RogerBW's Blog

Schindler's List 11 April 2022

1993 drama, dir. Steven Spielberg, Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley: IMDb / allmovie. As the Jews of Krakow are rounded up into the ghetto, one Nazi businessman sees a way to get rich.

There are things this film does very well, and things it does badly, and one thing it doesn't seem to me to do at all: try to answer why Schindler felt, and was unable to suppress, pangs of conscience at the ill-treatment and later murder of the Jewish population of Poland, when almost all his fellows not only didn't object but actively cheered it on. And I think any attempt to answer that in a film would be a failure: the Hollywood standard approach would be a trite moment, the suffering of one individual getting through when the thousands haven't, and that would undermine anything like actual characterisation. Schindler remains something of an enigma, and that's good.

I do feel that there are two Spielbergs fighting here. One is the serious grown-up filmmaker, who's been known for pleasing the kiddies for the last ten or more years and wants to be taken a bit more seriously. (A string of relative failures can't have helped, even if he was editing future megahit Jurassic Park in the evenings after shooting this during the day.) This is the Spielberg who's rediscovered his Jewishness after Kate Capshaw insisted on converting before they got married in 1991, the Spielberg who'd heard about the story from the book Schindler's Ark ten years earlier but didn't think he was mature enough as a filmmaker yet. That's the Spielberg who's in charge most of the time.

And then the other Spielberg gets through, the one who knows exactly how to play on the kids' emotions, the one for whom subtlety is a dirty word. And for me that's where we get the Girl In Red (the one spot of colour in the black-and-white main narrative), who does indeed come close to being that one individual whose suffering changes Schindler's mind… but it smells of the lamp, it's consciously and distractingly artificial, in a way that for me quite broke any sense of immersion I'd gained from the excellent sequence of the clearing of the ghetto. And that's the Spielberg who insists on putting in Schindler's breakdown in his last scene, the melodramatic moment that undermines the genuine power of his address to the about-to-be-liberated Jewish workers just before.

Yes, it's all a bit great white saviour; on the one hand the Jews were largely powerless, but on the other hand there were Jews who were people-smugglers and Resistance fighters and all sorts of other things and we never see them here. All we do see is them being moved here and moved there like game pieces. Except for Stern – Ben Kingsley back when his name in the credits didn't guarantee a terrible film – who does an excellent job of showing a character for whom this isn't a mere business venture but a chance at life for himself and some of his co-religionists, someone who's worked out the way things are going and isn't doing the usual thing of trying not to think about it.

It's perhaps unfortunate that all the other Jews are shown as basically squabbling businessmen with hearts of gold, and the Nazis are cartoon villains. Where is the guy who was like Schindler, happy to make a profit wherever he could but not wanting to be a bad person, but who didn't grow a conscience, who just gradually went along with more and more horrors until someone strung him up and he didn't even understand why? To make the Nazis we see up close Satanic caricatures is to reassure the audience: I'm not the sort of person who'd pot at the prisoners from my balcony, so whatever I'm doing short of that, I'm not a villain, I am a Good Person. And that's how you make more Nazis.

I have a black and clinkered heart, and I wasn't moved the way I was meant to be; and the film's a victim of its own success in that the basic story is now widely known. But I thought it was still (mostly) very well-made, and well worth watching: it's a three-hour film that I felt no urge to edit.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:11pm on 11 April 2022

    During work on this film John Williams is alleged to have said to Spielberg: "You need a better composer than me for this film". Spielberg's alleged reply: "I know but they're all dead."

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