There are some films that bypass critical carping and can lay claim to being perhaps the greatest ever made. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) is one such work, and it is my privilege to talk to you about it.
The legend began back in 1982, when Australian author Thomas Keneally finally succeeded in publishing his account of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who managed to save some 1,100 Jews from the death camps in The Holocaust, or Shoah, as the Jewish race refers to mankind’s darkest hour.
Keneally’s novel was titled Schindler’s Ark – it won the Booker prize, and quickly attracted the attention of one Steven Spielberg, whose latest release at that time was E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), which held the honour of being the most successful movie ever made, until the re-release of Star Wars (1977) and then Titanic, both in 1997, took Spielberg’s crown away from him, finally.
But they will never take Spielberg’s Schindler’s List away. Those who have followed the work of this amazing director all their lives, as I have, will doubtless cite the films that they believe encapsulate his magic best. For some, it may still be his major ‘breakout’ movie, Jaws (1975). For others, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or, maybe, E.T.
For me, however, despite its jet-black, somber and utterly unforgiving tone, Schindler’s List is and forever will be Spielberg’s finest hour.
From the very opening frames, when the swirling smoke from a Jewish family’s candle burning out becomes the puffing steam of a train, laden with Polish Jews being ‘relocated’ to Krakow in late 1939, and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński’s marvellous monochrome/Technicolour photography first holds you rapt, you just know that you are in a master’s hands.
In my earlier review of Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008), I asked what I felt and still feel to be a reasonable question – when it comes to the Holocaust, what right do we have as mere historical observers to watch the hell that was beyond words? Even Picturenose’s Colin, a man steeped in cinema appreciation, refuses to watch this – reality bites, that’s for sure, butSchindler’s List is nothing less than a film of record, for all times, with a musical score from long-time Spielberg collaborator John Williams that gives new meaning to profound.
Steven Zaillan’s screenplay expertly derives the very best from Keneally’s original – the story tells of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a successful businessman, who arrives from Czechoslovakia in Krakow in 1939, in the hope of using the abundant cheap Jewish labour force to manufacture goods for the German military. The Jews themselves receive nothing for their work – the nominal wages, such as they are, are paid directly to the Reich. Schindler, an opportunistic member of the Nazi party, chooses to hire Jews as opposed to Poles (they cost far less) and lavishes bribes upon the army and SS officials in charge of procurement. He gains a contact in wily Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Sir Ben Kingsley), a functionary in the local Judenrat (Jewish Council) who has contacts with the underground Jewish business community in the Ghetto (Jews are no longer allowed to run businesses). They loan Schindler the money to acquire a factory for the production of army mess kits in return for a small share of the products (for the Jews to trade on the black market). Enjoying his new-found wealth and status as Herr Direktor, while Stern handles all the administration, Schindler slowly realizes that Stern is forging documents to ensure that as many people as possible are hired to work in his factory, which saves them from the certain death of the concentration camps. Initially aloof, Schindler’s growing realization of the horrors being perpetrated by the Nazis, led locally by Hauptsturmführer Amon Göth (an amazing study in sexual evil from Ralph Fiennes) turns him, slowly but surely, from egotistical entrepreneur to righteous Jewish saviour…
The film finally won Spielberg his first Best Film and Best Director Oscars in 1994, but there was still an appalling misjudgement by the academy, which saw fit to award Tom Hanks Best Actor for his hugely overrated ‘Hey, gays are people too!’ turn in Philadelphia (1993), ahead of Liam Neeson and, even worse, Tommy Lee Jones stole the Best Supporting Actor gong from Fiennes for his ‘superb’ work in The Fugitive (1993). Jeez, Louise.
Never mind – it’s obvious which performances people will still be talking about as long as shadows flicker on the wall. The superb leads are given amazing support from the ensemble cast – particular standouts are Embeth Davidtz as Göth’s petrified ‘house-maid’ Helen Hirsch, who is not only beaten on a regular basis and lives in fear of death at every turn, but must also cope with the Hauptsturmführer’s drunken, amorous advances, and Jonathan Sagalle as the Jew with all the contacts, Poldek Pfefferberg.
There’s not much more to say, really – Spielberg has long been recognized as a director who brings a sense of awe to his films, and Schindler’s List is no exception. You will not believe what you see here, but you will know it to be the truth. If you are about to see the film for the first time, I envy you.
195 mins. In English and German.