With Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg shows a high level of maturity in his artistry—an intelligent ripeness and restraint probably exceeding his own expectations. Certainly ours. As Holocaust drama, it has those mandatory scenes—the roundups, the starvation and humiliations, the trains to Auschwitz, the gas chambers—yet delivered in ways unanticipated. Just as we’re steeling against coming horrors, interventions occur not only granting momentary reprieves but sometimes startlingly comic ones. Sometimes the no stays are harder to endure than the showers: for amusement a Nazi camp commandant aims at victims as if targets in a shooting gallery, or the fulminant ease of hate-filled accomplices firing shots to heads have us unforgivably thinking these quicker deaths are blessings. Most of us know before viewing the movie Oskar Schindler, a German Catholic manufacturer-raconteur, will at some point move beyond his indifference, but until then Spielberg maintains the unrelenting terrors of psychosis and inconstancy—how the rules of survival are capricious. He’s worked over our emotions previously, as fantasy: people still get mushy thinking of E.T. putting his arms around little Elliott—a sob-soaked happy farewell satisfying our dreams for that visitor from another planet. In Schindler’s List, he’s at apex in delivering intentions, never more powerfully than at climax when Schindler breaks down over his guilt, and collectively ours, in not saving more from the insanity.
Opening and closing in color, Schindler’s story is predominantly black and white at Spielberg’s insistence because his earliest awareness of the Holocaust, as is ours, came primarily from b & w news footage and documentaries. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski updates the imagery with a state-of-the-art clarity as well as a relieving farawayness—a buffer to keep us from overloading—and at the same time he provides horrific film-noir effects: the light and dark and shadows emphasize what French critics described 18th and 19th century British gothics as—“roman noirs,” or black novels. (France had its own: Alexandre Dumas’s La Reine Margot, a 1845 novel first serialized as two-page installments in periodicals, reportedly scandalized readers into fainting at Catherine de Medici’s orchestration of the infamous 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.) Though Spielberg and Kaminski admitted to barely watching through the camera some of the pain they were filming, their aversions renew the forgotten compelling strengths of b & w. This achievement could not have come about without the production design; in the reams of praise heaped on Spielberg, Kaminski, film editor Michael Kahn and screen adapter Steven Zaillian, there are much fewer words for designer Alan Starski, whose sets, locales and backgrounds provide the basic support for the visual tone. While other Holocaust dramas have characters reacting to the burning flesh or have scenes of tall and belching smokestacks, they have for the most part avoided the human ashfall. Not here: the fallng residue is devastating, beautiful in a God-damning way, and the coal-like conveyers used to dump the dead in gigantic pyres, which sometimes burned for a week or more, would be, if not for fact, a surrealist’s conception of a Wagnerian apocalypse.
When Spielberg finally chose to go serious—with ill-sorted material like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun—we detected a bogus clamoring for “respect.” Clearly, there’s not much pressure to defer to his “earnesty” in Schindler’s List. In spite of emotional tribulations while filming, he seems a freer artist because he went there, forcing himself to brave a second bris. Having been held captive for so long by technology and overblown puerility, he needed to purify, keeping his self-respect and his gifts in the process. Similar to Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa, he de-clichés the Holocaust with wonderments of incongruity: Schindler flirting with candidates for typing jobs and openly kissing a Jewess in front of German military hierarchy; camp children hiding from death in outhouses deep in excrement; German soldiers listening in silent bewilderment to chants of Jews in Shabbat services—a confirmation of stories one reads in the impacting Voices From The Holocaust, in which survivors claim some regular German soldiers (as opposed to the rabid kind) were if not sympathetic then tolerant and, if they wouldn’t get caught, agreeable to a conspiracy of escape. Both Europa Europa and Schindler’s List are scaled as mini Shoahs with a memorable difference—they don’t talk annihilation, they show it. They are also companion pieces as contrasts: Europa Europa having the carnal effrontery of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List owing much to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song—nonfiction “black novels.” (Without naming them, Keneally, in his “Author’s Note,” bows to the genre.) To meet a holiday release, Spielberg speeded up production and while there’s no sense of anything sacrificed, one recurring manipulation needed to be—the spotlighting of the red of a coat to elicit the you-know-it’s-coming “Oh, no!” The little Aryan bitch jeering at Jews as they’re lining up for transport will be duplicated, as a cheap steal turnabout, in Saving Private Ryan.
With a face looking oddly broad and flattened, as genuflection to the late Time-Warner chieftain Steve Ross, often with a subtle pancakey quality of the Joker and one eye in shadow, Liam Neeson at first seems like a Bela Lugosi as the Phantom of the Cabaret. Absolutely fitting: the blood of Schindler’s humanity has 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 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, as he bemoans in the movie, bringing out the unimaginable worst in behavior. It isn’t until Schindler sees the merciless destruction of Jewish ghettos in Warsaw does he realizes eliminating all Jews isn’t “just good old Jew-hating talk, it’s official policy.” Approached by a daughter of two elder Jews who face death and begging him to take them into his factory “haven,” he’s at first infuriated over, one, the factory is regarded as such, and two, it’s true: his business is being used by Ben Kingsley, as the becalmed Jewish accoutant, to keep selected Jews alive. In seeing the scale at which his own countrymen are determined to annihilate the Jews, his indifference becomes self-horror of being partly responsible. While his elegant demeanor of Germanic pride remains arrogant and crafty, he uses it as means to stall or circumvent the Nazis from killing those he can save. Wielding his considerable persuasion as daring showman, we perceive some of the Nazis he’s bargaining with might secretly admire him.
Limitedly, Schindler’s story is the reverse of Judas: 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.” Contemplating Judas’ demise, Schindler said, “I would kill myself—if it wouldn’t give them so much satisfaction.” Twenty five years after he died on October 9, 1974, in Frankfurt, from advanced hardening of the arteries of the brain and heart, the hydrophobia of Nazism has reëmerged.
Text COPYRIGHT © 1998 RALPH BENNER (Revised 7/2019) All Rights Reserved.