Schindler’s List (1993) was added to Netflix yesterday as part of the April lineup. I’ve never watched this film, widely considered a cinematic masterpiece, and now is a good as time as ever. This movie has a run time of 197 minutes, so it’s going to be a long one.
The first interesting thing is the switch back to black and white. The opening scene is in color, but then it disappears as we are transported into Nazi Germany. Nazis, as they terrorize Jews, speak in German, even though the film is in English. It’s a subtle twist that works to dehumanize Nazis, especially as they murder without cause.
Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) as we are all probably aware, is a German, who is first seen womanizing and then trying to convince a Jew, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to go into business. Stern agrees to this and they go into business.
The film has its overarching narrative with Schindler, but also intersperses it with “standard” scenes of the Holocaust- if murder and cruelty can be called standard, at least.
A powerful scene, for me, comes twenty minutes in. Schindler gets used to his nice new apartment/room, with a cushy bed and plenty of space, while the couple that used to live there are relocated into the ghetto:
Schindler: It could not be better.
(Cut to Jews)
Jewish woman: It could be worse.
The contrast between the life of an up-and-coming German and the increasingly subjugated Jewish people.
The real hero of the first half of the film is Stern, who fakes working papers for the aforementioned teacher and tries to make as many Jews into “essential” workers as he can. Schindler comes off as money-hungry and, as mentioned, womanizing. He is delighted by the war, referring to it as
…there was always something missing…you can’t create this thing. And it makes all the difference in the world between success and failure.
We watch Nazi workers carrying off the belongings of the Jews they’ve sent off, overlaid with a somber score as we look at their clothes, glasses, photos dumped into a pile, their valuables weighed out.
Again, the narrative of the film is underscored by the horrors of the Holocaust. We watch Jews be shot and families swallow their valuables. A young couple plans to escape through sewers. A doctor and nurse poison their patients to save them a more gruesome end.
Stern experiences this, while Schindler looks on and sees the only spot of color in the film: the little girl in the red coat, played by then-three-year-old Oliwia Dąbrowska. You watch the horror spread across Neeson’s face as he watches this go on, until his mistress begs that they leave.
Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) shoots “idle” Jews in the concentration camps, and his girlfriend rolls her eyes and huffs like it’s an everyday occurrence. Again, the horrific implications of shooting people for fun cannot be overlooked.
All the Jews are in a camp, now, and Schindler opens a sub-camp. Stern again begins transferring Jewish prisoners into this camp, where “no one dies.” The gradual change in Schindler up to this point is fully obvious, and he wants to help now. The horrors of the camp go on, and we can see Schindler plainly: he tries, but he is one person. What is giving Jews water when they ride on trains to their deaths?
The little girl in the red coat shows up again, a moment of color. Schindler watches her body go by in horror. Stern and Schindler try to save as many as they can, arranging for Schindler to make a list of people to take Czechoslovakia or Moravia. Schindler demands “More,” every time he gets a count of people on the list, bribes Goeth to let him “buy” each one. Like slaves.
With the score soaring behind them, the Schindlerjuden escape the death camps, a long list of men and women. We hear him speak of deliberately sabotaging his machinery to avoid making shells for the German army.
The war ends, all of the Shindlerjuden safe, and they return the debt by trying to ensure Schindler’s safety -presenting him with a letter signed by all workers and a ring with a Talmudic inscription. Schindler is racked with guilt over his perceived failure to do enough.
The film ends in present-day color, with the actors as well as those survivors saved by Schindler each placing a rock on the real Oskar Schindler’s grave. Finally, Liam Neeson places roses on the gravestone, a tribute to the man who saved 1,100 people.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Steven Zailian