March 2024

Schindler’s List (1993)

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg


Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Embeth Davidtz, Caroline Goodall


Oskar Schindler was an unlikely hero. German businessman and war profiteer, womanizer, slave laborer, and a member of the Nazi Party with prominent friends within the SS, he happily moved in on the heels of the conquering German Army and set up an enamelware factory in occupied Krakow, taking advantage of cheap Polish-Jewish labor in the service of the Third Reich. Yet coming into such close contact with Jews at a time when his own government was implementing plans for their total annihilation seems to have lit a spark of humanity within the opportunistic Schindler, and by the Nazis’ downfall in 1945, he had bankrupted himself and his factory and endured repeated arrests by the Gestapo to bring nearly 1,200 Polish Jews safely through the war and the simultaneously blazing Holocaust. This German war profiteer and nominal Nazi had saved more Jews than any other individual. And yet, for decades afterward, his story, and theirs, remained largely untold. In October 1980, author Thomas Keneally was on his way home to Australia after a book signing when he stopped en route to the airport to buy a new briefcase in a Beverly Hills luggage shop owned by Leopold Pfefferberg- one of the 1200 Schindlerjuden, ‘Schindler Jews’. In the 50 minutes Keneally spent waiting for his credit card payment to clear, Pfefferberg persuaded him to go to the back room where the shopkeeper kept two cabinets filled with documents he had collected. Pfefferberg- who had told his story to every writer and producer who ever came into his store- eventually wore down Keneally’s reluctance, and the writer chose to make the story into his next book. Martin Scorsese had the chance to translate book to screen in the 1980s, but felt he could not do as good of a job as a Jewish director. Then came Steven Spielberg, who began work on Schindler’s List in Poland while finishing post-production for his infinitely different hit of the same year, Jurassic Park, via satellite. Thus did the little-known story of Oskar Schindler and his Schindlerjuden finally receive the attention it deserved.

Krakow, 1939: The smooth-talking German businessman and opportunist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson in an Oscar-nominated performance) arrives in the newly occupied Polish city. We soon learn that he is not as wealthy and well-connected as he seems, and gets his expensive clothes and fine foods off the black market, but is a handsome, suave man who masks his lack of real abilities or means beneath a dashing exterior, sweeping grandly into SS-frequented nightclubs, always dressed in the finest suits, and ingratiating himself with them and their girlfriends so quickly, showering them with the finest foods, wines, and cigars, that by the time anyone thinks to ask who this man is, he has already charmed them all so thoroughly that it doesn’t matter. He knows little of financially managing a business–his previous attempts have been failures–and for this he turns to Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), who runs his business and recruits Jewish workers from around the Krakow Ghetto, forging their papers to convince the Nazis that they are skilled laborers and therefore worth more alive than dead. They are quickly taught the basics, and Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik is opened, converted to manufacture equipment for the German Army. For a time, Schindler is happy enough to fill his own coffers and does not appear to question- or at least shoves to the back of his mind- the plight of his workers. But as the war, and the Holocaust, progresses, and as ‘his’ Jews are moved into Plaszow forced labor camp, where they live or die on the capricious whims of Kommandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), Schindler begins to find it more difficult to ignore the suffering of the people who have brought him his success.

The gradual transformation which leads greedy war profiteer Oskar Schindler to deliberately run his factory at a loss to bring more and more Jews into his protection is the crux of the film, and is made all the more effective by the fact that the filmmakers do not pretend to know exactly when his lust for money was overridden by a genuine concern for the lives of his workers. Rather than reducing it to a sudden character overhaul, Schindler’s conversion is portrayed as a gradual awakening of dormant human feelings, although his witnessing of Goeth’s brutal liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto is shown as a pivotal event. The movie does not shy away from any of Schindler’s numerous character flaws, highlighted in harsh clarity as a Jewish family is evicted from their home and Schindler immediately moves in, not sparing a second glance for the streets filled with displaced Jews on their way to the ghetto, and later when his wife Emilie (Caroline Goodall) arrives and then leaves again when Oskar will not promise to end his womanizing. His initial callous selfishness is never more bitingly clear than when he narrowly rescues Stern from deportation and complains ‘what if I’d got here five minutes later? Then where would I be?’. It obviously does not occur to him to think of where Stern would be. That Schindler can transform credibly from a slimy opportunist to a selfless savior is a tribute to both the filmmakers and to Liam Neeson, who handle the transition subtly and gradually and make the character change work. Neeson is at his most charismatic, deftly handling the shift of his character. His Schindler is a subtle man, hiding his real thoughts behind a dazzling smile and a hearty belly-laugh, always with a joke on hand, a gleam in his eye, and a spring in his step. Neeson flawlessly projects both the suave charm and the internal conflict it increasingly masks, only stumbling once, at the film’s melodramatic climax. It’s the infamous ‘I could have sold…‘ scene, and it feels as clumsily tacked on as it is overwrought. Schindler’s choked-up speech is a moment of dramatic license on the part of Spielberg, and that’s exactly what it feels like. According to all who knew him, such an outpouring would have been out of character for Schindler, who was not a man to wear his emotions on his sleeve, and indeed it feels just as jarringly out of character in the movie. It is the only point at which either the film or its lead actor seem to take a misstep.

From the principals down to small roles, the acting is uniformly excellent (while Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes were recognized with Oscar nominations, cases could also have been made for Ben Kingsley and Embeth Davidtz). Ben Kingsley’s role of Schindler’s accountant Stern is much more understated than that of Neeson (or, for that matter, Ralph Fiennes), and has often been overlooked in talk of the film, but his low-key, in-the-background Stern comes across as the unsung hero in the shadow of Schindler, a quiet and unassuming man who is initially repulsed by this flamboyant, greedy German with whom he is forced to associate but uses his position to do what he can for his fellow Jews, at first under Schindler’s nose but ultimately serving as his conscience. Like Stern himself, Kingsley is never flashy or attention-grabbing, but he provides a solid anchor to balance the film’s principal acting triumvirate of he, Neeson, and Fiennes.

The film’s second Oscar-nominated performance is provided by the darkly intense Ralph Fiennes as Kommandant Amon Goeth, a man intoxicated by the power of life and death he wields over the workers, one of the most searing villains ever to appear onscreen, all the more so because, unlike the likes of Hannibal Lecter, Goeth existed.  Not only does Goeth have zero regard for the lives of people he views as less-than-human, he is also unpredictable and unstable, veering between drunken partying, an occasional moment of mercy, and casual wanton brutality.  The scene in which he stands on his balcony with a rifle and picks off random workers is searing in its callousness. At the same time, he selects a young Jewish woman, Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz), as his maid, and finds himself simultaneously attracted to her and repulsed by his own feelings, stopping at the brink of consummating his sexual desire and instead delivering vicious beatings. The movie highlights the similarities between Schindler and Goeth; both love parties, food, drink, and women, and are occasionally shown doing the same activities (we cut back-and-forth between the two men shaving). Goeth is what Schindler could be a couple steps further into the dark. Fiennes avoids over-the-top stereotypical Nazi histrionics, and both he and Spielberg eschew the easy route of making Goeth a one-dimensional raving maniac. He is a repulsive individual, but a fully fleshed-out and three-dimensional individual with shades of depth and complexity, and from time to time he shows a flicker of humanity. Embeth Davidtz as Helen, who must endure both Goeth’s brutality and his sinister advances, holds our attention with limited screentime, and everyone else, down to the small roles, is credible.

Filming in stark black and white which brings to mind any number of innumerable documentary images of the Holocaust, Schindler’s List pulls no punches when it comes to portraying graphic violence. The most common mental pictures generated by the Holocaust are mass graves and mountains of emaciated corpses, and while such sights are to be found here, potentially more disturbing are the scenes of random, individual killings, complete with blood spurting from heads. Much is made of the casual ease with which Goeth and his fellow Nazis committed their atrocities; after all, they were dealing with people they considered vermin, comparable to lice and rodents. At the same time, while the movie does not flinch from either graphic violence or full nudity, neither is there a moment of gratuitousness onscreen. The decision to film in black-and-white only enhances the almost documentary-style tone in which the horrors are filmed, as if Spielberg has simply calmly pointed a camera and recorded the events, which require no exaggeration or sensationalism, and let the historical record speak loudly for itself. No one is gassed onscreen, and Auschwitz makes only a chilling cameo. There is even a little- not too much, but a little- comic relief, such as when the insatiable womanizer Schindler tries to choose a secretary; he ignores the best typist, a plain, middle-aged woman, while fawning over young, prettier candidates, ultimately finding picking just one an impossible task and ending up with a small army of secretaries. One criticism leveled at the film is that, with the exception of Itzhak Stern and Helen Hirsch, the majority of the Jews remain mostly faceless and interchangeable, but the core of the film is the personal transformation of Oskar Schindler intertwined with a broader overview of the monstrously systematic and inexorable progression of the Holocaust, and while the smaller stories within consist mostly of a series of vignettes, some, such as the struggle of Danka Dresner and her mother to survive during the liquidation of the ghetto, and a Rabbi who almost miraculously survives a close encounter with Goeth, are among the most memorable moments in the movie. A brief visit to Auschwitz is a masterpiece of atmosphere, filming the infamous death camp in heavy snow, the darkness lit by the fire belching from its always billowing chimney, the searchlight illuminating the shadowy figures of the Nazi guards. We only see it for a few minutes, but Spielberg permeates Auschwitz with a palpable sense of deep, nightmarish dread.

As the film progresses, Neeson adds a barely perceptible weight to Schindler’s shoulders and a tinge of sadness to his eyes. By the end, all the money he amassed has lost any meaning, and he has thrown it all away to bring every last person he possibly can through the war alive. At the climax, he is shattered and racked with guilt by his obsession with wondering what more he could have done, what he could have sold, to save just one more person. But as Stern tells him, ‘there will be generations because of you’. Today the descendants of Schindler’s Jews outnumber the entire Jewish population of Poland. It seems funny or even inappropriate to describe a movie centering around the Holocaust as uplifting, but in the end, that’s exactly what Schindler’s List is. Despite the incalculable horrors occurring everywhere around it, what the film’s core is really about is uncovering a small kernel of hope and human empathy and compassion in the face of monstrous cruelty and inhumanity. And that’s what makes Schindler’s List, either viewed as a saga of the Holocaust or the story of one man’s redemption, a powerful, haunting, but ultimately inspiring and life-affirming film.