Saturday, January 19, 2013

Film #94: Schindler's List (1993)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: twice (last time about twelve years ago)

Rapid-Fire Summary

For a complete plot synopsis, check here at imdb’s website.

In 1940, the Nazi machine is taking hold in Poland. They are starting to herd all Jews together and force them into ghettos. Amidst these massive and horrific changes, the Czech-German businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrives in Krakow with dollar signs in his eyes. Through clever business machinations and a flare for panache, Schindler quickly ingratiates himself to Nazi high commanders, secures a factory and a Jewish prisoner labor force for himself.

Over the next few years, business is good for Oskar Schindler. His factory produces quality pots and other metal goods, and his chief accountant, the Jewish Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsly) sees that the factory runs smoothly and profitably. IN the early going, the only seeming bump in the road is the assignment of Nazi officer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) as the commander of the labor camp in Krakow. Goeth is an unpredictable and homicidal maniac who kills Jews without rhyme or reason. Schindler, however, manages to become civil, if not friendly, with the treacherous killer, in the name of keeping the money flowing in.

Oskar Schindler - in the middle of one of his many negotiations. These eventually evolve from purely self interested to completely altruistic.

Gradually, Schindler begins to have a change of heart, though a somewhat quiet and slow-building one. Upon seeing the murderous brutality of the Nazis against the Jews, Schindler, on the gentle but unwavering urging of Stern, begins to bring more Jewish laborers into his factory. He tells everyone that it is simply to maintain efficiency, but those who are closest to him can see that his sympathies for the Jews are growing. Schindler even tries, unsuccessfully, to change the brutal nature of Goeth. This failure aside, he continues to take Jewish prisoners into his factory to save them from the horrors of working in the labor camp every day.

As the War enters its final year, things become more desperate. Word comes down that Hitler has ordered the complete extermination of Jews – the so-called “Solution.” In the face of this, Oskar Schindler takes all of his massive profits, and even convinces a few other businessmen to do the same, and purchases over a thousand Jewish laborers. He assures Goeth that it is merely for convenience, as these laborers and their children are known commodities. The deal is made, and Schindler even ensures their safe transport to Czechoslovakia after his Jewish workers are mistakenly sent to Auschwitz and nearly killed, along with thousands of their fellow Jews.

At the official surrender of the Nazis to the Allied forces, Schindler addresses the hundreds of people that he has saved. The following day, as an ultimate irony and sacrifice, he must flee punishment for the crime of war profiteering.

When the war ends with the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers, the Jews are free, but Oskar Schindler is now, officially, a war criminal for profiteering. With the blessing of the thousand that he helped save, Schindler and his wife flee into the night.

My Take on the Film (done after this most recent viewing)

This was the third time that I’ve seen this movie, and my feelings haven’t changed – it’s a very good film in many ways, but there are a few things that irk me.

Schindler’s List is definitely one of the boldest of Spielberg’s films. The movie portrays the stark and horrific actions of the Nazi regime against the Jews in a way that I had never seen before. It goes far beyond mere sensational, almost action/suspense route that could have been taken. Seeing silent, morose masses of Krakow’s Jewish citizens, lined up to be classified and segregated by the conquering Germans has much more authentic emotional power. This is one of many subtle details that the movie exhibits in order to convey the crushing reality of the Holocaust.

As always, Spielberg is a master of the technical aspects of film. The man has always known how to tell stories through the moving picture, and Schindler’s List is no exception. From the opening scenes of Oskar Schindler schmoozing his way into the good graces of the Nazi commanders, to and through Goeth’s failed attempt at becoming a forgiving overlord, the movie balances dialogue and visuals to tell the tale as well as anything Spielberg has ever done.

The maniacal Goeth and the savior Schindler, during one of their many talks. The two are dark-and-light reflections of one another. This scene displays how effectively Spielberg used the black and white medium. No one can say that the man doesn't know what he's doing with a camera.

Unfortunately, as important as these things are, and as well as the movie does them, there are several gripes that I have. One is that I have always found a certain flatness to the main characters. Oskar Schindler’s soul goes through a massive transformation, and yet we are left with virtually nothing to explain why this might have occurred. Aside from a few ponderous gazers at the horrors around him, we are left in the dark as to why, exactly, this self-absorbed capitalist would abandon his fortune to save a group of people whom he has only seen as a means to his financial ends. There are moments when we get hints, but I’ve always felt a little cheated when it comes to this aspect of the film. There is also an enigmatic quality to Goeth. The character never feels completely real to me – almost more of a monster construct than a person who actually could have existed.

The idea of constructs is another problem I have with the film. Far too many times, I felt as if I could see Steven Spielberg’s hand prints on the movie, and not in a good way. He was clearly trying to present a “realistic” look at the terrors of the Holocaust, and in some notable ways, he succeeded. However, there are a few too many scenes and moments that feel very contrived to me. One is the “secretary” scene, when the libidinous Schindler is “interviewing” potential secretaries by watching them type. This sequence, with no dialogue, is a very wink-wink, nudge-nudge, humorous moment in the movie. In other words, it seems way out of place. There are several others, but none so egregious as the final scene in which Schindler is walking towards his car, about to leave behind all of the people he has saved. In a scene that seemed straight out of a hackneyed melodrama from the 1940s, the hundreds of Jews quietly stand around him as he slowly starts to cry and despair over how many more lives he could have saved, had he not been so selfish. On paper, it seems to make for a great scene. On film though, to me, it seems rather artificial.

The final scene, in which Spielberg and Neeson overplay their emotional hands (in my opinion). The melodrama becomes thick to the point that it does a disservice to the reality upon which the film is based.

Related to this is something that has been a bugaboo in virtually every Spielberg film – shying away from truly, completely shocking the audience, even when it may be appropriate. The particular scene I have in mind is towards the end of the movie, when Schindler’s Jews have all been mistakenly taken to Auschwitz. The women are all stripped naked and forced into a large warehouse, which they and we the audience all presume to be a gas chamber in which they will all be killed. Just at the height of our fears, water rather than gas rains down from the shower heads, merely cleaning the terrorized women. I don’t know whether this event actually occurred, but it struck me as strange that the director, who has already shown us multiple brutal murders in the movie, would shy away from presenting perhaps the most disturbing crimes perpetrated during those years – the mass executions of helpless innocents. I’m not saying that I would have enjoyed seeing such a thing, but this film is clearly not about enjoying what you are seeing. It is about witnessing the atrocities committed against the Jews, and it only seems right to witness the greatest of those atrocities.

Schindler’s List is one of those films on historical tragedy that merely makes me want to learn more about the actual story, not unlike The Last King of Scotland or Hotel Rwanda. In fact, the scene that has by far the most impact on me, and the only one during which I cry, is at the very end, when the credits start to roll. We shift to 1993, when the film was released, and we watch the surviving “Schindler’s Jews” and some of their descendants process towards the real Schindler’s grave and place flowers along it. This is when the reality of the story hits me, and this is when I feel a real sense of loss.

I ultimately think of Schindler’s List as a “near miss.” It tells an important story, and it does many things well. However, I feel that, had the few “Hollywood” moments been eliminated and had Spielberg gone more minimalist in a few of his techniques, the movie would have had even more power.

In other words, three times in more than enough for me. I don’t need to watch this movie ever again.

That’s a wrap. 94 shows down; 11 to go.

Coming Soon: The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)

Ahhhh. A nice breath of fresh air, after emotional weightiness of the prior three movies. Kung-fu action up the wah-zoo. As of writing this, apparently Jackie Chan is in some hot water for an anti-American rant. Whatever. I just want to see one guy jumping around, kicking the stuffing out of a bunch of other guys.