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movies matter | criticism by maryann johanson

Schindler’s List (review)

Shadows and Light

Schindler’s List is a devastating film. Without comment or restraint, director Steven Spielberg shows us the nightmare of the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews during World War II: imprisoned Jews building their own death camps; roadways paved with gravestones from Jewish cemeteries; truckloads of children who don’t know they’re on their way to Auschwitz waving happily to their parents; the economy of the Nazis, lining up their victims in order to kill as many as possible with one bullet; and perhaps most chilling, the hatred in the eyes of a young girl screaming “Good-bye, Jews!” to the masses shuffling toward a ghetto. It’s easy to see how some people can deny the reality of what happened. Even the word Holocaust doesn’t seem to cover the mind-numbing atrocity.

While Schindler’s List is the least Spielberg-ian and least showy of the director’s work, it demonstrates an artistry that is at times highly stylized. The film is a study in contrasts and ironies. The opening scene of Jew after Jew registering at the train station on their forcible arrival in Krakow, reciting their names for the Nazi clerks, is harrowing — we know their future, and this is like a requiem for those not yet dead. Yet the scene is filmed in almost exactly the same staccato rhythm as one toward the end of the film, as camp denizens line up to give their names, to be checked against the list of workers to be sent to Oskar Schindler’s factory — the names on this list, we know, will survive. And note the beatific smile on the face of a Jewish hospital patient as a nurse feeds her deadly poison just before the Nazis arrive to eliminate those they consider unfit: In this atmosphere of unrepentant murder, killing nevertheless can sometimes be a mercy.

Spielberg’s main characters — Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), the German businessman and Nazi party member who exhausts his fortune to save 1,100 Jews from death; and Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the sadistic death-camp commandant — are contradictory enigmas. Schindler is at first delighted by the war — “it makes all the difference in the world between success and failure” in business — and even as he is awakened to the horrors around him, he believes that war brings out “only the bad, never the good” in people. He doesn’t notice his own transformation till the very end, and even then seems perplexed and overwhelmed by it. Goeth (Fiennes’s performance is star-making) enthralls with a kind of vicious sexiness, wholly unaware of his own evil except on a subconscious level — he can barely acknowledge his attraction for his pretty Jewish housemaid except to be repulsed by it.

Spielberg uses his black-and-white film stock to great effect, mixing shadow and light as if to suggest that both good and bad exist in both these men — Schindler may be mostly good, and Goeth mostly evil, but the opposite also glimmers in them. Schindler is at first driven only by money and is capricious in the Jews he chooses to employ — the pretty girls get picked over the homely ones. And we see the briefest possibility of pity in Goeth when he momentarily pardons a Jewish servant who displeases him — the moment passes, but it hints at some untapped kernel of goodness.

Spielberg also uses shadows and light for other contrasting ironies. Early in the film, we watch Schindler at a nightclub watching the Nazi officers he’s planning to schmooze — these are the potential clients for his cookware factory. Schindler sits mostly in shadow with a subtle bar of light across his eyes. His intentions are honest, if mercenary — he has no hidden agenda in dealing with the officials. Much later, though, as he negotiates with a Nazi officer for the return of a trainload of “his” Jews mistakenly sent to Auschwitz, his eyes in are shadow. Now Schindler is being deceptive — he wants his Jews returned not because they are valuable to his factory and the war effort but because he is desperate to prevent their deaths. In the first instance he is being truthful and yet amoral; in the second he is deceitful and yet moral. Similarly, Goeth is never photographed in shadow — he believes he is in the right. But his Jewish maid Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz) sits hunched in shadow as she betrays him to a fellow Nazi when she tells Schindler of Goeth’s unpredictable and arbitrary violence.

History is written by the winners, and there is the final irony. What the Nazis probably would have called their greatest accomplishment is here laid bare for all the world to see by the Allies: an American director (a Jewish one, no less) and his Irish and English leading men.


Oscars Best Picture 1993
AFI 100 (1998 list): #8

unforgettable movie moment:
Early one morning, Goeth takes potshots at Jews from the balcony of his villa overlooking his death camp. “Wakey, wakey,” he chirps to his mistress inside.

previous Best Picture:
1992: Unforgiven
next Best Picture:
1994: Forrest Gump

previous AFI 100 film:
7: Lawrence of Arabia
next AFI 100 film:
9: Vertigo

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures


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Schindler’s List (1993) | directed by Steven Spielberg
US/Can release: Dec 15 1993
UK/Ire release: Feb 18 1994

MPAA: rated R
BBFC: rated 15 (strong violence, threat, strong language)

viewed at home on a small screen

IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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  • Matt Clayton

    You hit on the great things about the film — excellent cast, the visual contrasts, moral shades of gray, and the ironies throughout. I think Spielberg’s maudlin sentiment seeps through ever so slightly at the end — where Schindler breaks down when he receives the ring from the survivors.

    But for the most part, it feels like a ‘you are there’ documentary — the visual symbolism of the red coat, the raiding of the Jewish ghettos, the fear of the women in the shower chamber, the crazed Nazi officer shooting at the piles of burning bodies, and so forth. It’s such a harrowing and heartbreaking film.

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