It was all leading up to this. After cutting his teeth with some finely made genre films, and then gaining experience with the format of serious drama—Steven Spielberg was finely ready to tackle what may be his greatest feat. Schindler’s List covers one of the darkest times in human history. To this day the Holocaust serves as reminder that the man’s most powerful weapon is the ability to remove human decency. The overwhelming destruction reached levels that are simply unimaginable. A fined tuned hand is required when approaching a topic that is so teeming with distress. Spielberg rightfully took his time before he even dared to approach this topic. He was confident enough in his own abilities to remove the stylistic crutches he has so widely dependent upon in the past, which allowed the film to become a more personal tale of this tremendous struggle. Every aspect of the film making was well crafted to the point of perfection. Schindler’s List does as much as possible to do this story the justice it deserves.
The film depicts the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) a successful businessman and member of the Nazi party. Shortly after the German army defeats Poland in World War II he travels to Czechoslovakia in hopes of capitalizing on the cheap Jewish labor force. Through bribes and lavish charm he procures a factory that he will use to make supplies for the German army. The story rightfully shows that Schindler did not set out to be a righteous man who wished to save lives. His greed is what initially drove him to this destination. It was so strong it drove him to ignore the racist protocols that were established by the Nazi party. He had no idea on how to run a factory so he enlists the help of Jewish businessmen to aid him in his quest. Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) becomes his right hand man, and also allows Schindler to gain access to the underground Jewish business community. By this point the Nazi’s have subjugated all the Jews to specific ghettos, and taken away any rights or wealth they once had away from them. Many Jews begin to see Schindler as a savior, because working for his factory helps them to avoid being terminated by the Nazi’s. Schindler has no interest in being anyone’s savior however. He is in it for himself.
When you are dealing with a person as complex and intricate as Oskar Schindler you need an actor who is versatile enough to be up for the task. Spielberg cast such an actor in Liam Neeson. When this film was released Neeson was not quite the well-respected actor he is today. His performance here is a big reason why his star rose so highly. Spielberg asks a lot of him, and he answers that challenge with an awe-inspiring performance. He has a stoic presence that rises above all others. Even when he is in a room with high ranking Nazi Officers he still feels like the one in charge. There is flamboyancy in his early persona that transforms into a somber attitude of helplessness. That helplessness as well converts into an aching desire to end this unfathomable suffering. Schindler is not necessarily a great man. He is a man that did a great act.
Schindler’s opinion of the situation widely shifts when he sees firsthand the horrific levels the Nazi party is willing to go. The shift begins when he witnesses the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. Ammon Goth (Ralph Fiennes) arrives to help transport the residents of the Krakow ghetto into a labor camp. This liquidation is brutal and massive. Executions happen routinely for seemingly no reason whatsoever. The streets run thick with blood and death. When making a film that depicts such tragedy there is a grand scale of inherit difficulties. Spielberg conveyed such tragedy in a way that was both realistic and respectful. Shooting everything, except the film’s bookends, in black and white provided an authenticity to the events on screen. Nearly half of the film was also shot with handheld cameras. That technique aided in giving it a documentary esc quality. You forget at times the actions taking place on screen are actually reenactments, and then become profoundly disturbed when you remind yourself all of this actually happened.
There is more to this story than catastrophes on display. It is a testament to the human spirit’s wiliness to survive. Besides the acts of Schindler there are countless acts of people unwilling to yield their lives so easily. They squeeze themselves in every hidden nook and cranny possible to hide themselves from the Gestapo forces. Even when they are entrapped within labor prisons children will do everything possible to circumvent the Nazi’s plans to separate them from their families—going as far as hiding in the bottom of latrines to evade detection. Their unfathomable struggle provides additional sadness when we witness the ultimate demise of many of these tortured souls. Images like a burning mountain of countless bodies will haunt you long after the film is over.
After the liquidation Schindler realizes just how foolish he has been, and begins to rectify his previous shellfish choices. He establishes a relationship with Ammon Goth hoping it could help lead him to saving the lives of these helpless people. The film is full of profound performances, like Ben Kingsley as the reserved Itzhak Stern, that show the power of truly strong acting. Ralph Fiennes plays Ammon Goth with a sense of frenzied vindictiveness. He is numb to nearly any form of human suffering. At times he will shoot members of the concentration camp while sitting atop his balcony just for the fun of it. In a way he is like a spoiled child that is unable to grasp the concept of reality. Fiennes is frightening with the lengths he is willing to go. Then there are times when he acts like a normal decent human being. That juxtaposition causes you realize how shutoff these people’s consciousness must have been to be so willing to go through with these atrocious actions.
Schindler’s friendship and bribery of Goth pays off as he allowed to build a sub-camp for his workers to help protect them from the overzealous Nazi guards. When Hitler begins his ‘Final Solution’ Schindler relays on this friendship and bribes to develop a list of workers that he can save from the Auschwitz gas chambers. The story serves as evidence that even when we are at our outright worst you can still find moments of righteousness. That basic concept could have some Spielberg doubters worried he would exceedingly simplify this complex situation. Spielberg proves his doubters wrong by showing he has grown up as a director. There is no over sentimentalizing or sugarcoating the events. He lingers on the inhumanity to properly deliver this historical account on all fronts. With some of the finest filmmaking behind him, Spielberg fashions a true artistic triumph of cinema. Everything from the remarkable cinematography, to the top notch acting, to John Williams’s stunning score makes Schindler’s List a superb accomplishment. Williams may have scores that some consider better, but none are more important. It is a delicate situation to compose a score that corresponds with this film. Similar to Spielberg, Williams removes much of his trademark grandiose style to design a minimalist score that subdued with its simplicity. The use of a lone violin or single piano was all that was needed to express the necessary emotions.
Steven Spielberg is undoubtedly one of the finest, if not the finest, directors of our generation. People have their favorites when it comes to his filmography. Some may appreciate the spectacle that is Raiders of the Lost Ark, while others enjoy the wonderment of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. When it comes to determine what his best film is the list shrinks rapidly. Schindler’s List is unquestionably near the top of that list. The importance of the story being told along with the skillful filmmaking is a big part of why it is such a standout among many other outstanding films. Schindler’s List is Spielberg’s crowning achievement—it is his masterpiece.