Perhaps the greatest argument for the sincerity and dedication Steven Spielberg put into Schindler's List is how radical a departure it was for the artist. Spielberg's Holocaust drama was by no means his first serious drama, but it is the first to be largely void of his more flamboyant framing and movement. Spielberg had previously shown a keen ability to cut and frame in such a way as to maximize audience impact, but here he needed them to do more than just be entertained or sympathize with characters. Gravity and respect are required here, and Spielberg wrestles with crafting a working mainstream film without his usual stylistic élan.
Ingeniously, he finds ways to maintain his usual level of craftsmanship while employing unfamiliar techniques. Schindler's List is more static than any of Spielberg's other works, and the camera movement that feels so liberating in his other movies connotes dread here. Whenever the camera starts to track, practically nothing good will come of it, and one fears the movement because it will only display more atrocity, more terror.
Fundamentally, the movie is an indirect conflict between two principal characters, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) and Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), and Spielberg structures much of the movie as a call and response between them. Perhaps it speaks to the director's limitations that he condenses the Holocaust to a more conventional dramatic structure, but I never really believed the film was "about" the Holocaust anyway. Instead, it concerns the human reaction of those mired in it, not seeking to explicate the motives or moral justifications of the greatest of human failings but demonstrating how some reacted to it. In the case of Goeth, it brought out the worst; for Schindler, the best.
Spielberg introduces the two, though far apart, in similar manners. He does not show them directly, letting us see another person speaking to them until the camera finally reels around to present them. We first see Schindler through close-ups of his material effects, pristine formal wear and wads of cash casually crammed all over the place. We then see an extreme close-up of the man placing a Nazi pin on his business suit, suggesting that the fascist regime is something he wears over his real identity as a money-maker and never thinks twice about. Sure enough, when he arrives at a restaurant to meet with the head of the SS in Kraków, Scherner (Andrzej Seweryn), Schindler flashes that cash to make himself known: he has come to Poland to profit from the war, and getting approval for his business ventures will require greasing some wheels, preferably with Hennessy cognac or Dom Perignon. Sure enough, he soon has a factory up and running, which he populates with Jewish workers because they cost less than anyone else.
When Goeth appears, however, he is in the opposite shape as proud, hale Schindler, hunched over with a handkerchief ever-present at his face as he sniffles. Bent over, Fiennes looks even less impressive than the lumbering Neeson. Where Schindler's initial dealings with Jews display only his money-hungry scheming, Goeth almost seems sympathetic to the Jews. He looks tenderly upon a shivering woman, Helen Hirsch, and his sickly frame makes him pitiable. Then, a Jewish engineer tells him she needs to re-pour the foundations, he calmly has her shot for delaying proceedings, even as he agrees with her assessment and orders his men to fix the problem after having her executed. In an instant, Goeth is revealed to be a tyrant, a man who has internalized the anti-Semitic preachings of the party because it feeds into his desire for power.
His entrance demonstrates how far Schindler has progressed without any outward signs of a change of heart. At the start of the film, Oskar decides to use Jewish labor because it costs less than paying Poles. Furthermore, Jewish wages go to the SS, which allows Schindler to perhaps save a bit of bribe money by sending one monthly payment out instead of two. He tells his accountant, Stern (Ben Kingsley), to round up some Jews whose money is about to be seized anyway to invest in his factory in exchange for the pots and pans his enamel-work factory will produce. "Money is still money," says one Jewish man in disbelief of the insult of this offer. "No it is not," Schindler calmly replies. "That is why we are here." As Stern starts to use the factory to house the intellectual and infirm from harm, Schindler starts to wonder why such under-qualified people work for him. When a one-armed man, who earlier thanked a disinterested Schindler profusely for saving him, gets shot callously by German soldiers for sport, Oskar's complaints to the commander communicate only his annoyance at having to train a new worker.
But Goeth brings with him the full force of antisemitic terror, and not even Schindler can blind himself to his atrocity. In the film's defining setpiece, Goeth leads troops through the Krakow ghetto, killing all who resist or cannot leave and shipping the rest to camps. On a hilltop outside of town, Schindler and his wife watch, and the look on Oskar's face shows the man unable to hold back the fleeting hints of compassion in his unwillingness to expose Stern's account manipulations and his attempts to keep his workers alive.
How could anyone not be moved while watching such sights? Nazis yank suitcases out of the hands of fleeing Jews, pouring out contents into massive piles of loot as more and more corpses fall around the stacks of clothes. The Krakow sequence shows Spielberg at the height of his formalist powers, intricate tracking shots capturing the horror in ethereal detail, highlighting how otherworldly this atrocity is but adding enough grisly close-ups to tie that detached disgust to raw, real feeling. Few escape the pillage: one of Schindler's Jews stops and clears suitcases from the road when Goeth and his men come upon him, avoiding death. A young German boy tasked with alerting soldiers to any strays comes across an old woman but recognizes her as a friend's mom and hides her. These moments provide not relief but terrifying moments of suspense; the slow, relieved exhale never comes because too much carnage continues around these glimpses of fortune to make them relaxing.
The event transforms Oskar, who taps into his latent humanism and resolves to protect those under his stead. Oskar butters up Goeth just as he does every other authority figure, but by this point he displays a care for his employees. He maintains his concern extends only to protecting himself from the cost of training new workers, that by killing his Jews or sending them to camps. Goeth argues Schindler's points but finally agrees, on the condition Oskar pay a bribe for each worker. Schindler, once so obsessed with money, goes deep into debt to protect his people.
Goeth, otherwise an embodiment of merciless antisemitism, accepts his friend's money, revealing the true motivators among men even during these times. Money trumps ingrained social brainwashing, even direct orders of Herr Hitler. Sex, too, clouds the mind. Both Schindler and Goeth take Jewish mistresses, but where Schindler freely enjoys the perks of wealth, Goeth wrestles viciously with his belief system and his clear affection for Helena (Embeth Davidtz), who brings out a repugnant sexual aggression in the monster. When Goeth looks upon her, the longing in Fiennes' eyes brings out the humanity in this devil. He thinks of life with her, even hinting to Oskar that he'd like to take her back to Vienna. But she is still a Jew, and Amon's crisis finds its outlet in blaming Helena for tempting him. Highlighting Goeth's turmoil over his antisemitism and Oskar's increasing fondness for his Jewish workers is a sequence juxtaposing Goeth sadistically beating a stripped-down Helena in a wine cellar with Schindler celebrating his birthday by enjoying too lingering a kiss with a Jewish woman in his factory. (In a moment of grim irony, Schindler goes to jail for this offense while Goeth does not even face questions for his behavior, yet Goeth successfully pressures his superiors to release his friend.)
Much of Schindler's List carries this mordant gallows humor, perhaps a reason for some of the backlash that eventually assailed the film's reputation. One scene shows a rabbi in Schindler's factory caught out slacking on the job by Goeth himself, who drags the man outside for swift execution. Amon forces the man to his knees, pulls out a Lüger, presses it to the man's skull and...click. The gun jams. Goeth tries again, and nothing. At last, he becomes so enraged he beats the rabbi with the butt of the pistol and leaves in a huff with the man alive. Elsewhere, he succeeds in murdering without compunction, and his lazy Sunday sniping of stray Jews in the camp from his villa's balcony takes on an absurdist element.
Yet Spielberg never plays up this repellent, twisted brand of comedy, instead using it to achieve an emotional verisimilitude. I distrust any film depicting atrocity that omits those air-sucking inverse laughs that offer just enough energy to keep people moving in the face of death. Despite the verité style of some handheld shots, Schindler's List does not attempt to present its images as documentary truth. The director's tracking shots are more graceful than they'd ever been, and his use of constant juxtaposition removes the camera from fully capturing How It Really Was. Instead, Spielberg seeks a spiritual truth, and that humor is but one way in which he makes the film feel real.
Bolstering the film further is a sense of moral complexity previously unseen in Spielberg's filmography save for Empire of the Sun (which actually handled it with more subtlety). We meet Schindler as a villain, someone who gleefully exploits the Jews' situation for personal gain and reacts to their gratitude as if he just realized he'd stepped in dog muck. Though he does not subscribe to Nazi ideology, he is more than willing to go along with it if he can make a buck or two. Goeth, on the other hand, enters the film almost sympathetically, his weak, distended frame -- Fiennes made a fascinating choice to lean his thin stomach out until it formed a paunch, making Goeth misshapen -- hinting at a softer, bookish soul. Then we see him morph into a tyrant, but even then Spielberg does not cheapen him with two-dimensional atrocity. His Goeth struggles as much, if not more, with his conscience as Schindler. The aforementioned tryst with Helena adds layers to a man most would be happy to relegate to the pile of History's Greatest Monsters (and not at all without reason), and it demonstrates a maturity on Spielberg's part willfully ignored by those who tore the film apart after its release.
No film in Spielberg's corpus is as fiercely debated as Schindler's List, because none of his other films carries such hefty stakes. Less than two decades after its release, Spielberg's Holocaust drama has become the focal point for nearly any discussion about the propriety of Hollywood making large-scale films about real human tragedies. To this day, contentious arguments arise over the nature to which Spielberg "glamorizes" the Holocaust, which is not to say that he makes it appealing but that he exploits the horror of the event to mine audience reaction.
But let us consider a few of the most debated moments of the film. In the most infamous sequence, the train carrying all the women and children from Schindler's factory in Krakow gets rerouted from his new munitions factory to nearby Auschwitz. When they arrive, guards strip them and send them into showers, where the women shriek in fear of expected death. The terror is unlike anything I've ever felt during a movie, and I continue to seize up at the scene. Then, water flows from the outlets, and the exploding wave of relief and restarting hearts rolls right out of the frame into the theater or living room.
Some accuse Spielberg of manipulating an audience with this moment, but I can never agree. Is any emotion beyond reverent disgust inappropriate? Is it wrong to try to capture what it must have felt like in those seconds of pure fear? Frankly, the only way I can see Spielberg honoring the solemn tone of this kind of film would be to have actually sent those women to their deaths as he lingered outside the chamber, but which of these two scenarios sounds crueler to you? Besides, Spielberg does give the audience a taste of the latter when the women emerge from the showers hugging and crying in joy as, behind them, a single file of Jews enter another chamber that does not hold water in its pipes, and the camera tilts up to show black ash billowing from the building.
At the other end of the supposed emotional manipulation spectrum are the tear-jerking moments. At the end of the film, Schindler, nearly broke but with just enough money to escape the country in advance of the Red Army's breach of the camp and the inevitable shooting first and asking later, stands with his workers gathered around him. More than 1,000 men, women and children assemble, capable of doing so because Schindler and Stern saved their lives. But instead of feeling proud or relieved, Schindler breaks down and sobs, wracked with guilt for the millions he couldn't help. He rips off what trinkets remain his and wonders how many lives he could have saved with each. Even his lapel pin might have worked as a bribe to save one more person. Perhaps it's a maudlin moment, but who could feel satisfied in this situation. Spielberg's film might show the goodness of humanity even in its darkest hour, but he is not so childish as to think one man's actions, despite the Hebrew proverb Stern recites to him ("He who saves one life saves the world entire"), can undo all the pain. But for those he saved, Schindler truly did save their whole world.
I find it somewhat amusing that scenes such as the one just mentioned provide ammunition for the film's detractors. Spielberg, who founded the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education) with some of the profits of the film and continues to finance that foundation, has been accused far more often of exploitation and profiteering than Claude Lanzmann, maker of the astonishing, vital and deliberately non-conclusive documentary Shoah.
That film is deservedly lauded, but it is also held up as the answer to Schindler's List by some critics who fail to acknowledge that the methods Lanzmann used to elicit information from both the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust breached nearly every ethical boundary in the book. He broke the rules not for money but to get the story, but do people really think Spielberg just wanted the cash or a gold-plated statuette? Spielberg wanted a story as much as Lanzmann did, and I find faults and quibbles with Spielberg's otherwise admirable work just as I do Shoah.
This is not to say that I feel every decision Spielberg makes is the right one, or even that he completely honors the subject matter. He paints Schindler's wife, Emilie, into the background, bringing her out only so Oskar can repent for having so many mistresses. According to the Schindler Jews, Emilie was as good a person as her husband, if not better. Even the wallflower cinematic version of her would had to have noticed all the odds and ends slowly disappearing from her house or the debt her husband amassed. When she appears at the end to stand over her husband's breakdown, her disjointed connection to the story stands out in horrible clarity. She should be sharing in that moment, not made to be a spectator.
Every time I watch Schindler's List I feel like I should resent it, if only because of the pressure to do so for its historical inaccuracies or its manipulative moments. But all films must smudge the ink somewhere (even most documentaries cannot get the whole picture), and if Schindler's List is to be considered manipulative, could that be because any imagery of the Holocaust will, must, grab us if we are good-hearted and humane people? The film sears in my memory, and I routinely think about certain aspects: that eerie smile on Fiennes' face, with its lack of gaps but inexplicable space between each tooth that gives every incisor or molar its own dangerous glint; Helena standing in the disorienting center of frame as she reflects upon her doomed life, well aware that Goeth will one day get over his fleeting attraction and put a bullet through her head; Schindler shouting "They're MINE" when Goeth casually speaks of taking his Jews for slaughter, a moment of passion his friend does not fully comprehend.
Schindler's List is not the first film to showcase Spielberg's aesthetic mastery within the confines of more serious-minded narrative ambition, but where The Color Purple used too many tricks to tell its story and Empire of the Sun eased up on the director's visual skills for its cynical but affecting humanism, Schindler's List finds the balance. Spielberg manages to get away with something as stylized as the Krakow raid, which features a scene of an SS officer playing Mozart on a piano in one of the ghetto apartments as muzzle flashes and machine gun ratatats serve as his audiovisual metronome, because he never lets the moment run off the dramatic weight. It may not hit me quite as profoundly as Empire of the Sun and its unique approach to and perspective of war cinema, but that nagging feeling that tugs at me every time I sit down to watch this film evaporates as I experience it. I would never presume to say the film captures even a fraction of the Holocaust; it is instead what Stanley Kubrick labeled it, not a film about six million who died but 1,000 who lived. It is worth telling the good stories with the bad; they deepen our understanding of mankind's darkest hour.