Back in Theaters, ‘Schindler’s List’ Turns 25

Named on the 1995 Vatican film list in the category of ‘Values,’ Steven Spielberg’s somber, controversial masterpiece has only grown in power and relevance.

(photo: Universal Pictures)

From the armbands to the ghettos, from forced labor to extermination camps and beyond, Schindler’s List covers the successive historical stages of the Final Solution more comprehensively than any other popular film had at the time, or has since. That, in part, is its great achievement — and, for many of its critics, its enduring stigma.

The Holocaust is too immense and inconceivable for any motion picture, or any artistic work, to fully capture or express. For all that Steven Spielberg’s most ambitious and arguably most acclaimed film does right and wrong, the one thing for which some can’t forgive it is being a movie, and a popular one.

“The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed,” Stanley Kubrick reportedly remarked; “Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.” While this observation isn’t explicitly a critique, it encapsulates the rap against the film. What’s more, the film tells its story, not from the perspective of the Jewish victims, but from that of a German and a Nazi party member — from the perspective of a member of the oppressor population.

Adapted by screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Moneyball) from Thomas Keneally’s historical novel, Schindler’s List is structured around the redemption of Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler: a conflicted Nazi entrepreneur, philanderer, war profiteer and exploiter of Jewish slave labor who nevertheless risks his life and spends a fortune sheltering Jews as protected workers at his factories. The story thus places Schindler and his Schindlerjuden in the foreground, with the horror of the Holocaust in the background.

In this film, though, the background is as important as the foreground, or more so.

Schindler’s redemptive story arc follows a familiar Hollywood template, and the exceptional survival story of Schindler’s Jews offers a perspective on the inhumanity of the Nazi evil beyond impotent despair. Yet Schindler himself remains an enigma; for all the charisma and complications with which Neeson invests him, the film’s interest in its protagonist is tied up with the episodic sequences depicting the larger historical circumstances to which he reacts: sequences in which the dominant German point of view yields to a Jewish one.

Spielberg stylistically differentiates the German and Jewish perspectives, using a classical, noir-like approach for the framing German point of view, but shifting in key sequences depicting the trauma of the Jewish populace to a more documentary-like or neorealist style, with shaky, handheld camerawork.

Another obvious mark of Jewish perspective in some sequences, such as the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto, is the strategic use of untranslated German by Nazi soldiers, whereas in other scenes all dialogue is rendered in German-accented English. (Notably, the speech of Jewish characters, even when German is used for the Nazis, is always in English, except for the ritual use of Hebrew.)

Occasionally the two perspectives run together, notably in the iconic sequence with the girl in the red coat who stands out to Schindler during the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto. Schindler’s shock at this encounter with the Jewish experience is conveyed by the unexpected juxtaposition of styles, suggesting the awakening of empathy, a decisive turning point in his moral conversion.

The stylistic variations recall Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, a pioneering work of early Italian neorealism with elements of traditional studio melodrama. Coming nearly half a century later, Spielberg’s film isn’t stylistically groundbreaking like Rossellini’s film, but topically and formally there was no precedent for what Spielberg attempted in Schindler’s List. Some critics cite Roman Polanski’s later The Pianist, with its ferocious objectivity, as a superior evocation of the Holocaust. Perhaps, but I find it difficult to imagine The Pianist without Schindler’s List. (Polanski, a Holocaust survivor who passed on a chance to direct Schindler’s List, credited Spielberg with a greater objectivity than he could have achieved at the time.)

In early background Jewish scenes, we see Polish Jews in Krakow, some middle-class or even wealthy, dealing with the early indignities of compulsory Jewish badges and economic restrictions, protesting SS seizure of their homes at the local Judenrat (a Jewish administrative council formed by the Nazis to facilitate community control). In these scenes Spielberg establishes a benchmark for Jewish social normality before the ghettos or the camps, highlighting the collapsing expectations of people like ourselves, people so appalled at how bad things have already gotten that they simply can’t imagine how it could get any worse, until it does.

Indelible images of mounting horror, often more evocative than explicit, run through the film. Piles of shoes, menorahs, Seder plates and other sorted personal effects (harvested from carefully labeled luggage whose owners, bundled onto boxcars, don’t yet know they’ll never see their things again) are as chilling as the piles of bodies we see much later. A ghastly gesture from a child (repeated in slow motion, emphasizing the impression in the memory of a woman in a passing boxcar) is as nihilistic as a bullet shattering a skull. Grave markers, looted from Jewish cemeteries and used as paving stones for the road at the Plaszow labor camp, are an elegiac symbol of brutal disregard for the humanity of the Jews in life and in death, and of all the vanished European Jews for whom no marker was raised.

Spielberg varies between Production Code-style restraint (off-screen or implied killings, such as a flash of machine-gun fire at the top of a flight of stairs during the liquidation of the ghetto) and explicit R-rated violence, enhancing the nihilism and horror of the latter. His most delicate restraint is in connection with the most horrifying and obscene of realities: the crematoriums at Auschwitz, evoked only by the silent, snow-like shower of ashes falling in the streets. More controversially, the specter of the gas chambers is summoned in a shower sequence — condemned by some for Hollywood theatricality, despite its historical basis in survivor accounts.

Criticism has also focused on the SS officer played by Ralph Fiennes, Amon Göth, a sociopathic killer whose random terrorism and sometimes schizophrenic dialogue, though apparently not without historical basis, are hardly representative of the institutional, cultural and political evil of the Nazi machine. Was this archetypal Holocaust movie best served by making its chief villain insane?

It’s a fair question. It could be argued that, while Göth wasn’t typical, it does say something about the Nazi machine that such a man was permitted to hold court at the Plaszow camp, shooting prisoners for fun and committing other atrocities. While the full horror of the Holocaust is inseparable from the incomprehensible reality that such monstrous evil was largely carried out by sane human beings doing their jobs (and we do see some of those), Göth’s madness can be seen as a metaphor for the senselessness of evil, especially on so incomprehensible a scale.

While the real Oskar Schindler undoubtedly acted heroically, at personal risk and sacrifice, to save the Schindlerjuden, he was certainly a deeply flawed, even repellent man — more so than the film suggests, and perhaps less thoroughly redeemed. (The film depicts Schindler, as part of his moral renewal, giving up his womanizing and returning to his wife, but this may not have been the case.) Even the story of “the list” itself may be as much a product of Schindler’s own self-promotional genius as a convenient shorthand for what was almost certainly (as they always are) a more complicated story.

Even so, for all its Hollywood flourishes, the film honors the moral center of Schindler’s story. It’s astonishing how bold the film is in making its protagonist truly odious in the first half — how callously exploitative he is to the Jews he works with and profits from, among other things.

What accounts for Schindler’s moral awakening, as the film tells it? A few deftly sketched incidents suggest key turning points. One involves the murder of the elderly, one-armed machinist whose gratitude Schindler initially finds irritating. It is Schindler’s Jewish accountant, Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern, who is responsible for this man’s position — but when the man is killed due to a misunderstanding about his productivity, Schindler takes it personally, and an embarrassment unexpectedly becomes a grievous wound. This sequence is just one of the ways in which Stern, ostensibly a passive character, is subtly involved in his employer’s moral awakening.

Beyond the plot points, Schindler’s moral awakening challenges the viewer: What would you or I have done under such circumstances? More pointedly, to what injustices in our world or our society do we turn a blind eye? What new lows do we imagine couldn’t get any worse, until they do? How far are we willing to go along and get along, and what are we willing to risk or sacrifice to challenge an intolerable status quo?

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.

Caveat Spectator: Graphic depiction of murderous violence and crimes against humanity; brief sexuality and partial nudity; nonsexual nudity; some harsh language.