Academy Award Win: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay
Inducted into the National Film Registry: 2004
When I was 10, 11 years old, I acted in little plays at a local theatre in Portland. One of the instructors there was in the process of making a film—her “directorial debut”—called “The Christmas Menorah”. One weekend she needed some child extras for the shoot. I was discovering my love for movies at that time, so I eagerly volunteered my services and looked forward to seeing a real film shoot in action. So I showed up on the appointed day in an industrial alleyway somewhere in east Portland to a curious sight: a dingy old Bolex on a rusty tripod, pointed at a line of children made up to look like dirty, hungry orphans and a man in a Nazi uniform shepherding them along. Even at my young age, I realized I was on the set of a movie about the Holocaust.
I still remember the scene well. It was one of those melodramatic scenes you’d see in an old Hollywood film like CASABLANCA (1942), with a man in a noir-ish fedora hat picking his Jewish lover out of the marching line and stealing one last silver screen kiss before they were wrenched apart, and she was sent off to some terrible fate at the concentration camp. In other words, it was trivial and clichéd. I ran into the director sometime after the shoot and asked how the movie was going, and she casually replied that she’d “be a famous Hollywood director in five years”. Something about the naïve confidence and air of entitlement in her remarks struck me as false, despite being the wide-eyed little boy I was. Looking back on it now, I realize how calculating and cynical her motives were, and how disgusting it is when aspiring filmmakers exploit such grave subject matter as the Holocaust solely because they think it will grant them instant prestige and respectability (and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t even Jewish). For the record, I don’t think she ever finished the film, and Googling her name doesn’t yield a single result, let alone any sort of Hollywood fame.
I mention this little anecdote because it’s relevant to a larger phenomenon that cropped up sometime around the mid-1990s: the clichéd Holocaust/Oscar Bait melodrama. It’s such a broadly-recognized trope that it’s still used as a comedic shorthand for poking fun at pretentious art films. Just yesterday I read an article previewing this fall’s awards season lineup, which awarded a spectrum of 1-4 Holocaust Orphans to convey how “artsy” it was anticipated to be. Callous, insensitive jokes like this persist because, I believe, it is only human nature to respond to unfathomably inhuman evil and cruelty (like genocide) with humor. Of course, every meme (for lack of a better word) needs a collective inciting event to base itself around, but all of the genre’s clichés and ridicule can’t detract from the heartwrenching power of its source: SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).
SCHINDLER’S LIST is one of the most powerful films ever made, bar none. It is impossible to get through the film without openly weeping. It’s not just a great film, but it’s an important document about one of the worst atrocities ever committed upon humanity. When it was released, it sent shockwaves throughout the industry, stunning fans of director Steven Spielberg with an abrupt dismissal of his signature theatricality and sentimentality in exchange for an unadorned, intimate and heartbreaking verite style of filmmaking. To many who had followed his life and career, it was an overnight paradigm shift.
For Spielberg himself, it was anything but abrupt. SCHINDLER’S LIST had been a long-gestating project that he was courting for a decade, and at some points had even tried to pass on the directing duties to Martin Scorsese and Billy Wilder because he didn’t feel he had reached the maturity required to tackle it. However, the birth of Spielberg’s son began a long reckoning with his Jewish heritage and the anti-Semitism he had encountered in his youth. He channeled these meditations into his most personal film, and the ordeal of making it became an artistic rebirth that rewarded him with the best reception of any of his works, and long-overdue recognition at the Oscars.
SCHINDLER’S LIST is set during World War 2 in Poland, the epicenter of Hitler’s Final Solution that saw millions of Jews relocated in urban ghettoes and subsequently into murderous concentration camps. Oscar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a wealthy playboy industrialist aligned with the Nazi Party. Sensing an opportunity for mass profit with minimal expense, he opens a metal goods factory staffed by Jews contacted into indentured servitude. When the Nazis’ murderous operations begin robbing him of his work force, Schindler fights to get them back, but purely out of capitalistic sentiments. His close relationship with his business partner and well-respected elder member of the Judenrat, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), soon opens his eyes to the horrible atrocities inflicted upon his employees. After witnessing firsthand the extent of the Nazis’ inhumanity, he spends his massive fortune bribing SS Lieutenant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) in exchange for extracting his employees to a sub-camp where he can guarantee their safety. Soon, Schindler and Stern establish a special list, and subsequently, a plan that will spare his workers’ lives and redeem his own shameful association with the Nazi Party.
Neeson paints an atypical vision of a Nazi associate as the sophisticated showman, Schindler. His performance resulted in a significant boosting of his profile, all the more impressive considering how tough it is to make someone sympathize with a Nazi. Despite the odds, he pulls it off with effortless class and grace. On the other end of the spectrum lies Fiennes’ Amon Goeth, a cold-blooded Nazi Lieutenant and the personification of evil. He uses Jews as target practice, sniping them from his villa atop the mountain ringing the concentration camp, and imposes his sexual will on any camper who captures his fancy. Fiennes gives an unforgettable performance, adopting a flabby frame that belies the icy focus and discipline he applies to ideological pursuits. Kingsley disappears into his makeup as Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s confidante and authority figure amongst the Jewish community. His performance is heartbreaking in his depiction of a man who can only watch as his world is swallowed up around him. For the rest of the cast, Spielberg wisely used complete unknowns to fill out the key Schindler Jews, further lending to the film’s overall sense of realism and immediacy.
SCHINDLER’S LIST marks the first time that Spielberg works with Janusz Kaminski as his Director of Photography. This began a long collaboration, in which Kaminski has served as DP for every one of Spielberg’s films since. Visually, Kaminski’s participation also brought out a distinct change in Spielberg’s aesthetic—harder, gritter, more distinctive. They didn’t just ease into things, they jumped headlong into the change by choosing to shoot entirely on black and white film. The change in film format required a drastic change towards a noir-ish lighting style, with Kaminski expertly navigating the grey spaces between his deep, dark shadows and diffused, blooming highlights. Despite being shot primarily on black and white film stock, punches of color dot SCHINDLER’S LIST in key moments, such as the opening and closing ritual sequences and the infamous Girl In The Red Coat scene.
Spielberg’s camerawork, which is usually preoccupied with elaborate camera movements designed to give a grandiose scale, is appropriately reserved to reflect the somber subject matter. His coverage is straightforward, often opting for handheld set-ups that establish a simple, unadorned look that’s at once both journalistic and formal. Simply put, SCHINDLER’S LIST is one of the most visually striking yet stripped-down films to come out of Hollywood in recent memory.
Reinforcing this new aesthetic is editor Michael Kahn, who won an Oscar for his somber construction of Spielberg’s footage. Several distinct moments—the clearing of the Krakow ghetto, the shipping off of the camp’s children while the parents are oblivious—are indicative of the care and thought that went into every splice. At over 3 hours, the film is long. But a film like this needs to be, as every detail needs to be reflected upon, and the full weight of the Nazis’ atrocities need to come to bear for Spielberg’s message to hit home.
Spielberg’s musical maestro John Williams, also returns, winning yet another Oscar from their collaboration together. Like Spielberg, Williams opts for a reserved approach, crafting a simple suite of cues that takes inspiration from traditional Jewish hymnals. His elegiac theme acutely captures the heartache and tragedy of the Holocaust as well as the dignity and courage of the people who endured it. A variety of period music fills out the soundscape, most notably during the glamorous social bashes that Schindler attends.
The somber subject matter of SCHINDLER’S LIST requires an honest, authentic, and serious approach. Spielberg realizes this, and he foregoes his usual box of tricks in favor of a “back to basics” philosophy that prizes simplicity and the immediacy of documentary in telling his story. Despite looking so different from every Spielberg film that came before it, SCHINDLER’S LIST is still inherently a Spielberg film. The World War 2 setting continues the director’s exploration of and fascination with that particular time period. What’s important to note, however, is that the Nazis are no longer the harmless cartoon villains that they were in 1941 (1979) or the INDIANA JONES series. SCHINDLER’S LIST is a true story, and the Nazis are depicted as they were in real life- vicious, cruel, and ingrained by Hitler’s cult of personality that denied Jews any semblance of humanity and allowed them to carelessly execute Jews in the street like they were putting dogs out of their misery.
Instead of channeling the likes of big-budget influences like David Lean or John Ford, Spielberg draws inspiration from farther-flung idols. The unadorned black and white cinematography recalls Roberto Rossellini’s Italian Neorealist works. Several instances of jump cuts suggest the influence of French New Wave vanguard Jean-Luc Godard (who hated SCHINDLER’S LIST, by the way). A match cut from the smoke of a recently-extinguished candle in the present day to the ashy cloud belching from the stacks of a train in 1939 Poland is obviously expressing his admiration for Stanley Kubrick’s own radical use of match cuts. There is no child-like perspective on display here, as this film is very much about the loss and rape of innocence that an indiscriminate genocide such as The Holocaust engenders. Children are present, but all we see through their eyes is fear and confusion. They have no way of comprehending what is being done to them, no explanation their parents could give to pacify them. It’s heartbreaking to watch unfold, especially with the knowledge that all of this actually happened.
Spielberg made SCHINDLER’S LIST with every expectation that it would be a massive flop. And he had every reason to: who would pay to see a black and white film about a depressing subject that was over three hours long? Thankfully, he was wrong. The film was released to surprising box office success and a wave of critical praise that led to Oscar statuettes for Spielberg’s key collaborators (writer Steve Zaillian for Best Adapted Screenplay, Kahn for Editing, Kaminski for Cinematography and Williams for Music), as well as personal wins for Best Picture and the Best Director Oscar that had long eluded him since 1975’s JAWS. His big gamble paid off with some of the highest honors Hollywood could bestow on its own, thereby cementing his status as one of the best American directors working today. It was so good that even his idol, Stanley Kubrick, felt he couldn’t surpass its quality and subsequently abandoned his own long-gestating Holocaust film, THE ARYAN PAPERS. SCHINDLER’S LIST’s legacy has only grown, notching an induction in the National Film Registry in 2004 and creating a tidal wave of goodwill with Shoah Foundation, which Spielberg founded in the wake of the film’s success to record the testimonies of those who lived through this horrible atrocity so that it may never happen again.
Personally speaking, SCHINDLER’S LIST was the most emotionally affecting and exhausting production of his entire career. Several parts of the film are difficult to watch, so I can only imagine what it was like to actually stage it. Rumors abounded that Spielberg would openly and privately weep several times throughout the shoot. The production of the film became a transformative event in his life because for the first time, the public looked upon him as an artist, not just as a director of mainstream, blockbuster studio films. In the same year, he achieved every filmmaker’s dream (secret or not): having the highest-grossing film of all time in JURASSIC PARK and a critically lauded film that swept the Oscars in SCHINDLER’S LIST. He was at the apex of his career– the culmination of decades of hard work, passion, and agony. Since then, his career has seen its up and downs, and he’s even managed to make several films that come close to equaling his efforts on SCHINDLER’S LIST. However, SCHINDLER’S LIST will remain the film that he is forever remembered for, and the one that will secure his place in the pantheon of Great Directors for all of time.
SCHINDLER’S LIST is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Universal.
Produced by: Branko Lustig, Kathleen Kennedy, Gerald R. Molen
Written by: Steven Zaillian
Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski
Production Designer: Allan Starski
Edited by: Michael Kahn
Music by: John Williams