There have been few films that have garnered the praise that Schindler’s List received when it first opened in 1993. It was acclaimed as a masterpiece and has been talked about as being one of the greatest movies ever made. I think the importance of the subject matter has overwhelmed the actual movie itself so that people have a hard time drawing a distinction between the two. Becoming the first major Hollywood production to document the Holocaust from the most popular filmmaker in history, Steven Spielberg, is an important achievement. There is much to admire in Schindler’s List and as an experience it truly is unforgettable. I just don’t happen to believe it is a masterpiece as so many viewers think it is.
The story is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, Schindler’s Ark, told to him by Poldek Pfefferberg. A Polish Jew, Pfefferberg, survived the Nazi extermination along with more than 1,000 Jews while aided by German businessman, Oskar Schindler. At the beginning of World War II many Jews were relocated to the Krakow ghetto where they were put in concentration camps. Schindler (Liam Neeson) comes to Krakow as an unsuccessful businessman who opens a factory with funding from top Jewish business leaders and hires Jews as cheap labor. He succeeds with the help of Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley). The commandant in charge of the camps is Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes).
When we are first introduced to Schindler, he is a womanizer who exploits the Jews for profit and parties with the Nazis. Eventually, he bribes the SS into letting him buy his workers to save them. With the help of Stern, he composes a list of over 1,000 Jews who are exempt from being sent to Auschwitz for extermination. Schindler was a con artist but in Spielberg’s version of events we don’t get to see the enjoyment Schindler must’ve felt in swindling the Nazis. Instead, Spielberg wants us to feel the nobility of Schindler’s actions. In melodramatic terms this works, but the irony of the situation is underplayed.
Amon Goeth as the camp commandant is conceived as the standard evil Nazi. We see him coldly murdering Jews because Spielberg doesn’t want to shy away from showing us how evil Nazis were. Goeth represents the pathology that Nazis were inherently evil, which makes for simplicity in drama, but undercuts the horror of the Holocaust that seemingly intelligent people were capable of such horrifying acts. Spielberg lacks the moral sophistication of a great artist who would make us confront our own preconceptions. There is nothing in the more than three hours of Schindler’s List that has as much resonance as the stark images in Alain Resnais’ thirty-minute documentary Night and Fog. There is a shot of fingernail markings on the ceiling of the gas chambers that is far more horrifying and powerful than anything Spielberg can recreate, because it forces us to imagine what happened instead of just showing us.
Spielberg decided to shoot Schindler’s List in black-and-white to give the movie a documentary quality. The art direction by Alan Starski and cinematography by Janusz Kaminski give real immediacy to the movie. There are a lot of hand held shots that recreates a you-are-there authenticity that is impressive. As for the cast, Neeson is physically impressive and has a commanding voice. Kingsley brings a quiet dignity to his role in a performance that is easy to undervalue. Fiennes has the kind of physical intensity and charm that makes Goeth such a frightening characterization despite being mostly one-dimensional.
Because of the subject matter it is easy to dismiss criticism of Schindler’s List as being insensitive to the Holocaust, but that would be missing the point. Powerful as the movie undoubtedly is, I didn’t come away feeling as if I had experienced a fresh perspective on the Holocaust. Granted, Schindler’s List is not meant to be a movie that encompasses the entirety of the Holocaust and it would be unfair to expect any movie to do so. But I would’ve thought I would gain more insight than the standard portrayal of Nazi evil.