Film #37 in the World War II Marathon is the second entry from Steven Spielberg, and again, I have a feeling it won’t be the last!
Screenplay By: Steven Zaillian
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Schindler’s List came out at a time when my interest in History was waning. As a young boy I was fascinated with the idea of Romans, Greeks and Norse Vikings, but as I grew older, in 1993 I was twelve, history didn’t interest me as much. As a twelve year old boy forced by his school to watch Schindler’s List, I certainly didn’t see any reason to ever be interested in history again. Yeah, that’s harsh, but it’s realistic, Schindler’s List is an adult movie, not that it matters much what age group the movie is intended for.
Don’t worry, I’m getting to the point of my anecdote, don’t rush me. Anyways, twelve year old me couldn’t be bothered with Schindler’s List, but twelve year old me quickly gave way to sixteen year old me. Thanks to a great teacher I fell in love with history again and began seeking out historical films like Schindler’s List. Sixteen year old me loved Schindler’s List, loved every minute of its historical representation of a point in time I found most fascinating. Sixteen year old me also watched Seinfeld and all of a sudden knew why making out during Schindler’s List was such a terrible, yet funny, offense. Fast forward a few years and eighteen year old me begins to look even deeper into cinema and this results in my love of Schindler’s List slowly retrograding until I was stuck at really likes it status. If we move even further ahead, twenty nine year old Bill is still somewhere in between loving Schindler’s List and really, really liking it.
Empire Of The Sun was Steven Spielberg’s first foray into World War II, and Schindler’s List carries forward in much the same manner. Just like Empire Of The Sun Spielberg has crafted a decidedly broad tale in Schindler’s List. That’s okay though, it’s broadness works, this isn’t a story that requires deeply complicated characters or oodles of character development. That’s not to say the characters in Schindler’s List are lacking, but for the sake of the story they need to fit into certain realms and stay within those realms. This isn’t a story about the actualities of World War II, it’s a story about the horror of World War II, the persecution and near death of an entire subset of people. To that end Spielberg goes broad, the Germans are evil, the Jews are good, and Oskar Schindler is the man caught in-between. It works though, the big, broad storytelling of Schindler’s List works in spades.
Part of the reason the broad storytelling found in Schindler’s List works so well is because of the place and time that Spielberg manages to capture. I know that things have been simplified, that as a historical document Schindler’s List is lacking, but as a moving portrait that draws you into a time and place Schindler’s List is excellent. The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is incredibly evocative of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. It’s a Hollywood dream version of the times, make no mistake about that, but it’s just as smoky as I always imagined it. The ghetto is just as crowded, The Germans are just as distant as I always envisioned them, and even while dirty and grimy the world has a certain clean and crisp sheen to it that I always associate with the time and place of Schindler’s List. Kaminski always has his camera in the right place, and Spielberg found a myriad of ways to pull me into the story of Schindler’s List with his camera style, I had no choice but to be emotionally involved.
Schindler’s List features a cast of thousands, and I dare say that no one person stands above the rest. Usually in an ensemble of this many people one or two will rise above the rest, but I thought every actor and actress nailed their role to a T in Schindler’s List. From Ralph Fiennes maniacal, smart and downright scary Amon Goeth to Rami Heuberger’s able to find anything Josef Bau, the cast never misses a beat. This is a big boon to the emotion that Spielberg wants to elicit from his audience, because much of that emotion is dependent on believing the cracks and crevices found in the faces of the Jewish people, or the soft lines found in Fienne’s refinement for example. I know that Liam Neeson and Fiennes were nominated for all the awards, but if ever there was a movie that should be viewed as an ensemble effort, Schindler’s List is that movie.
Unfortunately, there are still a few moments that don’t quite work in Schindler’s List, mainly the famous girl in the red coat. I understand fully what the girl in the red coat represents, the change in Schindler himself. But, I believe that could have been accomplished by shooting the girl just the same as the rest of the picture, and not filming her in color so that it comes across as heavy handed manipulation by Spielberg. The ending is also a bit too friendly at points, opting for too much of a happy Hollywood sort of ending in a way, with long drawn out goodbyes and tearful hugs. It’s not bad per se, but I did feel the ending dragged a bit, as the last fifteen minutes or so is essentially one ending after another.
As a historical document Schindler’s List fails, it fails pretty badly in fact. But, it is a film, it isn’t a historical document, and as a film it remains a major success for Spielberg. It isn’t perfect, it is flawed in parts, but it is a powerful piece of work. Spielberg is able to grab the viewer by the throat and make them feel the emotions of fear, longing and the never ending feeling of hopelessness that was the Jewish existence during World War II. Schindler’s List is a powerful film, it’s not quite Saving Private Ryan as far as Spielberg’s World War II efforts go, but it is another stellar entry from the man and a film that deserves its reputation as an all time great.