With Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg shows a high level of maturity in his artistry—an intellectual ripeness and restraint—that probably exceeded his own expectations. Certainly ours. And the lack of fulfilling audience expectancy makes Schindler’s List even more of a surprise: as Holocaust drama, the mandatory scenes—the roundup of Jews, the starvation and humiliations, the trains to Auschwitz, the gas chambers—are delivered yet not in the way we anticipate. Just as we’re steeling against coming horrors, interventions occur that not only grant us reprieves but sometimes startlingly comic ones. Sometimes no stays of execution: we’re made to watch a Nazi camp commandant use victims as if targets in a shooting gallery, or view random murders by graphic shots to the head. As the movie progresses, we realize Oskar Schindler, a German Catholic manufacturer-raconteur, will at some point move beyond his calculated indifference, but what Spielberg keeps up unrelentingly is the terror of inconstancy—how the rules by which one might believe he could survive are always changing. He’s worked over our emotions before, as fantasy: people still get mushy and teary thinking of E.T. putting his arms around little Elliott—a sob-soaked happy farewell that satisfies our dreams for that visitor from another planet. Here in Schindler’s List, he is near the apex of his directorial powers, and never more powerful than at climax; when Liam Neeson’s Schindler breaks down over his guilt in not saving more Jews, we’re shattered.
Opening and closing in color, Oskar Schindler’s story is filmed in a newsreel-like black and white by Janusz Kaminski, who gives the images a state-of-the-art clarity as well as a relieving farawayness—the distance almost a safety buffer for us, keeping us from overloading—and at the same time he provides a very distinctively horrific film-noir effect: the light and dark and shadows emphasize what the French critics used to describe 18th and 19th Century British Gothics as—“roman noirs,” or black novels. Spielberg insisted on non-color because his visual memories of the Holocaust came out of black and white news footage and documentaries. Though both he and Kaminski admitted they often couldn’t bare to watch through the camera some of the scenes they filmed, their instincts about what they did get and how they got it might have been guided by their higher powers: in their aversion, they have renewed the strength of black and white. The achievement could not have come without the production design, which is the technical star of Schindler’s List. In the reams of just praise being heaped on Spielberg, Kaminski, film editor Michael Kahn and screen adapter Steven Zaillian, there are few words for designer Alan Starski. His sets and real locales, street scenes and backgrounds provide the very basics for the movie’s visual tone; without the eerie rightness of them, we would have sensed a production a little too perfectly constructed, looking a little too fresh for persuasion. And while other Holocaust dramas had characters react to the sickening sweet stench of burning flesh or have included scenes of the tall and belching smokestacks, they have for the most part avoided the human ashfall that occurred. Not here: the ashfall is beautiful in a devastatingly horrible way, and the coal conveyer used to dump the dead in gigantic pyres, which sometimes burned for a week or more, would be, if not fact, a surrealist’s conception of a Wagnerian apocalypse.
When Spielberg went serious on us previously, in The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, we detected the bogus, a clamoring for “respect” as a movie maker. We don’t feel that much pressure to defer to his “earnesty” in Schindler’s List. Despite the message-laden heaviness, despite his own well-publicized emotional tribulations while filming, he seems a freer artist than we would have thought he could be, having for so long been held hostage to computers and overblown puerility. Similar to Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa in this regard, he de-clichés the Holocaust with wonderments of incongruity: Schindler flirting with candidates for typing jobs; Schindler openly kissing a Jewess in front of German military hierarchy; camp children hiding from death in outhouses deep in excrement; dark blood gushing from shattered heads onto snow; German soldiers listening in silent bewilderment to the chants of Jews in Shabbat services—a confirmation of the stories one reads in the impacting Voices From The Holocaust, in which many of the survivors claim that the regular German soldiers (as opposed to those of the rabid kind) were if not sympathetic then tolerant and, if they wouldn’t get caught, agreeable to a conspiracy of escape. What makes all of this and so much more a continual jaw-dropper is that while we the audience are aware that Spielberg speeded up production to meet a Christmas release date, there is no sense of rush; the pacing is luxuriant. Like Europa Europa, Schindler’s List has the feel of an epic but isn’t; both films are scaled as mini Shoahs but with a striking difference—they don’t talk annihilation, they show it. And they could be contrasting companion pieces: Europa Europa having the carnal effrontery of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List owing much of its format to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, that is, they are nonfiction “black novels.” (Without naming them, Keneally, in his “Author’s Note,” bows to the genre.)
The film’s demonstrable adhesive is Liam Neeson. With a face looking oddly broad and flattened, as genuflection to the late Time-Warner chieftain Steve Ross, with a subtle pancakey quality of the Joker, Neeson at first seems like a Bela Lugosi as the Phantom of the Cabaret. Absolutely fitting: the blood of Schindler’s humanity seems to have been transfused to God only knows where. In silk suits and fur-collared topcoats, drinking premium booze as fortification, he’s faithful to the real Schindler, for he was a womanizer, an unrepentant hedonist, a fallen Catholic, and questionably apolitical as means of survival. And he wasn’t above using forced Jewish labor to enrich himself financially or taking up residence in a previously Jewish-own home. Also true that for Schindler, as with so many Germans, the lives of a few Jews were expendable for the wider glory of the motherland, war having a price that, as he bemoans in the movie, brings out the unimaginable worst in human behavior. It isn’t until Schindler sees the merciless destruction of Jewish ghettos in Poland that he begins to realize that eliminating all Jews isn’t “just good old Jew-hating talk, it’s official policy.” When he’s approached by a daughter of two elder Jews who face death and she begs him to take them into his factory “haven,” he’s at first infuriated that, one, his own business is regarded as such, and two, that it’s true: his business is being serviced by those without skills, being used by Ben Kingsley (as the becalmed Jewish accoutant) to keep selected Jews alive. In realizing that his own countrymen are determined to annihilate the Jews, his insouciance changes. But not his elegant demeanor of Germanic pride; still arrogant, crafty, he uses it as a means to stall or stop the Nazis from killing the people he’s determined to save. As we watch him wield his considerable persuasion, we perceive that some of the Nazis he’s bargaining with might secretly admire him. As Schindler, Neeson, often with one eye in shadow, is rather grotesque, even pallid with his snob appetites; the Germanic showmanship has an Isherwood doominess, and while off-putting to our sensibilities at the beginning, it’s immediately spellbinding, and stays that way and grows on us right to the finale.
In limited respects, Schindler’s story is the reverse of Judas: while earning praise from legions for saving Jews, he earned the enmity of many of his own people: Writes Keneally, “He was hissed on the streets of Frankfurt, stones were thrown, a group of workmen jeered at him and called out that he ought to have been burned with the Jews.” As if contemplating Judas’ demise, and a reminder that Nazisim is far from buried, Schindler once said, “I would kill myself—if it wouldn’t give them so much satisfaction.” He died October 9, 1974, in Frankfurt, from advanced hardening of the arteries of the brain and heart.
Text COPYRIGHT © 1998 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.