Schindler’s List (1993) — A masterpiece of remembering

“This list… is an absolute good. The list is life.”

Lissa’s rating: This was tough.

Lissa’s review: I’ve wanted to review Schindler’s List for a long time. It’s one of my favorite movies, and yes, I actually mean that. But I’ve held off because it’s a tough movie to review. For one thing, I think that Spielberg did everything absolutely right in this movie, and I don’t have a lot negative to say. But for another, I find reviewing films of this nature difficult. In this case, I truly believe this is a superior film, and in every way is Spielberg’s master work. But I always feel awkward criticizing movies that focus on a subject like the Holocaust, because so many people find subjects like that to be… well, how to phrase it?

There are certain topics that people are very… not scared, but aware of. And that’s right, in many ways. People consider these topics taboo for jokes, and would prefer not to see them sensationalized, and the Holocaust is one of those things that tops the list. I am in total agreement with this. However, at times, public opinion can bend the other way and you’d better NOT criticize something that addresses that subject, or you are perceived as criticizing those who lived it. Or worse, a director/writer/whatever assumes that the inclusion of one of these topics automatically elevates their work to an unassailable level.

None of this is the case in Schindler’s List. I truly believe this to be an exceptional piece of work, but I want to be clear that I’m not just saying that because of the subject matter — I really believe it is an incredible movie.

Schindler’s List is the story of Oskar Schindler, a businessman of dubious scruples who wants to make money the quick and easy way. He has a plan to buy an abandoned enamel-works plant in Poland, and then by using cheap labor, turn out pots, pans, mess kits, and other items that a growing army needs. However, he needs a few items essential to running a business: money, laborers, and someone to actually do all the work. The Schindler we meet at the beginning of the movie is not an evil man by any means, but he’s a playboy, lazy, and quite content to take the easiest route possible to a life of luxury. In his case, the easiest route is to plunder the Jewish community for what he needs.

Correctly assuming that desperate times will call for desperate measures, Oskar turns to the Jews, most of whom are now living in the ghetto. He taps into the black market. He finds investors who are able to see that, although they’re getting the worse end of the deal, Schindler is offering them more than anyone else is. He finds a bookkeeper named Itzhak Stern (played wonderfully by Ben Kingsley), who not only keeps the books but essentially runs the business. And he finds cheap labor in the form of incarcerated Jews, who aren’t being paid, but can at least get access to the outside world if they work for Schindler. But over the course of the movie, Schindler begins to open his eyes to the world around him, and what is really happening. He decides he can no longer sit idle — not because he understands anything but the most basic rudimentary tenants of the Jewish faith, but because he understands that these are people, and they are being murdered.

Crusades and campaigns have their place and time, but Schindler is smart enough to see that this is not it. Instead of attacking the Nazi party full force and getting himself hanged for his troubles, Schindler continues to play the game and go along as Nazi, but at the same time saves eleven hundred lives. The Jews working for him are eventually transported to a labor camp where summary executions are not permitted, and are safe for the remainder of the war. If Schindler had been caught, I’m sure the consequences would have been dire, but because people are so often blind to what they do not want to see, he is successful in his efforts.

The first time I saw Schindler’s List, I was very focused on the actual stories of the Survivors. There’s something about the Holocaust that I admit, twists a fascination in me. It’s a true measure of man’s cruelty to man, and I always wonder how something like that can come about. (Well, no, to an extent. I don’t really wonder, because all I have to do is look at the world around me today.) But I remember seeing the movie up at college, where they showed it on one of those two real projectors. They gave us a break in between (probably because it was college students running it and we only had one projector, so there had to be a break), and it was right after the liquidation of the ghetto. I remember just putting my head down on my desk and flat-out crying after that scene. In fact, the whole movie beat me up so badly emotionally, I didn’t think I’d ever watch it again.

I’m one of the few people I know who has watched it again, and I believe I’ve seen it seven times. And I have to tell you, it’s worth the re-watch. What I found is that when I watched the movie again, my focus shifted from the obvious to the subtle, and I paid far more attention to Oskar Schindler and his transformation. It’s odd that the main plot of the film would take a back seat, but it did for me on the first viewing, and I’m very glad I put in the subsequent viewings to take that in. However, I don’t think the scenes depicting what those persecuted in the Holocaust were going through were at all gratuitous. Instead, we see them both through Schindler’s eyes and as a contrast to Schindler’s privileged life. The first adds humanity, the second poignancy.

I do admit I had trouble keeping some of the characters straight when I saw this for the first few times. I think part of it is the black and white filming, and that’s a bit of an idiosyncrasy with me. But part of it is that you’re seeing hundreds of faces. Some, Spielberg tells their story. Others, he doesn’t. And because there are so many faces presented with so many names at the beginning, it’s hard for me to tell which people will be bigger roles and lock their face together with the name. Additionally, the appearance of many of the characters — especially the women — is altered significantly throughout the movie. But again, I think this is me, and I’m betting other people don’t have this problem.

The story is complex and rich, with strong characterization and good pacing. The acting is utterly phenomenal. Liam Neeson was the right choice for Oskar Schindler, Ben Kingsley was perfect as Stern, and Ralph Fiennes channeled Amon Goeth far too well. The movie is stunning to look at, the soundtrack is haunting, and the history is apparently about as correct as Hollywood is ever going to get. I don’t recommend watching it at night if you have a vivid imagination, because I find some images stay with me a little too well and I end up seeing them in nightmares. However, regardless, if you haven’t seen this one, I strongly encourage you to do so.

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