Movie Review: Schindler’s List

Posted: January 25, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
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Schindler’s List (1993 Universal Dir. Steven Spielberg)

This is more a retrospective than a genuine review, but I figure if you want a real review you’d be reading things that were written by better writers than me. Besides, I assume you know the story of this movie already. You should, it came out long enough ago that if you’re a teenager, this movie is probably older than you are. Easy story to relate though. A selfish, greedy, Nazi industrialist slowly has a change of heart about his place in the Holocaust unfolding before him and eventually makes a plan to save the people who worked in his factory. A sort of docu-drama about the Holocaust, with long sequences designed only to illustrate how bad it was.

It’s strange to say that when I think of the criticism aimed at Schindler’s List I automatically think of We Were Soldiers, or rather the commentary for it. In that commentary, Randall Wallace mentions the critics who said that too many of the dying soldiers last words were cliché. His response was something along the lines of “Well, that’s what they said. Sorry if when real human beings know they’re about to die their last words tend to be ‘Tell my wife I love her’ instead of platitudes about spreading freedom.” That tends to be how I feel about people who claim that this movie piles on the sentimentality a bit.

I do rather want to ask them to point out where exactly they think the reaction isn’t what a human being would do, so I can pull out a book or documentary and turn to the spot where someone does exactly what’s being done on the screen. The only thing I will allow without question is the complaint that some of the specifics of the historical record were changed in order to streamline the movie a bit. I read the book once, years ago, and was surprised how many little specifics of the Schindler Jew’s story were changed. Characters are combined, dropped all together, and while the story itself is streamlined, the movie attempts to open itself up to the Holocaust story as a whole.

I regularly and fairly often refer to this movie as Steven Spielberg’s last great film. He has made good movies since then, but nothing that was really great came after this. There are two reasons for this I think. One is that he just started getting old and didn’t have the same energy but the other is that I think he grew up a little after this. If the movie occasionally comes off as a bit juvenile in its examination, then that’s only because it was being made by the world’s most successful man-child. He may have been 46 when he made it, but in many ways, this is the work of someone who previously had only barely reached adolescence.

If Spielberg turns our eyes in one direction occasionally, it’s because we need to be convinced that this really happened. In many ways, this isn’t just the story of Oskar Schindler and the Schindler Jews. This is the story of the entire Holocaust in one single movie, and it means to show us what it did to people on both sides of the conflict. It also gives almost documentary like examples of what exactly happened to real people who went through this, while fudging on a few of the actual details of the story. There is a bit that always brings the full tragedy home for me. I know a lot of people are going to wait for me to talk about the little girl in the red coat, but I’m not going to go there just yet.

The movie is entirely devoid of humor, even though there isn’t a great deal of it there is some in there. When Schindler is first getting started there are amusing bits during the section where he interviews his secretaries. That section still gets a laugh from me, and in many ways it disarms you when you watch it for the first time. When they collect the ingredients to include in the baskets to send Schindler’s buddies to get their contracts you almost want to admire the resourcefulness. It almost looks like it’s going to be a serious but relatively light spirited story about the Holocaust. There are enough moments that make you feel as though things might be alright, and then the one armed machinist is killed and all the lightness is sucked from the film. It’s the first real piece of brutality we see, and it changes how the film feels from there on out. After that, you do get the idea that the movie is about life and death.

There is a segment right after that, in a train station, where Stern is arrested for not having his work permit. When Schindler shows up, there are officers telling people to leave their luggage on the platform and to label it because it will meet them at their destination. After the scene where Schindler gets Stern, instead of just leaving the train station and getting on with the story, we follow the suitcases into the room where the Nazi’s are having Jewish workers unpack the bags, separate everything in them, and then check and label it all so that it can be processed. Clothes and shoes are thrown arbitrarily into piles as well as glasses. Items like candle holders are put on shelves, hundreds of photographs are cast into suit cases that have been laid open because they’ve clearly run out of baskets, and jewelry is checked for its value. The scene ends when someone spills a bag of capped teeth and gold caps without teeth. It still strikes me as the single most tragic moment in the movie. Not that the rest of the film is filled with swinging dance numbers, but the one quiet look on the man’s face always leaves me feeling saddened.

Then Amon Göth shows up and nothing is the same. Göth is basically the brutality of the entire Nazi state made into one man. There is no genuine humor or lightness after he arrives. Göth is basically everything that was bad about the Nazis, shown without any redeeming human values. This would later become a major criticism about this movie and Saving Private Ryan as well. Too many people felt the German’s were represented as vain, cowardly and selfish cardboard cut-outs of pure evil. That may be valid, but let’s face it Amon Göth was never going to win the Humanitarian of the Year Award before this movie came out either.

When I first saw this movie, it was the day it opened. I’d never heard of the movie, somehow managing to have it slip by me. My sister had heard of it though, and decided that I should go with her and her friend Jeremy to see it. We got into something like a ten or eleven p.m. showing. So it was getting quite late when the ghetto clearing comes. The clearing of the Krakow Ghetto is not an easy thing to watch at any time, but it’s harder late at night when you’ve been up all day. So that is where the three of us were at when this small figure in red came onto the screen. For a moment, I couldn’t actually tell if there was color inserted into the shot or if my eyes were so tired that I was seeing color where none existed. The fact that the little girl is rarely seen in complete focus also added something to the unreality of her coat being so colored.

I wasn’t ignorant about the Nazi’s at this time, but I can’t say that I was as educated about them as I would later become. I don’t think that anything really brought home the enormity of the situation like this movie did, at least for me. It ceased to be something I could view academically as a thing that had happened a long time ago in a far away place. It became a thing that was done by real people to other real people. When I compare how I personally thought and felt about this situation before and after watching the movie any complaints about mawkish sentimentality rather pales and causes me to think the critic is looking for something to complain about.

I remember being struck the first time I saw the movie by just how many lists were involved. At the age of 17, I was not all that familiar with the workings of bureaucracy, so the constant appearance of lists and how they are treated made the inhumanity of events seem multiplied. I sort of understood how some of the Nazis who were complicit in these events could live with themselves. These weren’t people to them, just a list that with items that they had to complete. If you just thought of them as items to be collected and disposed of, if you pile on enough levels of bureaucracy, if you use enough euphemism, then you could get people to do just about anything.

This of course is one of the main reasons for the little girl in the red coat. It’s when Schindler sees the little girl as one of the corpses being taken to a large fire for disposing that his resolve is made. Until then he was going along with it, trying to save individuals from Göth’s abuses one by one, using up his smoking accessories as bribes to get each person taken from the camp into the safety of his factory. When he sees the little girl, again with the coat actually being red, there is a change in him that leads him to action.

There isn’t much else to say about the movie after that. Schindler spends every penny he made off Jewish labor to save the Jews who labored under him. That’s not to say the movie just slides towards an inevitable conclusion, but in many ways you can see where Schindler is going after this. His transformation is complete after that moment and from there on he’s working towards the reason people would still be talking about him sixty years later.

I have to be honest, this is the second time I was dead wrong about how a movie would do. When I came out of the theater, after having seen this movie for the first time, I thought it was a shame no one would see it. I honestly thought that this would be something that would slip by and would be skipped by the general public. As it turns out, I was wrong about that. It might seem like a silly thing to think now, but I will defend my pessimistic thoughts if I can.

When we walked out of the theater on that December night in 1993, while the snow was falling in a flurry around us, and our eyes were moist with tears it was hard to see how people would flock to that. None of us were balling exactly, but I noticed that each of us needed to blow our noses as we walked towards my sister’s gray Sentra in the parking lot of the one and only theater in the area that was showing this movie. Instead of vanishing in a few weeks, it spread to other theaters and became something of a phenomenon.

The only problem of course is that this started the… well the petulant adolescent phase of Spielberg’s career. I still don’t think he’s really reached what I would call maturity, but after this movie he got a sense of importance. His movies are less fun after this, and far too often he seems to be trying to make a statement or prove a point after this film. Even when he’s making a “fun” movie, a lot of the fun just isn’t there any more. A lot of the sheer joy of watching a Spielberg movie died away after this movie, and that’s a tragedy all its own.

My DVD copy is the Region One basic edition. There are a few historical features on the second side of the disc, but this was a very bare bones edition. I don’t mind a lack of features though because the movie is enough for me. My one complaint is that the movie is presented on a dual sided disc, and I really hate those. I always worry that in removing the disc from the player or from the box that I’m going to damage one side while handling it. That’s my only complaint though, and it’s not much of one at that.

Official Score:
50 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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