his workers.
Scholars have often observed how in both the novel and the film, Schindler is depicted not as a savior, but as a flawed opportunist who evolves as he develops empathy for the Jews suffering around him. Liam Neeson is simply superb here, especially in the scene at the end when he breaks down as he laments not being able to save more. In contrast to Schindler’s heroism, Ralph Fiennes submits an ugly, yet profound performance in his Oscar-nominated portrayal of the villainous Amon Göth, as this character study of the Nazi lietenant is immensely fascinating.
In addition to his experiments with color and symbolism, Spielberg’s direction here is easily some of the best of his career. At an unwieldy length of over three hours, the film is captivating from beginning to end. He also makes strong use of visual motifs, such as close-ups of typeface registering Jews at the beginning of the film that foreshadow the typing of the eponymous List. Working again with longtime collaborator Michael Kahn, the editing is dense and ambitious, making use of massive amounts of footage, and enriching the storytelling with deft intercutting.
The film was showered with acclaim upon release, but it was not without its detractors. Some pointed out the film’s weakness in its portrayal of the Holocaust in that it focuses mainly on a group of survivors. Stanley Kubrick famously stated “the Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.” This is understandable, given the numbers of Jews who didn’t have a Schindler to save them. But audiences love inspiring stories, and considering the film’s box office success, I’d consider this a net positive in raising awareness.
But overall, Schindler’s List was an earth-shattering success. The film cemented Spielberg’s status as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, finally giving him long-deserved validation in the forms of Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, and definitively demonstrating to Hollywood and his critics that he wasn’t just that shark director, but a masterful veteran of cinema. More importantly though, Schindler’s List is an invaluable tool for education on humanity’s capacity for bigotry and violence. But it also demonstrates our capacity for selflessness and compassion.
“The List is an absolute good. The List is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.”
Next week, we’ll be taking a look at a film Spielberg produced, but that he didn’t direct; but one that still bears a lot of his influence: the 1996 film Twister. It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and for rental from your various digital retailers. Give the movie a watch, and I’ll see you next week.