I first saw Schindler’s List in the theater a few months into its initial run and just days before its sweep at the Oscars. When it was over, I witnessed something I’d not seen much in years of movie going. As the credits rolled and the lights came up, the audience filed out in an almost reverent silence, like mourners leaving a state funeral. Clearly, the film had the same impact on everyone else in the theater that it had on me.
Schindler’s List begins in 1939 as Nazi Germany solidifies its hold on conquered Poland. Failed businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) has a simple plan to make his fortune. He will exploit the insatiable needs of the German Army in wartime and employ less expensive Jewish workers from the Krakow ghetto. He hires one of them, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), to run the business while he acts as front man.
As the war progresses, the situation of the Jews in Krakow grows even more dire, until the ghetto is “liquidated” and the residents herded into a concentration camp run by Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes), a petulant sociopath who now has a government-endorsed license to kill.
Slowly, prodded by Stern, Schindler begins to protect his workers from Göth and the Nazis. When it is learned, late in the war, that Göth’s camp will be emptied and the inmates sent to Auschwitz, Schindler uses the fortune he has amassed during the war to bribe Göth to let him take as many of the Jews as he can to a factory in his hometown in Czechoslovakia. Schindler directs Stern to type up a list of the approximately 1,100 people who will be taken out of the camp and, it is hoped, saved.
With Spielberg-esque stylistic flourishes at a deliberate minimum, there are still some very effective motifs. In at least three sequences, at the beginning as Jews are herded into the ghetto, when Schindler and Stern make the list and finally when those on the list report to leave for Czechoslovakia, there is a theme of the recitation of names. These scenes are also echoed in opening and closing shots of Jewish grave markers used as paving stones. The names serve two very important purposes. They establish the identity of the victims of the Holocaust as individuals. 6,000,000 is a number, but a person has a name. This motif also clearly defines the trait that binds these individuals to a common fate, their Jewishness.
Another aspect of the film that intrigues me is the triangular relationship between the three central characters: Schindler, Stern, and Göth. Each one seeks some form of approval from another member of the trio. Göth sees Schindler as possessing the worldliness and sophistication that he aspires to. Schindler sees Stern’s basic humanity and seeks confirmation that he, too, is a good person. Stern requires Göth’s approval simply because the commandant’s disapproval is a death sentence.
Seeing Schindler’s List on the small screen doesn’t quite have the same impact, but it still packs an emotional wallop. Spielberg’s atypically restrained directing style and Janusz Kaminski’s stark cinematography only serves to enhance the simple power that the images carry. Case in point is the scene when Schindler returns to Czechoslovakia with the women he has just rescued after they were mistakenly transported to Auschwitz. They simply walk through the gate as the men look on. The audience knows, along with the men, where these women have been and what that usually meant. The fact that Schindler returned from there with all of the women is a powerful visual representation of exactly what this man meant to these people.
The strength of this film, as many have noted, is that it is not explicit about Schindler’s motives for acting as he did. At the beginning, he is clearly interested in two things: money and social status. By the end, he is sheltering the “Schindler Jews” from Göth’s capricious persecution and sabotaging his own munitions factory. Was it out of compassion for those who worked for him once he started seeing them as people instead of just cheap labor? Was it simple outrage at the Nazi atrocities? Could it have been an ego that got off on putting one over on the whole Nazi death machine? The movie does not answer this question and the strength of Oskar Schindler as a character is in this enigma.
Some have seen fit to criticize the scene where Schindler bemoans the fact that he could not rescue more people, on the basis that the scene never happened as presented. But if Schindler ever expressed any such regrets in his later life, it’s certainly a permissible dramatic device to move that event to the point in the film where it would have the most impact. General George S. Patton probably never delivered the famous opening speech of the movie Patton in full dress uniform standing in front of a giant American flag, but I don’t hear people bitching about the inaccuracy of that scene. Film is still a dramatic medium and sometimes historical truths can be faithfully dramatized even when you take a few liberties with the names and dates.