Saturday, December 3, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.11: Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. Next up, his 1993 Oscar-winner Schindler’s List.

Grade: 96 (A)

Holocaust-related films are tricky. It’s far too easy to use the subject matter for instant pathos or create somber, simplistic films without any clear artistic expression from the director (see: The Reader). Many other great filmmakers developed Holocaust-related projects only to abandon them when they found it too difficult to accurately portray in a fictional film (Stanley Kubrick, Billy Wilder). Steven Spielberg heard the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman and Nazi Party member who spent his fortune to save the lives of over a thousand Polish Jews and knew he had to make the film, whatever the consequences.

Before slapping the film with an “instant Oscar” status that greets most mediocre Holocaust-related films, consider this: Schindler’s List is a three-hour long film about one of the most horrific atrocities of the 20th century. It is mostly in black-and-white and often in German or Polish without subtitles. No studio wanted to fund it. Spielberg, along with his most producers, felt the film would flop. Spielberg chose not to accept a salary for the film, deeming it “blood money”, despite legendary French filmmaker/pretentious scold Jean-Luc Godard’s claim that Spielberg used the Holocaust for profit (again, how can anyone say Spielberg doesn’t take risks?). Schindler’s List defies easy dismissal. It is a profoundly beautiful film created with great artistry and expert filmmaking. Ignore the blind reverential treatment the film is treated with, and it is still a masterful examination of redemption and survival in the face of absolute horror.

Krakow, Poland: Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is the right man at the right time. A natural charmer, he has great talent as a people person and as a shrewd businessman. He has several contacts in the Nazi party, and his munitions factory is turning a healthy profit. Schindler, unlike other Nazis, is willing to do business with Jews, even if he mainly uses them for cheap labor. He recognizes the value of an accountant like Itszak Stern (Ben Kingsley). Stern uses his good grace with Schindler to bring in children and other “essential” workers. Schindler uses them, but he’s a businessman, and he’s annoyed with Stern. But as Hitler’s Final Solution progresses and sadistic SS Officer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) kills more and more Jews, Schindler can no longer stand idly by. He and Stern create a list of Jews to work in Schindler’s factory. When his contacts can no longer do him favors, he uses the millions he made off of his factory to buy each worker. In the end, he saves 1,100 Jews.

With Schindler’s List, Spielberg deals with the most important subject he ever covered, but at no point do his skills as a director take a backseat to the subject matter. The old Howard Hawks “man on a mission” storyline may be gone, and the epic film isn’t really in debt to David Lean. But Spielberg’s mastery of Old Hollywood techniques remains intact. The film’s stark black-and-white photography gives the film the immediacy of a Holocaust documentary, but when combined with expert staging it recalls the finest films of Orson Welles and Billy Wilder (who, as a side note, nearly directed the film himself). Often the dialogue between Schindler and other Germans seems like something out of the morally hazy characters from Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. or The Apartment, and several scenes, from extravagant parties to Schindler’s handling of low-level Nazis, evoke Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Hitchcock is there, too: Spielberg’s mastery of dragging suspense out to interminable levels finds new use here. Rather than merely creating a suspenseful sequence for an action hero, Spielberg directs terrifying sequences of the most evil acts the Nazis perpetrated.

Stanley Kubrick often wrestled with the Holocaust. He inserted references to it throughout many of his films (The Shining, Dr. Strangelove), and for years he considered his own Holocaust film, Aryan Papers/Wartime Lies before deciding he couldn’t accurately convey the event’s horrors. Schindler’s List manages it as best as a fictional film can. Spielberg’s previous films often had frightening moments or imagery, and his first two prestige features (The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun) dealt with some thorny subject matter. None of them approach how unreservedly brutal Spielberg renders the Holocaust on film. Men and women are shot in the head, often without cause. The liquidation of the Krakow ghetto is as harrowing as can be. Jews gossip about how things couldn’t get worse only to see more horrors piled upon them. They are forced to strip and run in circles to prove they are healthy. They try to hide from the SS. Some succeed. Most do not. One young boy memorably hides in a latrine.

In one terrifying scene, the women on Schindler’s list are sent by mistake to the Auschwitz death camp. The guards cut their hair, force them to strip, and send them into a shower. The women have heard rumors of “showers” really being gas chambers. They are lucky to find that this really is just a shower, but they would not stay lucky if not for Schindler and Stern’s refusal to let them go. As they leave, flakes of snow fall from the sky. Except that none of it is snow; it is ash, pouring out from smokestacks where corpses are burned. At no point does Spielberg shy away from the monstrous acts that killed 6 million Jews. Kubrick was always an influence on Spielberg, but too often the latter is dismissed as an overly sweet, less talented version of the former. Schindler’s List, however, takes the same unflinching look at the capacity for human evil that Kubrick’s films often took.

Earlier in 1993, Spielberg first fully explored the dark side of technology with Jurassic Park. He does the same with Schindler’s List. Germany is no barbaric state. It is a place of great culture and sophistication, filled with great technology and efficiency. It is that technology and efficiency that allows for unspeakable horrors to happen as they do. Trains carry Jews to death camps. Guns are fired nightly, or otherwise used to keep prisoners in line. Bodies are disposed of with death camp ovens. All of this from civilized men who eat good food, listen to good music (one soldier plays Mozart as men and women are slaughtered). This is what machines are capable of, and what their misuse can lead to. There is also a good to them: Schindler first profits off of cheap labor in his factories, but later the ability to create weaponry serves as a haven for the oppressed (though he vows late in the film to never again produce a working shell, and never does).

But machines are nothing without the men behind them. Schindler’s List is another film about untrustworthy authorities, and about how man’s selfishness blinds them to suffering. The Germans live extravagantly, with lots of wine, women, and tobacco. They are not above taking the gold, diamonds, and other riches from the Jews they deem inhuman. Goeth uses this to his advantage. A power-hungry man, Goeth demands a villa, hires a Jewish maid, and kills any Jewish worker who crosses him, even if he agrees with them later. The ability to take lives is the ultimate power, and nothing can take that away from him (Schindler’s attempt to make him more merciful fails). This is not to minimize his hatred for the Jews: he sees them as infiltrators of Germany, and he relishes in taking their lives. He just happens to use the Nazis as a way to gain power as well. And when it comes time for Schindler to bribe them for Jewish “workers”, they accept.

Schindler is among them, and he profits from cheap labor. When he does business with Jews on the black market, it is for his own gain, not to help them. He is a showman and a craftsman (not completely unlike Spielberg) and wants to do something unforgettable, namely make millions from his munitions plant. When the Jews are forced from their homes, he takes the nicest house for himself. When Stern brings a grateful worker to Schindler, he is uneasy. Eventually Schindler turns. The brutality is too much for him, and he has worked and grown with Stern and others. Stern’s initial dislike of Schindler is clear, but understanding forms and the two create an “absolute good” together.

In an often mocked scene near the end, Schindler’s Jews express their gratitude with a simple gesture. Schindler, deeply moved, laments that he “could have got more people”. Critics of the scene say it tells the audience something they already know (that Schindler is no saint) and that it is used to clear any lingering guilt Schindler has. But the scene, like the rest of the film, is utterly sincere in its portrayal of a man redeemed. Schindler isn’t perfect, and he realizes too late that he could have done more, and sooner. But Stern wisely quotes the Talmud, “Whoever saves one life saves the world.”

There is a quote attributed to Stanley Kubrick about Schindler’s List: “That was about success. The Holocaust was about failure. The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.” Several Spielberg detractors, most notably filmmaker Terry Gilliam, have used this against the film. Personally, I find the claim dubious for many reasons.

  1. Kubrick had enormous respect for Spielberg, and later brought him aboard his pet project A.I. as a director.
  2. The quote comes from the Kubrick biography Eyes Wide Open, a book Kubrick’s widow has singled out as unreliable.

The third reason, and the most important one, is this: history does not exist in a hermetic bubble, and there are multiple views of each event. An artist can only express themselves personally and sincerely. Spielberg does so with Schindler’s List. The film is one of his many pleas for tolerance and basic human decency (see also: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Amistad, A.I., Munich). It is also his tribute to his Jewish identity and to the Jewish people. It is, next to E.T., his most personal film. To equate the film’s optimism, or any optimistic view of a terrible event, to infantilism is a cheaply cynical view and a facile observation that ignores that the film’s optimism is hard-won in the face of a massacre.

The film opens with a candlelit celebration of the Jewish Sabbath. It is in color for a reason. When the film goes to black and white, it is to portray the time of peril and loss of humanity for the Jewish people. When candles are lit again, the flames are in color, to show some light shining through the darkness. At the film’s end, the surviving Schindler Jews lay stones on Oskar Schindler’s grave in tribute to the man who helped save their lives. However terrible the event was, the Jewish people live on. If finding a silver lining in that is infantilism, call me an infant.

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