Directed by Stephen Spielberg. Screenplay by Stephen Zaillion. Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally.
Every so often a movie based on a book far exceeds the source material. Thomas Keneally’s historical novel, “Schindler’s Ark,” brings out the story of a minor German businessman named Oskar Schinder, who became a munitions maker during World War Two. The book was a difficult read. The material was compelling but Keneally’s style of storytelling was surprisingly unemotional. When the book won the Booker Prize for fiction in 1982, some critics considered the book more history than fiction and debated its qualification for the prize. Either way, the book felt cold to me, no matter how fascinating the story was.
Approached early on to make the film version, Stephen Spielberg saw the potential for creating a cinematic masterpiece. The result is one of the best motion pictures of all time, a true labor of love for the director and his screenwriter, Stephen Zaillion.
“Schindler’s List” is one small chapter in the greater story of the Holocaust and the horrors within it. Oskar Schindler used Jewish prisoners as free labor, first for his pots and pans for the soldiers on the front, and later for munitions. The prisoners were encamped in a work camp, as opposed to a death camp, run by sadistic Amon Goeth. Living under the banner “Work Shall Make You Free,” these pour souls could live only as long as they were useful. Or they could die at Goeth’s whim, for his sport, or his pique, or simply to make room for more prisoners.
Schindler grows into awareness of the horrific nature of this entire scheme and his part in it. He begins to plot with his accountant and partner, Itzhak Stern, to save as many lives as possible while keeping the Nazis happy with his factory’s production. It is a dangerous tightrope these men walk, but as a result Schindler manages to save over a thousand lives. In the scheme of things, where Hitler’s Final Solution exterminated six million Jews and five million non-Jews in the name of Aryan purity, a thousand may seem insignificant. But there is a Jewish saying, engraved on a ring given to Schindler in gratitude: “he who saves one life, saves the world.”
This film opens with candles being lit as a family prepares to observe the Shabbat, as the smoke of the candles shifts into the smoke of bodies burning. The film switches to black and white for the duration of the storytelling, with one notable exception. A small girl wanders the ghetto in a bright red coat to devastating effect, especially on Schindler himself, who had convinced himself she would be all right.
The actors are superb, particularly Liam Neeson as Schindler and Ralph Fiennes, in a breakout performance, as Goeth. To the very end, Goeth is puzzled as to what he did wrong. Ben Kinsley as Stern conveys a quiet urgency throughout, as a Jewish accountant expected to help the German war machine and quickly recognizing that Schindler could become a savior, if time permitted.
The flow is linear, detailed, compelling, and necessarily brutal. Spielberg pulls no punches in portraying the utter depravity of life and death in a concentration camp. Using actors whose physiques were gaunt, with minimal effects he re-creates a realistic view of this terrible chapter in human history. In fact, the Holocaust as a whole is virtually incomprehensible; to be allowed to witness a small segment in this kind of detail, and given enough time to care about the victims, even in a “Hollywood film,” makes it come alive.
A copy of the list, thirteen pages long, emerged in a library in Sidney, Australia.
Spielberg offset the cost of this labor of love with the blockbuster “Jurassic Park.” The film was too important to be worried about its cost, or its reception. Thankfully, the film did well, earning $96 million here and #321 million worldwide. It won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay. Yet – an oddity that seems constant in Spielberg films – the Academy did not reward either Neeson or Fiennes with an Oscar.
There are detractors of the film, but Spielberg’s own answer to one such critic should suffice for all: “It amazed me that there could be any hurt feelings in an effort to reflect the truth.”
This is a vital film, important and well told.- one of those rare movies that everyone should see, let we forget.