Wednesday, January 25, 2012
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 8
Writer: Steven Zaillian (screenplay), Thomas Keneally (book)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Star: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes
Of all the horrors, brutality and blood we witness in “Schindler’s List,” the moment that haunts me most is a small, easily overlooked one. A well-to-do Jewish family is being forced to leave their home for the Ghetto and, as they are led to a car to take them away, a young blonde girl screams hateful phrases after them. She can’t be more than 10, and this girl’s face is so full of revulsion…so filled with uncompromising disgust for these people she’s never met…it shook me deeply. She’s too young to understand why she is meant to hate the Jews, and yet the feeling seems have overwhelmed her entire being. The girl is never seen again, but that moment casts a long shadow through the rest of the movie. How can someone, let alone a group of human beings so large as the Nazis, hate like that?
The film takes on the Holocaust not by aiming its camera only at the horrors, but also at the hope. There are two men who stand at either end of the film. The first is businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who represents the goodness that can still be possible even in impossible situations. The other is Nazi official Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), a psychopathic monster who shoots those incarcerated in his Death Camp from the balcony of his villa. Schindler always puts on a big show—gifting high-ranking Nazi officials with the best wines and caviar and always appearing to be in support of the movement—but secretly saves over a thousand lives by bringing the incarcerated to work at his factories. As the war wears on, he begins taking more desperate actions to keep them safe, all the while spending more and more money to buy off anyone who might sense what he is up to.
Steven Zaillian adapted the screenplay, and though I don’t like to use the word flawless (because, honestly, nothing is), I sincerely believe that the structure, dialogue and style of his work here is as close to perfection as any screenplay before or since. The movie is over three hours long, filled with dozens upon dozens of characters and yet, when I ask myself what could be changed to improve the story, nothing comes to mind. There have been hundreds of movies about the Holocaust made at varying levels of quality, from comedies (“The Great Dictator”) to melodramas (“Sophie’s Choice”) and everything in between. And yet, despite all this, Zaillian still manages to approach the film with a fresh eye, finding new and intriguing perspectives to view the world from. Another scene of great power comes when hundreds of Jews are loaded on a train and told to label their luggage so it can be returned to them at their destination. We follow the luggage into a warehouse, where we see dozens of workers opening the suitcases, retrieving everything inside and stacking it. The scene is ghastly and stomach churning to begin with, but then Zaillian moves the focus to one Jewish worker going through valuables when a Nazi solider drops a bag of teeth that have gold fillings in front of him. How can he possibly react to that?
Another masterstroke is the push/pull in the relationship between Schindler and Goeth. Goeth believes the two to be friends, and they often talk at length about the Jews, the war and what is to become of the people. A lesser screenwriter would have written in subtle dialogue assuring us “It’s okay, Schindler is sickened by all this. He’s a good guy,” but Zaillian believes we are smart enough to get it and does not talk down to us. He also sets up a pitch perfect scene where, after Schindler is arrested for kissing a Jewish woman at his birthday party, Goeth actually testifies that Schindler is harmless and a friend to the Nazis.
The film is (almost) completely shot in black-and-white, and that was the right choice. Something about seeing these images in color would have been too much. Color adds a level of beauty to anything, no matter how horrible (think of the red blood of the Hammer Horror films of the ‘70s), so the black-and-white underlines how bereft of life this world was. And when Spielberg does use color, it is to great effect. Take the small girl seen wearing the red coat. We see her about an hour into the film and, because she is in color (however muted that color is), we take note of her importance. Later in the movie, Schindler sees her body unearthed from one of the mass graves and taken for incineration. And that’s it. I’m guessing we see at least a hundred human beings murdered in terrifying, disgusting ways throughout the movie. The girl’s body appears just at the point when the violence threatens to become numbing and, to me, it represents a reminder to the viewer that every body we see was a soul. Someone of importance whose death was significant and should not be discounted no matter how hard it is for us to process it.
“Schindler’s List” is certainly a masterpiece, but I must point out the film’s climactic moment. War is about to end, the Jews will be freed, and Schindler must leave those he has saved. As he walks toward his car, he begins to break down. Though he saved so many, he cannot live with himself. He could have done more, he insists, saved more people…somehow. He points to his car, his Nazi badge, wishing he could have sold them, and cries uncontrollably in the arms of his friend…one of the thousand he rescued. The scene moves me beyond tears and is one of the great moments in all of film.
And now, as is becoming regular in these final few entries, a memory. During my last months at AFI, we were invited to the filming of a pilot for a new documentary show for Turner Classic Movies called “Master Class: The Art of Filmmaking.” The first episode would feature Steven Spielberg and John Williams discussing their careers and giving advice to the Fellows. I was lucky enough to be one of the few chosen to ask them a question…and for the life of me I do not remember. I remember that words were coming out of my mouth, and that cameras were rolling, but nothing more. I do remember that, as I sat down, Spielberg smiled and said “That’s a good question.” I’ve seen the show three times on television and, to this day, I still get too excited to process and remember what I said. This man helped inspire me (and, I’m certain, hundreds of others) to become a filmmaker and, for as long as I live and wherever my life and career takes me, I’ll never forget him telling me I asked a good question…even if I will probably never remember what it was.
My Score (out of 5): *****