Schindler’s List (1993)
“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley
Synopsis: In Poland during World War II, Oskar Schindler gradually becomes concerned for his Jewish workforce after witnessing their persecution by the Nazis.
We, as humans, are motivated primarily by self-preservation. Many people, when witnessing acts of violence upon others will stand by and do nothing for fear of being harmed themselves. It’s an understandable attitude, but one which most of us would like to believe wouldn’t apply to us. And it’s this internal conflict between our tendency to avoid situations which might place us in danger with our inherent sense of right and wrong that makes movies like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List so compelling. Actually, to say ‘movies like Schindler’s List’ is misleading, as there is probably no other film that explores both mankind’s darkest hour and the psychological composition of one of its practitioners with such unflinching clarity and power.
In a towering performance, Liam Neeson plays Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), an opportunistic businessman who, following the invasion of Poland by the Nazis, buys a bankrupt enamelware company and staffs it with Jews from a neighbouring concentration camp. Initially motivated purely by financial reasons, Schindler employs Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) because he has contacts with wealthy Jews whom he can exploit in order to secure the funds he needs to finance his plans for his newly-acquired factory.
While Schindler is never portrayed as an out-and-out villain, there is no doubt that he is a man who believes that, when it comes to life under the Nazis, it’s strictly every man for himself. To highlight the incongruity of this self-serving attitude, Spielberg contrasts Schindler’s increasing prosperity with the declining fortunes of a handful of Jews. This contraposition comes into stark relief when we see an evicted Jewish couple in whose plush apartment Schindler has just installed himself, moving into a squalid, overcrowded apartment block in the Krakow ghetto. Even Schindler’s initial employment of Jews to man his factory is a result of economic considerations – ‘Poles cost more. Why should I hire Poles?’ – than humane ones.
Schindler is careful to cultivate mutually profitable relationships with a number of high-ranking German officers, one of whom is Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the commandant of Paszow concentration camp. One of the movie’s strengths is that it attempts to gain some understanding of the motivations of a character like Goeth, rather than taking the easy route of simply portraying him as an unthinking Nazi monster, and Fiennes is frighteningly convincing in his depiction of a deeply disturbed man who is all too aware of – and haunted by – his own shortcomings. While Schindler is able to become a better, stronger man because of the atrocities committed by the Nazis – ‘power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don‘t.’ he informs Goeth – the Nazi commandant is unable to responsibly adapt to the level of power over others his position has afforded him, as witnessed by his swiftly aborted attempt at becoming more judicious in his treatment of the camp inmates in the wake of his conversation with Schindler.
One day, while out riding, Schindler witnesses the liquidation of the Krakow ghettoes, one of the film’s most powerful and harrowing sequences. His attention is captured by a little girl in a red coat as she roams almost unseen amongst the carnage. This symbol of innocence – based upon the daughter of Dr. Martin Foldi, an Auschwitz survivor whose daughter was wearing a red coat when he last saw her – superbly humanises both the plight of the thousands of Jews murdered in the brutal evacuation, but the millions of Jews who became victims of the Holocaust. By creating this one unforgettable image Spielberg forces the viewer to identify with the horrific plight of the individual in the same way that Schindler does as he gazes down upon the carnage from a similarly remote and elevated position of safety.
Shocked out of his state of luxurious self-indulgence, and finally realising that by colluding with the Nazis he has played a part in the subjugation of the Jews, Schindler enlists the aid of Stern to employ as many of them from Goeth’s camp as he can in order to save them from the extermination camps. It’s an exercise that not only puts him in a position of extreme danger, but swallows up his entire fortune.
While Schindler’s List is ultimately an uplifting story, it’s also an incredibly harrowing and emotionally draining movie. Random killings are a way of life in the camp, and while an audience can only feel a fraction of the tension and fear that the real inmates would have been forced to endure, the perpetual anxiety that yet another human life is about to be wiped out for the most trivial of reasons is simply exhausting. Goeth is a monster, no doubt about it, but Spielberg gives him a human dimension that makes him a credible, believable monster; one that could pass you in the street unnoticed, and lead a blameless life under different circumstances.
(Reviewed 11th August 2012)