As the Germans are relocating the city’s Jews into a self contained ghetto, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrives in Krakow to make his fortune from war profiteering. Having lavished gifts and charm on the ruling Nazis, Schindler persuades the influential Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to oversee his business of manufacturing mess kits. By hiring Jews, Schindler has a seemingly ever lasting supply of cheap/free labour and gets rich quick but his attitude towards the treatment of the Jews changes when he witnesses the clearing of the ghetto. While before he turned a blind eye, he soon became more interested in the plight of his workers until finally trying to save over a thousand from certain death at great cost and risk to himself.
Undoubtedly one of the most powerful and films of the last twenty years, Schindler’s List has become the foremost film for telling the story of humanities darkest and most irrepressible days. Despite incredibly moving films such as The Pianist and Life is Beautiful, Schindler’s List stands alone at the top as not only a moving and distressing portrayal of humanity at its worst and best but also as a sublime exercise of film making. For me Schindler’s List of one of the rarest of films for which I have no criticism whatsoever. I can’t think of a single shot, line or movement which could be improved.
One of the many things that impress me with the film is that it doesn’t let Schindler’s later worth cloud his early appearances. There is no doubt that he arrived in Krakow with the express intentions of getting rich, no matter the conditions of those who he got rich off. He attempts to get something for nothing in his early dealings, asking Jews to put of funds to buy the business in exchange for pots and pans, items which are nothing to him. He is a man who knows he is a king of his domain and is happy to use the money and expertise of the Jews he encounters to gain success. It isn’t until he witnesses the severely distressing ‘cleansing of the ghetto’ in which 10,000 are killed and many thousands more shipped off to labour or extermination camps that his thoughts and actions begin to shift towards not only self preservation but also the preservation of those who have helped to get him where he is. Here he uses his smarts, charm and money to persuade and bribe fellow Germans to allow him to keep ‘his’ Jews.
Despite the unimaginably harrowing story, seeing past it and viewing the film as an art form, it is simply one of the most beautifully crafted movies I’ve seen. The film has a timeless quality but also feels firmly set in the 1940s. The film also has a documentary feel to it, in part due to the handheld, in your face nature of the camera work and in part due to the cinematography and direction being close up and unashamedly graphic, filled with neo-realism. The documentary feel is also aided by the fact that the film is shot mostly in black and white. The use of light also gives it the feel off the sort of footage you’d see in perhaps early Russian cinema. It feels as though there is almost always a low winter sun, shining on the weathered faces of the prisoners. For a man considered by some as a sort of modern day Cecil B. DeMille, famed for his vast scale epic films, fantastic camera work and wide vistas, Spielberg almost goes back to basics here, managing to be unflashy but at the same time produce incredibly beautiful shots, albeit filled with grim despair and vividly shocking content.
It's impossible to pick out scenes either for their importance or impact as the film contains so many but the shower scene probably made me most nervous and anxious, despite having scene the film a couple of times before. The red coat scene also stands out in the memory but another which is memorable and feels like it goes on forever is the scene in which Goth takes a hinge maker out to be shot but is unable to successfully fire his gun. The time it takes and discussion while the man kneels awaiting his execution is terrifying to watch, let alone imagine it is a scene which could have been removed from real life. The clearing of the ghetto is another sequence that fills me with dread each time I watch it and it only gets worse at night.
The film features literally hundreds of fantastic performances from actors who often only appear on screen for a matter of seconds. The sense of fear and hopelessness in the eyes of the actors is palpable and it’s no surprise that I read that some of the actors broke down in tears during certain scenes. Members of the crew also turned away at times too, unable to look on. The central trio of Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes are also brilliant, each delivering mesmerising but very different performances. Neeson gives a sense of fear for his own safety and wellbeing throughout, realising that he is drawing ever closer to his own demise as he slowly begins to help his workers in a more overt fashion. His strong speeches and playing with the SS are incredible to watch. In Amon Goth, Ralph Fiennes surely brings to life one of the all time screen villains. Unbelievably based on a real man, a thought that makes me shudder, he creates a man so full of evil that I often had a nervous tension in my stomach when he was on screen. The ease with which he picked up his gun and took aim at whoever just happened to appear in his cross-hairs was sickening and all credit must go to Fiennes for going all out to create such a viciously evil character. Both Neeson and Fiennes received well deserved Oscar nominations but personally I feel that Ben Kingsley was overlooked. He brings about a quiet dignity with his performance and manages to play the middle man role well. Something I liked about the performances and script is that although the actors were mostly speaking in English, they spoke in the same way as someone speaking English in a second language would. It wasn't always perfect and sentences were occasionally mixed up in the way that a European speaking English may do. It was only a subtle thing but made a lot of difference for me, someone who isn't usually a fan of English films with accented actors. Spielberg originally wanted to produce the film in German and Polish but felt subtitles would give the audience an excuse to look away from the main body of the screen and thus away from the harsh reality of his scenes.
Schindler’s List is the sort of film which everyone should see at least once. I first saw it at school but my girlfriend only saw it for the first time today. It and others like it help to keep the images and history of what happened in Europe during the war fresh in the minds of people and means it will never be forgotten. It allows young people to gain even the slightest of insight into our worst days and make sure it never happens again. It’s a constant reminder to us all of what we as a species are capable of if gone unchecked and that is a thought that terrifies me. I’m still dumbfounded to comprehend how something as unbelievably shocking as the Holocaust happened, let alone in the lifetimes of people who are still with us. I simply can’t comprehend how it happened or even why and films like Schindler’s List mean it is always there as a reminder. It’s film making and storytelling at its finest despite showing us a glimpse of humanity at its worst.