The Best Picture Project — Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's List movie.jpg

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Screenplan by Steve Zailian, based upon the novel by Thomas Kennealy

Starring Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes

I’ll say it: Schindler’s List might be the most important film ever to win Best Picture.  It represents a true cinematic achievement and, even if it was not revolutionary in the sense that Jaws was revolutionary, it full demonstrates how you can take a deadly subject matter and, by using all the tricks of the trade, can produce an important film about a tough subject without making it fee didactic.

That all being said – this is not a film you sit down to enjoy.  There truly is no enjoyment here.   It’s a tough film on a tough topic and there’s no enjoying that.  That being said, it’s not punishing either, nor is it a chore to watch.  Rather, it’s emotionally cathartic and the sort of thing you’ll put on only when you want to have your guts ripped open.

Sounds Great, Tell Me More – Like, What’s It About?

Schindler’s List is the story of an WWII era industrialist (Schindler) who has his eyes opened to the truth of the horrors around him.  Or, more succinctly, it’s the movie where the Nazi saved some Jews.

What’s Good About It?

Most everything, actually.

Start with the look – shot by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the film features stark, high-contrast cinematography, that are at the same time gorgeous, but also is an important subliminal message of the film.  That the stark black and white represents the reality that there is no gray-area on the topic of the Holocaust.  In aid of this, it’s mostly handheld, but not nauseating handheld that sometimes happens.  Rather, it’s visceral handheld, the one that gives a film immediacy, and more importantly, an air of unpredictability which only heightens the horror.  On the whole the cinematography is next-level and clearly presages Kaminski’s work on Saving Private Ryan.

There’s also the score, which is simply haunting.  It is objectively haunting.  Subjectively, it’s friggin’ amazing when you realize this score came from John Williams, king of the obvious, bombastic and not-subtle-at-all scores for Spielberg and George Lucas.  For a long time before Schindler’s List, and a long time after, it seemed like the big scores were all he could do, to the extent they seem to bleed into one another.[1]  It’s amazing to realize, then, that Schindler’s List is one of his and that it can be tender, understated, complimentary and, yes, haunting.

Of course, the performances really anchor the thing and there are three powerhouse performances at play here.

Ben Kingsley is lovely and subtle in his role, and really does yeoman’s work, all without the benefit of raising his voice.  When he does, though, you can sense the danger he feels in such a way that it’s almost as if his reality in the film becomes your own.  Hard to believe this was the same guy who won an Oscar for Gandhi, and was also nominated as Don in Sexy Beast.

Satisfaction film.jpgNeeson’s performance is deservedly star-making.  At the time he’d been in several movies, none of which really broke out for him – he was in Excalibur, the terrible Justine Bateman movie Satisfaction, did what he could in a terrible Dirty Harry movie, The Deal Pool,[2] and somehow snagged the lead for Sam Raimi’s Darkman.  Certainly, he was a known actor, but Schindler’s List moved him into a different category altogether.  The nervy and calm sense of bravado he brought to the part justifiably signaled he was ready to take the next step.  Sure, he might never have become a guaranteed box office draw on his own the way others were, and never reached such critical heights again, but he also never embarrassed himself in any film.  He always brought dignity and grace to everything he did.  So, if you needed a man who could be both suave and intense, yet also down -to-earth, to anchor your film, you could do a whole lot worse than Neeson.

Of them all, though, Ralph Fiennes is the true revelation.  Having been a virtual unknown prior to taking the part, he took latched on and ran with it.  Other’s might have played the monster as a monster, but he managed to find a shred of humanity in the part of the sadistic Nazi.  And let’s be honest, the man he plays is a monster, terrorizing the prisoners under his watch, including his Jewish maid.  But when he terrorizes her we see it’s not necessarily for sadistic reasons, but owing to his own internal conflict over being intensely attracted to a woman he despises.  It’s in those moments, when he shows that conflict with himself, or when he gives random mercy, that we can see the human lurking within.  No, it doesn’t draw our sympathy, but we can at least see humanity.

Who Are We Joking?

There’s no doubt that everything above is true – the disparate elements of this film are all collected together and focused in pitch-perfect ways, such that one compliments the others.  There truly is no part that falls down on the job, or seems lesser than the others.  That being said, you can praise all the rest but the real hero of the film is Steven Spielberg, who with Schindler’s List finally reached a level of maturity, and filmmaking purity, he’d only hinted at before.

From beginning frames of the movie he makes it a policy of never pulling punches, never looking away from the humiliations and violence.  He shows the spilled blood.  He shows the momentary confusion that follows the falling ashes – snow or crematoriums?  He only uses visual flourishes to highlight the horror, specifically to show the red coat of the little girl running through the ghetto, to return later when she’s but a corpse.

Of course, it’s because of Spielberg that this film, which easily could have been insufferable agitprop, turned instead into something elegantly cinematic.  He controls the visuals, he controls the pacing, and instead of making something that felt like medicine, he made it engaging.

Two scenes come to mind from the movie to show Spielberg’s mastery behind the camera:

  • The liquidation of the ghetto, when the Jews are being rounded up and relocated, and here and there a few escape to hide. It’s lengthy and nauseating – emotionally nauseating – and gives us no out from the horrors.
  • A sequence in a work camp, where the Nazis begin the process of separating the sick and weak from the healthy, for loading the sick and weak on trains for removal elsewhere – probably to death. In service of this, men and women alike are forced to strip from their clothes and run in circles, simply to prove their health.  On that level, it’s revolting; what makes it genius-level direction occurs at the end when we realize the truth: the running and activity was not only useful to prove health, it was useful as a subterfuge.  The adults distracted from the fact their children were rounded up onto trucks and hauled away.  A lesser filmmaker makes the scene clunky and obvious.  Spielberg makes it chilling.

Perhaps the greatest achievement for Spielberg is he shrugs off his usual tendency to load up the sentiment – in most of his other films sentiment seeps in every time you turn around and really leaves a bit of a bad aftertaste.  It’s the sentimentality in Saving Private Ryan that keeps it from being a great film, rather than a really good one.  Here, though, he holds it out and all for the better – Schindler’s List doesn’t need the sentiment to make an impact.

What A Year

In the previous entry of this series, The Godfather Part II, I talked about the 70s being the decade of Coppola, perhaps one of the greatest decades a filmmaker has ever known.  Well, Spielberg might not have owned the 90s – because Spielberg is productive, he has a tendency to make a lot of stinkers – but he did own 1993.  In addition to winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for Schindler’s List, which won 7 Oscars from 12 nominations, his other film that year was Jurassic Park, which was the #1 box office draw in America and around the globe, and won three Oscars of it’s own.

Not too shabby.

See Also—

See the rest of The Best Picture Project here.

See the companion series, the Also Rans Project, here.

Also, be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.


[1] For instance, I love the score to Jurassic Park, but if we’re honest, it’s not as dissimilar to the score for Raiders of the Lost Ark as you might think.

[2] Also in The Dead Pool?  Jim Carrey.

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