Friday, January 4, 2013



 Steven Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST became the first (and so far only) film directly about the Holocaust during WWII to win best picture, and it's hard to imagine a more moving, powerful and uplifting film about that tragedy ever being made. Not only is it one of the Academy's best choices ever, its victory was a vindication for Spielberg (who also won for best director), and signified that the popular director had finally grown up and could make more serious films than his earlier popcorn entertainments.  Although he would often return to escapist mainstream movies after this one, he still clearly established himself as a serious artist.
Spielberg began his career in the earlier 1970's, working in television on shows like COLOMBO.  His TV work included the excellent 1971 thriller DUEL, which was considered good enough to eventually get a theatrical release.  His first theatrical film was THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS in 1974, but he didn't really arrive until 1975's JAWS became a massive thriller hit.  That was followed in 1977 by CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, another hit, and he was on his way to becoming the top  director in Hollywood.   Throughout the 1980's his name on a movie poster as a director or producer became a marketing point, usually promising a film with eye popping special effects and a childlike sense of wonder, and his films were popular with critics too.  Really, not since Alfred Hitchcock had a filmmaker had such a combination of critical acclaim and box office success.  But it seemed like there was a backlash against him in the Academy, who continually denied him awards for best picture or director, despite nominating him several times.  He was, it seemed, branded a boy wonder for whom fame had come too soon and too easily; he made JAWS before he was thirty, and then reaped box office gold with what were seen as children's films like 1981's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and 1982's ET.  He appeared to be actively working against this image with 1985's THE COLOR PURPLE, his first serious adult film,  based on an acclaimed novel by Alice Walker.  But the Academy gave him what seemed like a stinging rebuke: the film was nominated for eleven Oscars and won none. 
The seed of his eventual path to Oscar glory began in 1982 when  Australian author Thomas Keneally published the book SCHINDLER'S ARK, based on the true story of Oscar Schindler.  Keneally stumbled on the idea for the book by pure chance, when he met the owner of a luggage store in Beverly Hills who was a holocaust survivor that had for years tried to interest writers in the story of Schindler.  Keneally was interested, later saying that Schindler intrigued  him because "you couldn't say when opportunism ended and altruism began" for Schindler.  After heavily researching the story, Keneally published the book to great praise.  It was quickly optioned by Universal, with Spielberg set to produce.  A number of directors were considered: Martin Scorsase turned it down because he felt it should be directed by someone Jewish. Roman Polanski, a holocaust survivor himself, said no because he felt it would bring back too many memories for him (in 2002 he would finally make his holocaust film, THE PIANIST).  And Sidney Lumet also said no, feeling that he had already done a film about the holocaust with 1964's THE PAWNBROKER.  So Spielberg finally decided to direct it himself, although it almost became famed old time director Billy Wilder's last film, but Spielberg talked him out of it. (Wilder, to his credit, attended the premiere of the film and freely admitted that he could not have done better).   Screenwriter Steven Zallian was recruited to write the script while Spielberg researched the story himself, traveling to Poland and speaking to many holocaust survivors.  The mostly unknown Irish actor Liam Neeson was cast for the title role when it was decided that a big star might be distracting to the audience. Ben Kingsley was also brought on to play the important role of Itzhak Stern, Shindler's Jewish factory manager.  And, in his Hollywood debut, Ralph Fiennes was cast to play Nazi leader  Amon Goeth.  The film was shot almost entirely in Poland, using many actual locations and thousands of extras.  It was shot almost entirely in black and white with mostly handheld cameras, both of which added to the film's realism.  Despite its depressing subject matter and "R" rating (a first for Spielberg), it got glowing reviews and made almost a hundred million dollars on a budget of around thirty five.

Liam Neeson

Beginning in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, it tells the story of Oscar Schindler (Neeson), a cynical German businessman who plans to make a fortune during the war by manufacturing war supplies using Jewish labor in his factory.  But, after witnessing the brutal killings of Jews during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, he strives to save the lives of his workers by using bribes and lies to keep them out of the death camps, eventually spending almost all of his money.  He eventually saves around 1100 people.

Spielberg refused taking any salary for this film; instead he used the money to fund the Shoah Foundation, which preserves the written and spoken memories of people who have survived genocides.  He has also stated that this film and ET are the two movies he most wants to be remembered for.  That sense that this film was something special, that it was a chance to dramatize the real memories of holocaust survivors, and that it would looked at for years to come as a record of their stories, pervades every frame of the film.  The Oscar winning cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is crisp and beautifully lit, with a few splashes of color used effectively in some scenes.  The soundtrack by John Williams, featuring violin solos by Itzhak Perlman (which also won an Oscar), is lovely and moving.  And every performance, even from the most minor of  characters, feels authentic and real, as do all the sets and costumes. It really feels like history come to life.
The decision by Keneally and Spielberg to tell this story feels so right; here is an uplifting story in the middle of absolute horror, a movie full of sadness and terror, but that still has a genuinely happy ending.   And it's a tribute to the decency of a common man: Schindler was a war time profiteer who could have easily ignored what was going on and made a fortune, but he instead did the right thing and worked to save as many people as he could.
Liam Neeson is excellent as Schindler, who appears so commanding and calm when we first see him casually bribing waiters in a cafe to gain access to Nazi commanders.  With his charm and good looks, he believably plays a man who knows how to spread money around to further his interests, even if the day to day operations of his factory is of no concern to him.  And I love the relationship between him and his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Kingsley); Kingsley wonderfully plays Stern as a cautious man who only slowly comes to trust Oscar, fully realizing that Oscar could end his life at any minute if Itzhak displeases him. At one point Oscar lashes out at Stern because word has gotten out that his factory has become a safe haven for jews, but he eventually becomes proud of his more kindly reputation.  (In a nicely realized scene, Itzhak finally consents to share a drink with Oscar after turning him down several times before, showing his increased trust of the factory owner.) The turning point for Oscar comes when he sees the brutality of the German guards as they liquidate the Krakow ghetto, and his sunken, defeated expression as he watches is unforgettable. (The importance of this moment to him is underlined when a little girl's dress is shown with color, driving home the horror of innocence destroyed). From then on he realizes that he must do whatever  he can to save the lives of his workers, but he also is smart enough to know how to handle the Nazis, and he gains the trust of Nazi leader Amon Goeth even while fully realizing what a monster he is.
As Goeth, English actor Ralph Fiennes gives what is my favorite performance in the film;  he plays Goeth with a dead eyed stare like a shark and a soft spoken evil purr of a voice.  He can seem calm and soft spoken at one moment, and then have someone shot on a flimsy pretense in the next; a true sociopath, he looks down on the Jewish workers from his balcony armed with a rifle, like an angel of death, ready to shoot anyone not moving fast enough. (Even more chilling is how this behavior is based on real accounts of Goeth).  In one remarkable scene, he finds himself attracted to his pretty Jewish maid Helen (Embeth Davidtz), but is conflicted by his anti semitic brain washing ("you're not a person in the strictest sense of the word" he says to her).  His desire drives him to the brink of madness, and he blames Helen for leading him on and beats her severely.  Goeth's descent from kindness to brutality as Helen remains stoic is played with incredible intensity by Fiennes.  Although he has gone on to give many other excellent performances in the years following this film, none have been as memorable as this.

Ralph Fiennes

The movie moves from one impressive scene to another; at one point we see jewish people being shipped out by train as their luggage is ripped open and stripped of everything of value. Jewelry is taken as family photos are callously dumped on each other.  This leads to a chilling climax, a jeweler is given a pile of human teeth to take gold fillings from.  The blank expression of the jeweler as he regards the teeth is heartbreaking.  The use of violence in the film is brutal, ugly and often sudden, as it should be.  This is especially true in the aforementioned liquidation of Krakow sequence, in which armed guards storm through the ghetto, killing with impunity; in a horrid juxtaposition, one of the guards begins to play a classical tune on a piano while gunshots fill the air, adding to the madness of the scene.

The film also has an excellent attention for the details of life in the ghetto, like when Itzhak scratches his head so that the guards will think he has head lice and give him a wide berth.  Or when the women know that the Nazis are taking away sickly people, so they prick their fingers and smear blood on their cheeks to give themselves a more healthy complexion.

While the film was critically acclaimed, there was some debate about one of the film's late scenes: in it, after the war has ended and the factory is closed, Oscar breaks down in tears in front of his workers, guilt ridden over the fact that he could have saved more lives if he had just sold more of his material goods.  First of all,  this never happened; by all reports the real Oscar Schindler was not the kind of man to cry in front of a group of people like that.  Secondly, it underlines the character's nobility in such an obvious and heavy handed manner that it allows an otherwise serious minded film to sink into maudlin territory, literally trying to wring tears from the audience.  Is it possible that Spielberg hadn't grown up after all, that he was still hitting obvious notes?  While I understand the intellectual arguments against this scene,  it is so well acted by Neeson and the rest of the cast, and it provides some much needed uplift after so much sadness and darkness, that I find myself tearing up every time I see it.  I can understand that I'm being manipulated, but I can't lie, the manipulation works on me.  So I don't mind that scene, especially because it is swiftly followed by a wonderful climax in which the real life surviving Schindler Jews and the actors who portrayed them in the film pay tribute at Oscar Schindler's grave, which both strengthens the film's sense of realism and gives it a final, moving ending.


The power and excellence of this film is almost undeniable; while other fine films were made that year, like Robert Altman's SHORTCUTS and Wayne Wang's THE JOY LUCK CLUB, there is no denying that the Academy clearly made the right choice here, and that Spielberg's film will be remembered for years to come.  Along with Stanley Kramer's excellent 1961 film JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, it remains  the most powerful non documentary movie to deal with the holocaust.  It's hard to imagine a better use of film as both an art form and a dramatic historical record.