What so many people never seem to understand is that cinema is a language. More than the dialogue being structured for some great monologue, or zinger, that we quote to no end it’s in the images. A filmmaker is given his/her opportunity to affect an audience with imagery for two hours at a time (or however long) as we all file in to our seats in the theatre. Steven Spielberg is one such filmmaker who knows this and never wastes his chances to affect us.
Schindler’s List is one of Spielberg’s many forays into movies about war and oppression. He’s discussed this, and other sides of the topic, through Saving Private Ryan, The Color Purple, Munich, Empire of the Sun, and Amistad. Here however, unlike all the aforementioned films, he discusses it through character. Through the transformation of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who’s a poor German businessman who sees the war as an opportunity to maximize profit by exploiting the Jews of Poland that have just lost all of their human rights as the Nazis have taken occupation of the country and then his eventual change in using his status to protect the Jews and affect the state of the war as best he can.
The beauty of this movie comes through how Spielberg is able to highlight the tragic tale of the Jews through the war by juxtaposing it with Schindler, and German’s in the general, lifestyle in Poland. When we see the day that the Jews are set to march into the ghettos and Schindler gains access to his factory and new residence (once owned by a Jew who is currently walking to his new home) it serves as the comparable picture to sear into our minds what’s just happened. The scene is stamped closed by the lines of Schindler laying in his new bed (which was once a Jewish family’s bed), “it couldn’t be better”, and the Jewish family, “it could be worse”, as they look at their new living space in the ghetto.
Throughout Schindler’s business venture in Poland he enlists Itzhak Stern’s (Ben Kingsley) assistance as a man of the Jewish community and a great accountant to make sure that his staff is always packed and his profits high. Stern uses his position to save a lot of Jews from persecutions by securing them work with Schindler, making them ‘essential to the war effort’. Schindler, for the most part, turns a blind eye to this dealing considering this the cost of business with the Jews.
Where this changes is when Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) enters the film. Here the Nazi occupation of Krakow rises. Amon rides into town like a new lawman and gets quick to work on making it in the image that the Führer would want. At this time Schindler is out riding with a female companion and finds himself at an interesting vantage point to witness Amon’s rounding up if the Jews. We see Schindler catch view of a young girl in a red coat, we know it’s red as this is one of the few moments throughout the film that Spielberg allows colour to bleed into the frame. As this girl walks around the town we, as does Schindler, follows her, we see Schindler shifting his position so that he’s able to keep an eye on her as she moves from building to corner to building until she steps out of our sight and therefore no longer in a red coat but back to the black and white colouring of the entire film. This moment begins the section of the movie where we really shift our focus from thinking that this could be a somewhat civil occupation with mild exploitation to something completely different. This is when Schindler steps into action.
For the rest of the film we see a battle of companionship between Schindler and Amon. Both stand in a position of power over the Jews, but in different lights. Amon stands in a place of fear where Schindler comes at it from a view of love. Amon cares not for the Jews as Schindler did at the beginning of the film. Both see them as a means to an end. Schindler sees them as his employees, the people who made him rich and the value of them has risen as their lives become even more expendable to the Nazis. Amon sees them as just things that are there for little to no reason and finds whatever excuse possible to execute them. On occasion Amon will sit on his balcony with his rifle and kill a few random camp residents because he can, seeking out the ‘lazy’ ones with his scope and ending their lives then and there.
Here is where we begin to see the difference between a Nazi and a German. A German is no different from an American, an Englishman, or a Swede; a Nazi however is a man who’s subscribed to the belief of superiority of himself and the inferiority of the Jews. We see that difference no more highlighted than in the introduction of Amon.
The movie constantly strives to show power. To show the power one has over the people. It goes so far as to actually discuss it openly between our two characters of dominance where Schindler tells Amon his true power lies not in his ability to take away the life of a Jew but to allow them to keep it, to pardon them. This is used to manipulate this man, who obviously isn’t the most stable of leaders, into exercising that use of power in a way that he never truly understands. We see him, for a short period, pardoning all for their transgressions against their duties that he would normally have them executed for and it leads to his eventual frustration as he begins to toy with a young man who he previously pardons by shooting at his feet until we eventually have the camera pan across his body having been killed by rifle.
As mentioned this film is rife with imagery and scenes that sear themselves into the audiences mind and is difficult to forget. There’s the moment Schindler exits prison to come outside to what seems to be snow but turns out to be ashes from a mass body incineration in Krakow, the scene of Amon failing to execute a Jew who’s making hinges because his guns won’t fire, the suffocating (and thirsty) Jews in the train with the fire hydrant nearby leaks water to Schindler getting the Nazis to spray water into the carts as we watch the Jews drinking water coming in through the wood boards of the ceiling of said carts and windows, the luggage being detained and searched through by the Nazis (and Jews enlisted by Nazis) that was supposedly going to be sent to the location that they were shipping the Jews off to. There are moments where Spielberg is able to put all of the things that you ever needed to know to understand what the war was to the people affected at the time where if you just saw those frames it would speak for themselves.
Then there’s the climax. The war ends. Schindler calls his entire workforce into the factory to announce what this means to everyone, including himself and the Nazi guards stationed at his factory. As Schindler leaves his factory to flee any persecution we see as Stern and the rest of Schindler’s workforce presents him with a gesture so grand it leads him, and the audience, into tears. Schindler begins to obsess of the few things that he’s held onto in his life and wondering why, why didn’t he rid himself of that in order to save just one more person from the possible murder, and probably worse fate, that they experienced. Which fades into an epilogue wherein we witness the then still alive survivors who were in Schindler’s List paying their respects at his grave in current time and it just keeps us in a state of emotional puddles.
I’ve avoided this film for years for no reason other than it never quite made it to the play button and now I regret that ever being as dumb an excuse.