The more we know about the Holocaust, the more unknowable it seems to become. Like the mythological fruit of Tantalus, always just out of reach, its essence eludes us, too awful to fully comprehend no matter how passionately we seek to know and understand it.
One thing that does become clear, however, is that to approach the Holocaust from a dramatic point of view, detachment and self-control almost to the point of coldness are essential. The most memorable films about the period, from Alain Resnais’ 30-minute “Night and Fog” to Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour-plus “Shoah,” share this reserve with such memoirs as Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz.” Only through the lens of restraint can those days be effectively seen, as Steven Spielberg, of all people, persuasively demonstrates with the quietly devastating “Schindler’s List.”
Of all people, because rather than detachment and restraint it is the broad, toys-are-us strokes of obvious heroes and hissable villains that have characterized much of Spielberg’s output, up to and including this year’s “Jurassic Park.” But the director, with personal and emotional ties to the world of Eastern European Jewry, clearly hungered to do something different here.
Not only is the subject matter different for Spielberg, the way it is treated is a departure both for him and for the business as usual standards of major studio releases. While its 3-hour-and-15-minute length is becoming familiar for prestige items, the decision to shoot it almost entirely in black and white is very much not, and neither is its absence of major stars and even actors born in this country.
And “Schindler’s List,” based on Thomas Keneally’s remarkable retelling of a true story, is itself a different kind of Holocaust narrative. For if the pressure of overwhelming death and even the release of miraculous rescue have become standard fare, the dramatic, contradictory personality of Oskar Schindler has never ceased to baffle and astonish observers from his time to ours.
A gambler, war profiteer and lover of alcohol, a convivial sensualist and womanizer who, in Keneally’s phrase, considered sexual shame “a concept like existentialism, very worthy but hard to grasp,” Schindler the quintessential good German was not the ordinary stuff of heroes. “Though he was Jesus Christ,” someone who knew him said, “a saint he wasn’t. He was all-drinking, all-black-marketeering, all-screwing,” a man whose turn to goodness probably surprised himself most of all. Yet, with a combination of nerve, money, attitude and obstinacy, he personally saved 1,100 Jews from death, and ended up being what Keneally calls probably the only Nazi Party member to be buried in Jerusalem’s Mt. Zion cemetery.
Though this film is preeminently Schindler’s story, we don’t meet him right away. Both Spielberg and thoughtful screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Searching for Bobby Fischer”) are concerned to first set this story in its time and place, to firmly establish the context for what is to come.
Things begin in September, 1939, with Germany’s defeat of Poland in two brief weeks. The country’s Jews are ordered to relocate in the venerable town of Krakow, and the chaos that decree caused is shown through arrival scenes at the train station, with Germans brandishing the first of the all-important lists that reappear throughout the film, lists that can literally separate life from death.
Schindler (Irish actor Liam Neeson) is glimpsed initially as a pair of disembodied hands, quietly laying out alternate coats, ties and cuff links, preparing for his own type of campaign. Off to a cabaret frequented by Krakow’s Nazi elite, he enters it as an unknown, but by the evening’s end, he is the most popular man in the room. Written and filmed with characteristic mastery, this scene illuminates in a few brief minutes the core of Schindler’s gregarious personality and the frankly irresistible effect he had on other people.
One of those men who instinctively know how to profit from the chaos of war, Schindler has come to Krakow to make his fortune. Simply indifferent to who is a Jew and who is not, he decides to take over a formerly Jewish-owned enamelware factory and hires Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to run it with cheap Jewish labor while he himself does the important work of schmoozing and bribing the military men in charge of procurement for the German army.
At first everything about Schindler’s relationship to the Jews is situational; when he rescues Stern from deportation and death, for instance, his reaction is “What if I’d gotten here five minutes later, then where would I be?” But after witnessing the Germans’ brutal liquidation of the ghetto, and the relocation of those that survived in a savage labor camp run by Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), a cold, unblinking sadist, Schindler’s attitude is shown to change, and keeping what he territorially considers “his Jews” alive at all costs becomes the focus of his activities.
The touchstone of “Schindler’s List” is inevitably the way it depicts the incomprehensible brutality that took place under the Nazi heel. The danger here is to overemphasize, to yield to emotion and underline the horrors, a temptation Spielberg, who gave way to it in “The Color Purple,” has managed to resist this time around.
Using real locations whenever possible, collaborating with Polish-born director of photography Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn and making excellent use of black and white, itself a distancing element, Spielberg understands how important it is to show the casualness of the nightmare. This is a world where unimaginable humiliation was the stuff of routine, where people were murdered as an afterthought and everyone who saw it did no more than blink. Working extensively with a hand-held camera and functioning by his own admission almost as a documentarian, Spielberg has had the nerve to simply let those dreadful scenes play, and as a consequence has created as indelible a picture of the Holocaust as fiction film allows.
In doing this Spielberg has been helped greatly by his collaborators, most notably screenwriter Zaillian, who has both pared down and focused Keneally’s text without losing anything essential. And the acting, largely by unfamiliar faces, is always strong and to the point.
Most notable are Kingsley as the self-effacing Stern; British actor Fiennes, who understands how banal great evil can be, and, of course, Neeson. The brio of his performance knits “Schindler’s List” together, and no greater compliment can be paid to it than to say its strength and assurance makes this unbelievable story believable and real.
While it would be nice to say that Spielberg’s nerve held all the way through this film, that would not quite be true. Just as there are overemphatic moments in John Williams’ brooding score, so, too, there are times, especially in Schindler’s closing speech, where the desire to give the audience something to hang onto gets the best of the filmmaker’s more sober judgment.
But Spielberg is after all a popular filmmaker at his core, and it is hard to begrudge him, or his audience, these softer moments. For never before, except for the marvelous first 40 minutes of “Empire of the Sun,” has he come close to this kind of filmmaking. And while “Schindler’s List” will perhaps benefit from the surprise that it was made by the director of “Jaws” and “Indiana Jones,” the truth is that it’s a film any director would be proud to see with his or her name above the title.
Liam Neeson: Oskar Schindler
Ben Kingsley: Itzhak Stern
Ralph Fiennes: Amon Goeth
Caroline Goodall: Emilie Schindler
Jonathan Sagalle: Poldek Pfefferberg
Embeth Davidtz: Helen Hirsch
An Amblin Entertainment production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Steven Spielberg. Producers Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen, Branko Lustig. Executive producer Kathleen Kennedy. Screenplay Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Thomas Keneally. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Editor Michael Kahn. Costumes Anna Biedrzycka-Sheppard. Music John Williams. Production design Allan Starski. Running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes.
MPAA rating: R for “language, some sexuality and actuality violence.” Times guidelines: Strong scenes of cold-blooded slaughter plus examples of dehumanizing treatment inside concentration camps.