What D’ya Mean You Haven’t Seen… Schindler’s List?

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.

Liam Neeson in Schindler's ListAs 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.

Schindler's ListIn 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.

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48 thoughts on “What D’ya Mean You Haven’t Seen… Schindler’s List?

  1. I agree with everything you’ve said. Its a wonderful film but one I could only watch once. But Its been seared into my memory. I don’t think Neeson gets enough credit for his performance

  2. Totally agreed, this film is excellent. Very emotionally exhausting, but understandably so!

  3. keith7198 says:

    So glad you were finally able to see it. It may be my favorite Spielberg movie. It’s raw and very cinematic at the same time. I don’t get real emotional at the movies, but this one gets me every time. It leaves me sitting in utter silence and the craft behind it is amazing. Great film.

  4. It’s a doozy. Cinematography is perfect. The acting superb. The gripping plot and the historical accuracy leaves one empty and full simultaneously. It’s profoundly moving.
    Nice review, Chris.

  5. I haven’t seen this either Chris, one of those I’ve been meaning to catch but something else always gets in the way. Definitely going to make it a priority now though. Excellent review!

    Adam.

  6. Ah, honestly I’m not surprised you waited this long to watch it. It’s extremely emotionally demanding. I’ve only seen it once, but I remember it incredibly well, especially the subplot where Fiennes’s character is strongly attracted to the Jewish woman. I think Spielberg’s epic directing style is a perfect match for the subject matter.

    • It is very emotionally demanding, you’re right. And that’s a really interesting subplot and one that makes the whole thing even harder to stomach. I don’t know how much of that was true but it worked for the story I felt.

  7. A very considered appreciation of one of Spielberg’s numerous masterpieces, well done. If you choose to do so, try to catch Shoah, a lengthy but essential document on the holocaust.

  8. Great review. Glad you finally got to this one. Definitely a classic and a very impressive, poignant film. The cinematography is just amazing.

  9. dirkmalcolm says:

    Its funny because I saw this when it came out, but have never been able to watch it again. It had such a profound effect on me that I’ve always felt uneasy about seeing again. I thought it was an entertaining film, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be entertained about a subject like the Holocaust.
    I think it was the moment when I realised that Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes’ characters are literally mirrored. It was clever, but seemed inappropriate.

    • Yeah it’s not a film I can envisage watching again in a while. I know what you mean, I wasn’t sure I could say I enjoyed it or not being about such a horrendous subject. Yeah the characters are like ying and yang. I guess that’s where the main tension of the story comes from.

  10. ruth says:

    Yay! Glad you finally saw it Chris, wonderful review my friend, you pointed out all the things I loved about it. Yes the documentary style gave the story such realism and gravitas, and that scene w/ the girl in the red coat, it’s so heart-wrenching. It’s one of the best and most important film ever made, definitely a must-see.

  11. thomasjford says:

    I’ve never seen this either! Sad but true!

  12. le0pard13 says:

    Excellent look at this film, Chris. It’s everything you say it is.

  13. Your review is well-written and I enjoyed reading it as always. But I’m actually going to be the lone voice of dissent here and say that I’m not a fan of this film (nor of Spielberg in general). Sure, it’s beautifully shot and emotionally powerful, as you note. While Spielberg is a master at manipulating audience emotions, however, he is also not a great thinker, which is what I believe a subject of this magnitude requires. The film is very shrewdly designed to flatter viewer prejudices and make us feel like we would have done the same thing as Oskar Schindler had we been in his shoes. I have a problem with this, as it robs the scenario of its inherent complexity. This film is really no different from the Indiana Jones movies in how it presents moral issues in completely black and white terms (which is all Spielberg knows how to do). The scene you cite where Fiennes’s character shoots Jewish workers for no reason is a good example: Fiennes’s character isn’t a character at all but rather a symbol of evil. And while we all know that the Nazi IDEOLOGY was evil, many of the Nazis themselves were not. A lot of them were ordinary men and women with families of their own who were complacently following orders. This is not to excuse their behavior, just to point out that Spielberg’s choice of making his Nazi villain a one-dimensional, irredeemably evil character (Spielberg actually goes out of his way to show that the guy is incapable of forgiveness) is an example of how the true scope of the subject was beyond his intelligence.

    In addition to the many great Holocaust documentaries, I think both Polanski’s THE PIANIST and Verhoeven’s BLACK BOOK are smarter and more complex films about the same subject.

    • No problem with not liking a film, even one like Schindler’s List! I guess it does present the issues as black or white to some extent, but I think it’s the kind of story where there is very little debate as to what right or wrong is. And with Fiennes’ character, he really did shoot people for no reason apparently. I read that he would shoot at least two people a day just for the sake of it, and he was a loyal Nazi right to the end of his life. Obviously not all Nazis were as evil has he was, but you can’t show everyone’s story. And it did show a little more of his character when it showed him attracted to the Jewish woman, which I thought was interesting.

  14. thycriticman says:

    ^ A guy who does not like Spielberg? Dude, Spielberg made Jurassic Park! Case closed! Kidding, to each their own. However onto this film, I have never seen it, but I do plan too one day. I’ve heard so many good things that I really should finally do so eventually!

  15. ckckred says:

    I can understand not seeing it for so long, it’s a grueling watch. Very tough at times to see but pretty rewarding, a lot like 12 Years A Slave. Nice review.

  16. JustMeMike says:

    It took me a while to bring myself to see this film. As I have stated elsewhere – after watching the Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War mini-series on TV in 1983 – I resisted seeing anything else about the Holocaust.

    But see it, I did, and I found it both unforgettable and haunting. So much so, that I’ve not seen it again. Just the one time is enough.

    You did an excellent job with this review. Thanks.

  17. Dan says:

    I’d recommend seeing The Pianist for a more considered, less sentimental approach to the holocaust. Spielberg wasn’t the right director for Schindler’s List despite the film looking glorious in black and white.

  18. sati says:

    Glad you finally got to see it! I disagree with any comments left here about sentimentality, I think the movie is a masterpiece with Fiennes delivering one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen.

  19. table9mutant says:

    Wow – can’t believe you’ve just watched this. I’m glad you finally did. But, yeah…. It’s not one I’ll ever re-watch… Great review. A hard one to review, I’m sure!

  20. ianthecool says:

    Good call on it feeling like an older film, and in a way thats more than just because its black ad white.

  21. Such a great movie, glad you finally saw it. I have actually seen it a bunch of times and each time it does not get easier. Good review, it has been so long since I have read anything on it so it was nice to read.

  22. caragale says:

    Confession: I have never seen this. So you weren’t the only one! Lol. Clearly, I need to give it a watch. Excellent review!

  23. This is one of those movies, if you have not seen it you have missed an ‘event’ A few movies go beyond entertainment and actually touch you, this is one of them.

  24. Tom says:

    Right you are sir, good to see you finally have put yourself through this. It’s a phenomenal film in my books as well, with Liam Neeson really defining himself as a proper thespian here. He needs to do more stuff like this. Taken is good and all, but man. Not compared to performances like this.

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