A flashy but deeply flawed hero saves lives with ‘Schindler’s List’

August 28, 2012

At the start of World War II, a flashy businessman named Oskar Schindler detected the scent of something precious: opportunity.

In the fall of 1939, Schindler, a German living in occupied Krakow, Poland, was wining and dining Nazi officials and looking for a way to make money. After learning of a recently bankrupted factory, he tracked down its former accountant and quizzed him on the business’ fundaments. The suspicious accountant, Itzhak Stern, throws in with Schindler’s decidedly unorthodox business plan. Thus was born an unlikely, and nearly miraculous, partnership that wound up saving some 1,100 Jews from the Nazi death machine.

The story of that alliance is at the heart of Schindler’s List, American director Steven Spielberg’s 1993 outing. (Actually, it was his second picture that year, released after Jurassic Park.) Spielberg is perhaps the most successful director of all time. His credits include influential blockbusters such as JawsClose Encounters of the Third KindE.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and the Indiana Jones movies; other adventure movies such as A.I. Artificial IntelligenceSaving Private RyanMinority Report, Catch Me If You CanWar of the Worlds and The Adventures of Tintin; and more serious dramas such as The Color PurpleEmpire of the SunAmistad and Munich.

Having said all that, and without having viewed many of Spielberg’s acclaimed pictures, I’m prepared to argue that Schindler’s List is one of Spielberg’s most powerful features. Spielberg presents this story of the Holocaust in straightforward fashion, showing atrocious deeds with minimal moralizing or mawkishness. The film also brings forth some fascinating characters — Schindler himself, who has more substance than his outer flash would suggest, as well as the mostly stoic Stern and Schindler’s other crucial business partner, a vicious Nazi officer named Amon Goeth.

Filmed in black and white, except for brief opening and concluding sequences and a few partially colorized mid-movie scenes, the movie follows Schindler throughout nearly six years of war. In that time, Polish Jews are relocated from the countryside to a ghetto in Krakow; forced to evacuate that ghetto, and then to build a prison-labor camp for their own confinement; and shipped en masse to Auschwitz, which was dedicated to the slaughter of European Jews.

(Auschwitz served as a labor camp as well, it should be noted, and confined substantial numbers of political prisoners, Gypsies, other Poles and Soviet prisoners of war, among other groups.)

The Jews on Schindler’s list of workers escaped the worst of the predations of the Nazis because the industrialist and war profiteer insisted they were essential to his manufacturing operations. Deliciously, when he actually gets a contract to build munitions for the Germans, after having supplied them with cookware, he makes sure that none of the shells can be used in combat.

Schindler was able to rescue the bankrupt factory by persuading Jewish investors — who were forbidden to use cash — to take payment in goods that could be traded on the black market. His connection to the ghetto, Stern, convinced him to hire Jews as labor because they were cheap to employ.

(The factory’s payroll was actually collected by the Nazis; Polish workers would have collected the money directly, at a higher per capita rate.)

The industrialist’s commitment to his workers increases slowly over time, growing stronger as Schindler becomes ever more aware of the hardship and atrocities the Germans visit upon their victims. A key moment is when he accidentally witnesses the Nazis’ brutal liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. This is a long and harrowing sequence, presented largely without music; it’s one of several in the film showing how men with guns can inflict terror upon large groups of civilians even when no shot is fired.

A coda to the liquidation comes at night, when German soldiers are waiting to execute Jews who come out of hiding in the mistaken belief that the coast is clear. As unarmed civilians are shot to death, a trooper sits down at a piano and begins playing a lively piece of classical music. Two comrades pause at the doorway as they try to identify the composer. A moment later, Spielberg shows us the scene from the hillside overlooking the ghetto. The buildings seem oddly festive, as lights keep flashing in the otherwise dark windows. Here is yet another incongruity: With every spark of light, one more life is being extinguished.

The cast turns in fine performances, led by Liam Neeson in the title role and Ben Kingsley as the buttoned-down, businesslike Stern. Embeth Davidtz is also notable as Helen Hirsch, whom Goeth chooses to be his maid.

Perhaps the movie’s best acting of all is done by Ralph Fiennes as Goeth; certainly his is the most fascinating character. Goeth is a monster, a casual killer seemingly without conscience. Schindler observes that war has brought out the worst in Goeth; in peacetime, he would be a wonderful crook. Even in wartime, though, the Nazi commandant (like his compatriots and staff) evidently has no problem collecting all manner of bribes from Schindler, or apparently from other German businessmen.

But Fiennes is able to show us that Goeth is banal as well as evil. He grumbles about the long hours required to liquidate the ghetto, bemoans the heat of a summer’s day as his staff sits beside a stalled train full of Jews bound for Auschwitz and complains about orders from his superiors. In a touching and chilling turn, Goeth develops a crush on Hirsch but declares that the kindest thing he could do for her is to kill her quickly and painlessly.

The script was written by  Steven Zaillian and based on the 1982 Booker Prize-winning novel Schindler’s Ark by Australian author Thomas Keneally. (The book was published under the same name as the movie in the United States, per Wikipedia.) I have but three relatively minor complaints about it.

One night, Schindler descends to the cellar to comfort the terrified Hirsch, who does not understand her master’s sentimental feelings; later that same evening, Schindler counsels Goeth that true power comes from refraining from murder. The latter conversation struck me as unlikely; the former seemed to belong to an entirely different movie.

I also felt Schindler’s final speech, just as he is about to say farewell to the men, women and children whom he spared, was rather too sentimental (even if the scene is touching).

Finally, I felt that while Schindler’s List explored the personalities and feelings of many Jewish characters, the collective impression the film seemed to leave was that the Jews were primarily victims. I don’t know if this is a fair complaint; after all, to discuss genocide is to acknowledge victimization. Still, although this wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment of the movie, it was a concern.

I noted above that the closing sequence is in color. I won’t describe it, but I will say that it moved me close to tears. Schindler was but one man with only a little influence, but he eventually chose to spend all his power and money to protect people.

The 1,100 lives he helped spare are but a paltry sum against the six million Jews exterminated in the Holocaust. But every life does count, and the scurrilous Schindler’s efforts in this regard were valiant indeed. Even if this movie were a fraction as good as it actually is, that message — that it is important to stand for what is right, even when doing so is dangerous and appears to be useless — would alone make Schindler’s List worth watching.

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