This long forgotten feature was set up to jot down thoughts on classic films that I was only just getting around to watching – my blindspot series if you will. And I set it up primarily because I hadn’t seen one film in particular: Schindler’s List.
Well I finally found the time to watch it and needless to say it’s worth all the praise and acclaim that has poured its way in the decade and a bit since its release.
Plot: Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a German businessman who hires Jewish workers in his factories because they cost less. Horrified by the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis, along with his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) he seeks to save the lives of as many of them as possible by employing them, thus making them essential to the German war effort. However, he must do so under the watchful eye of the merciless SS officer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes)
One of the first things that struck me is that even though it was made in 1993, it feels like a much older film. Now that’s not in any way a criticism, but I felt like I was watching a film from the 1950s or 60s. It had a very classic feel to it, almost like a film noir at times, particularly in its use of chiaroscuro lighting.
However, the most overwhelming thing I took from it in terms of how it was shot, was that it looked very much like documentary footage a lot of the time. It was only after I watched the film did I find out this was deliberate on Spielberg’s part. The film was apparently influenced by Shoah, a 1985 French documentary about the Holocaust, and Spielberg stayed away from using techniques such as Steadicam or long shots that would have taken away from this documentary feel. Obviously the splash of colour on the little girl’s dress is an exception to this.
And this is one of the film’s biggest strengths. By making the whole thing look like a documentary, it seems to lend it even more credibility and gives it that little bit more emotional weight. These all seem like real people rather than just being based on them, which makes it all the more disturbing and heartbreaking seeing their struggles. Had Spielberg used more conventional filmmaking methods (ie. non-documentary) then it would probably have given the whole thing a little more gloss and the line between reality and fiction would have grown further apart.
As well as being a stunning film overall, Schindler’s List is littered with memorable scenes that will stick in your memory for a while afterwards and show Spielberg’s sometimes underrated genius as a director.
For example, seeing Nazi soldiers shooting Jewish people is something you’d probably expect to see in a film of this kind. However, here it plays out to classical music (Bach I think), creating a really disturbing counterpoint of what we see and what we hear. It’s not exactly a groundbreaking technique, but a no less effective one.
Another fascinating scene sees Ralph Fiennes’ character taking aim with a rifle from his mansion (which I think resembles the Bates motel in Psycho) and shooting Jewish workers in the concentration camp for no reason whatsoever, although by this point reason doesn’t really come into anything. He sees it as sport, something to pass the time and it’s shocking.
However, I think the most affecting scene for me was listening to all of the concentration camp prisoners talking about what might happen to them. They’ve heard whispers that they won’t actually be sent into the showers to clean themselves but that they’ll be gassed to death. Despite what they’ve heard, virtually all of them simply don’t believe it, purely because they say it wouldn’t make sense to kill them. Knowing what we know now, this is a real gut punch. They’re right, it doesn’t make sense; but none of it make sense. When we see them actually showered later on, it’s a wonderful moment when you think the worst is about to happen.
In terms of performances, it’s a pretty strong showing all round. Both Neeson are Fiennes were nominated for Oscars for their respective roles and it’s easy to see why. They’re both excellent, with Neeson in particular superb. A scene at the end of the film where he bursts into tears because he feels he hasn’t done enough to help people is wonderful yet heartbreaking. I also think that Ben Kingsley deserves a lot of credit as Itzhak Stern, Oskar’s Jewish accountant.
There really is very little to hold against Schindler’s List. Being a little picky, the actual ‘list’ part of the film actually comes very late on, and it doesn’t actually play that much of a part in the film’s plot. It would have been nice to see a little more of what happened during that whole process, whereas it gets glossed over a little. It also would have been nice had the film been in the German language. With Spielberg setting the film up to look like a documentary, it does take something away from it to hear them speaking English, although I do understand that having it in English means it plays to a wider audience and having subtitles would (unfortunately) alienate a chunk of its potential audience.
So I finally watched it, and I can now see why its so revered. As you’d expect, it’s not an easy watch, but it definitely a film that everyone should watch at some point. When it comes to films about World War II and the Holocaust, this is definitely the film against which all others should be measured.