From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Movie Retrospectives: Biographical Epics
Schindler's List

"It's Hebrew, it's from the Talmud. It says, 'Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.'"
Itzhak Stern

The most trying of circumstances can breed the grandest forms of generosity and humanity out of even the most cynical of people. There can be no question that Europe under Hitler during World War II exceed all rational definitions of "trying." Yet events that spawned one of the most evil men in the history of the world also spawned some of the most giving. Even more amazing in the case of this film is that altruism sprang forth from someone not predisposed to it.

Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a businessman with a fairly simple plan. In Poland during World War II, he recognizes two fundamental facts. The German Army will need someone to supply them goods to continue to fight the war. And because the Germans have displaced the Jewish people of Krakow to the ghettos, he knows he can get labor for virtually no cost. He doesn't have to pay the Jews any cash at all. He thinks he can convince those Jews who still have money to bankroll his enterprise, being repaid on their investment in goods to trade on the black market.

He also knows that he has no head at all for business. He knows how to win people over, how to gladhandle VIPs. He needs someone to help handle the day to day operations, while he handles greasing the right palms in the Nazi hierarchy to make sure he can continue turning a profit. He consults a Jewish accountant named Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to help him find the investors and keep the place running. Together, what they start as a business turns into an enterprise that saved over 1200 Jews from death in the concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Understand the Schindler is no humanitarian at the start of the film. He is in fact very representative of some of the worst qualities in humankind. He is greedy. He is very lustful, cheating on his wife very regularly until she comes down to visit him at his factory one day (she did not move to Krakow with him when he came to set up shop). He is very amoral. He has some understanding of what the Nazis really stand for, but he puts that out of mind in order to focus on good business. It's when he witnesses the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto that he comes to understand exactly what kind of Devil he's gotten in bed with. And he knows what he can ultimately do to contribute towards denying that Devil, if not stopping him outright.

This is an unbelievably powerful film, the crowning moment in a very distinguished portfolio that Steven Spielberg has amassed in his career. The film was nominated for 12 Oscars, winning 7 including Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay. Though it might conceivably be argued that the award was as much a makeup for previous slights of Spielberg (particularly nominating his brilliant adaptation of The Color Purple but not giving it a single award), the simple fact is that this is a masterful film that tackles weighty subject matter head on and hits all the right notes on every emotional and artistic level.

The performances are all superb. Neeson as Schindler does a wonderful job of transforming his character from an amoral thirst for money to a caring and compassionate person who does everything possible to save as many lives as he can. There's a scene at the end of the film the quote leading this post comes from. As he must prepare to flee the factory after victory by the Allied forces in Europe has been declared, he laments decisions he made that he wonders might have prevented him from saving more people. He falls apart when he realizes the magnitude of what he has done, and tries to reconcile it against the atrocities that still occurred.

Equal to Schindler is Kingsley as Itzhak Stern. Schindler is the one who may own the factory, but it is Stern who makes everything go. He is a highly skilled, intelligent man. He is aware of all the details. Which makes a scene where he almost winds up on a train to one of the concentration camps all the more powerful. One little detail makes all the difference between life and death in the world created by the Nazis.

I think that the movie is also raised to almost another exponential level by the supporting performance of Ralph Fiennes as a Nazi commandant named Amon Goeth. After the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, Goeth is introduced as the commanding officer overseeing the labor camp the Jews from the ghetto have been evicted to. His performance is unsettling on its face because of the callous cruelty that the man has towards his "charges". It elevates to the level of monster because he gives us just enough of a glimpse of the humanity that may still reside in his soul to understand just how horrific it is when he makes choices that turn him away from that humanity. If any actor has come close to showing an audience just how low the human condition can descend to, it is Fiennes as Goeth.

The supporting elements of the film round off any rough edges and imperfections that may exist after the performances and screenplay. John Williams has long collaborated with Spielberg on film scores. There are others that Williams has done that may be more memorable (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) or perhaps more technically accomplished (I think that his score for Raiders of the Lost Ark is as close to perfect as movie music gets). But Williams' score combined with the violin of Itzhak Perlman makes this one of the heart wrenching musical scores you will ever hear. If The Beatles can make a guitar gently weep, Perlman's violin sobs mournfully for every life lost in the Holocaust. Combine that with some brilliant camerawork from longtime Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and you have a near perfect film.

This film can rightly lay claim to being one of the best and most important films ever made. It ranks as number 9 on AFI's list of the 100 greatest films of all time. It also bears a strong popular backing (in's user rankings, it resides at #6 out of more than 70,000 votes cast). It is a film that is important enough that I think everyone should see it at least once in their lifetime. It is very somber material. It can be very depressing. But it is important to remember the lessons it tries to teach us, both about the things we can't ever allow to happen again, and the things we can do to resist such forces. These are lessons we all need to be reminded of. We should never forget.

Tomorrow: Lawrence of Arabia, with The Last Emperor to close us out on Saturday.