Commentary: Why ‘Schindler’s List’ remains brilliant and troubling 25 years after its release
“Schindler’s List” won seven Academy Awards, including best picture and director, and turned Steven Spielberg from a popular filmmaker (whose “Jurassic Park” was released the same year) into a more serious one. But it remains a quintessential problem movie, one that raised questions about genocide, historical memory and cinematic representation that remain, to this day, unresolved.
Twenty-five years after its initial release, Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” returns to theaters this week with digitally remastered picture and sound.
An epic-length adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s historical novel, the Universal film arrived in 1993 as not just a worthy cause, but a historical phenomenon. Released just a few months after the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, it was poised to address a serious gap in historical representation. It was both a critical success and a popular one; made on a $22 million budget, it grossed $321.2 million worldwide.
“I think ‘Schindler’s List’ will wind up being so much more important than a movie,” said Walt Disney Studios then-chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg at the time. “I don’t want to burden the movie too much, but I think it will bring peace on earth, good will to men. Enough of the right people will see it that it will actually set the course of human affairs.”
We are clearly not living in a world defined by Spielberg’s humanism, but the film remains a kind of litmus test for Hollywood moviemaking, asking whether it’s morally defensible to dramatize unspeakable horror and trauma via the language of mass entertainment.
The most obvious and durable critique of “Schindler’s List” is that the highest-profile Holocaust movie ever made (one designed to be used as an educational tool) is focused on a statistical anomaly – the Nazi who has a change of heart. Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, is a war profiteer and bon vivant who initially sees Jews as cheap labor for his enamelware factory, but eventually, for reasons that remain somewhat opaque, decides to offer them a safe haven from certain death.
It’s a drama that invokes the Great Man theory of history, in which grand elements of fate become a matter of individual choice. It tells the story of the 6 million murdered by focusing on the 1,200 whom Schindler saved and, more precisely, on the savior himself.
As journalist Philip Gourevitch wrote in a pointed dissent in 1993,"The mindless critical hyperbole which has greeted ‘Schindler’s List’ suggests that powerful spectacle continues to be more beguiling than human and historical authenticity -- and that the psychology of the Nazis is a bigger draw than the civilization of the people they murdered.”
Far from a somber, forbidding museum piece, “Schindler’s List” uses all the tricks of Spielberg’s trade. It is perhaps inappropriately beautiful; Janusz Kaminski’s Oscar-winning black-and-white cinematography alternates between wide-angle, deep-focus mise en scene and hand-held documentary-style realism, and he often lights Neeson like he was Humphrey Bogart. Despite its subject matter, the movie is never afraid of its own movie-ness. As a drama, the film is manipulative, but every scene contains something indelible.
It’s certainly a defensible approach, as film scholar Annette Insdorf said when it was released. “Oskar Schindler himself was a larger-than-life figure, who did indeed save over 1,100 Jews,” Insdorf said. “How? By manipulation. By a showmanship (not unlike Spielberg’s) that knows -- and plays -- its audience, but in the service of a deeper cause.”
According to Emory University Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, whose legal battle against a Holocaust denier was dramatized in the film “Denial,” Spielberg’s film was not made for those who had a strong sense of historical memory. “We were not the audience,” Lipstadt said in a recent interview. “It was the general public.”
She continues: “Is it the best depiction of the Holocaust in film? I don’t know. But did it reach a tremendous number of people who would otherwise not have been reached? Did it bring the story to countless people who no other filmmaker would have been able to reach? There is no question. So in terms of its impact, it certainly deserves its iconic status.”
Spielberg declined an interview for this piece, but at a recent 25th anniversary screening of the film, he said: “I have never felt, since ‘Schindler’s List,’ the kind of pride and satisfaction and sense of real, meaningful accomplishment. I haven’t felt that in any film post-‘Schindler’s List.’”
For the critic J. Hoberman, “Schindler’s List” has always been a problematic film. “He made a feel-good movie about the ultimate feel-bad experience,” he said. In 1994, in response to the film’s seemingly universal acclaim, Hoberman convened a symposium in the Village Voice for skeptical critics, academics and artists to wrestle with their complicated responses.
I have never felt, since ‘Schindler’s List,’ the kind of pride and satisfaction and sense of real, meaningful accomplishment.
For example, the experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs argued that the movie, which largely focuses on Schindler’s relationships with his introverted Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) and the brutal Nazi commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), is all “about styles of manhood and how one deals with one’s lessers. Jews function as background and pawns of this dramatic contest.”
Hoberman, like many others, considers Claude Lanzmann’s 10-hour documentary, “Shoah,” to be the most cinematically and morally rigorous film ever made on the Holocaust. A series of direct interviews with witnesses — which include perpetrators and survivors of the death camps — Lanzmann’s film, shot in color, makes no attempt to re-create the past. Instead, the film is structured around a series of absences, forcing the viewer to imagine the horrors oneself.
“It’s devastating,” Hoberman says. “Because of Lanzmann’s strategy, where you have to imagine this yourself, you live it in a way you don’t when you’re watching it transformed into narratives, with characters and resolution. I suppose it’s utopian to imagine that people would learn from ‘Shoah’ rather than ‘Schindler’s List,’ but … I thought it was really unfortunate.”
Though I too find “Shoah” to be a monumental and essential experience, I am ultimately grateful for the existence of Spielberg’s film. “Schindler’s List” may not have brought peace on earth, but the phenomenon of the film helped ensure the Holocaust would remain a matter of public consciousness and provided a boon to historians. After the film, Spielberg established the USC Shoah Foundation, which has collected the testimonies of more than 55,000 Holocaust survivors.
As a movie made by a celebrated Jewish artist, it gave other filmmakers permission to treat the Holocaust as a subject of legitimate cinematic inquiry. Films as stylistically varied as Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” and László Nemes’ “Son of Saul” all owe Spielberg a debt.
There are moments when I wish Spielberg had been gutsier, more willing to alienate his audience and gesture toward what is unrepresentable — and unspeakable. Late in the film, at the end of his climactic speech on the factory floor, Schindler asks for three minutes of silence to honor the memory of the countless victims. But Spielberg allows the silence to play out for less than 10 seconds before a rabbi begins intoning the kaddish.
Still, Lipstadt suggests, it is perhaps the only possible mass-market movie about the Holocaust. “Does it compare to a Lanzmann film? Of course not. Spielberg’s objective was to make a film that would reach millions, and he succeeded — without unduly cheapening the story.”
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