Schindler’s List in RETROSPECT

Af­ter 25 years and a fresh look, the Steven Spiel­berg film is his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant but not flaw­less

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - Style - PHILIP MARTIN

Re­watch­ing pays div­i­dends for some movies and some watch­ers, but there are films you might be bet­ter off see­ing once. I’m not sure movies need to be built to with­stand re­peated view­ing but that’s the way it is. The best way to see any movie is with fresh eyes. And

Schindler’s List is a movie that feels di­min­ished by re­peated view­ings. The first time I saw the movie, which fol­lows enig­matic Oskar Schindler (Liam Nee­son), who saved the lives of more than 1,100 Jews dur­ing the Holo­caust, I thought it was mon­u­men­tal, a film for the ages: a flash of a red coat in a sea of gun metal, Ralph Fi­ennes’ cruel belly; the sharp, quick and desul­tory ex­e­cu­tions per­formed by bu­reau­crats em­bold­ened by uni­forms and some­thing as vague and in­sub­stan­tial as a cause. Steven Spiel­berg mar­shaled his crews and made some­thing that stabbed us in the heart.

It won seven Acad­emy Awards, in­clud­ing best pic­ture and best di­rec­tor for Spiel­berg. It also won Os­cars for com­poser John Wil­liams, screen­writer Steven Zail­lian, di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Janusz Kamin­ski, art di­rec­tors Al­lan Starski and Ewa Braun, ed­i­tor Michael Kahn, and pro­duc­ers Spiel­berg, Ger­ald R. Molen, and Branko Lustig. It was a strong box of­fice per­former with $320 mil­lion world­wide.

The Li­brary of Congress se­lected Schindler’s

List for preser­va­tion in the Na­tional Film Reg­istry in 2004. In 2007, the Amer­i­can Film In­sti­tute ranked the film eighth on its list of the 100 best Amer­i­can films of all time.

It de­served all that.

But the sec­ond time I saw it, there ap­peared un­for­tu­nate di­rec­to­rial de­ci­sions. I did not like the way Spiel­berg spot­lighted the girl in the red coat; it seems un­nec­es­sar­ily melo­dra­matic and con­de­scend­ing in that it im­plied that the au­di­ence needed to latch on to an in­di­vid­ual tragedy be­yond the larger crime of the Holo­caust. I balked at the emo­tional ma­nip­u­la­tion of the script, at the cool­ness of the pro­fes­sional re­al­izer be­hind the cam­era.

The third time I saw it I was dis­mayed by the scene in which Schindler breaks down be­fore Stern, weep­ing that he “could have saved

more.” I found it ris­i­ble.

Spiel­berg shot the film in black and white over 72 days in Poland with the goal of giv­ing it the look and feel of a documentary. Schindler was a Ger­man busi­ness­man and a mem­ber of the Nazi Party who saved the lives of mostly Pol­ish-Jewish refugees from the Holo­caust by em­ploy­ing them in his fac­to­ries. Fi­ennes starred as SS of­fi­cer Amon Goth and Ben Kings­ley as Schindler’s Jewish ac­coun­tant Itzhak Stern.

Over the years some read­ers have pointed out that I some­times seem un­en­thu­si­as­tic about Spiel­berg’s movies. Guilty. I tend to en­joy his work, but with reser­va­tions. The Post was a nostal­gic valen­tine to news­pa­per­ing that wasn’t shy about its pol­i­tics: old-fash­ioned and rous­ing, but not in a class with the very best movies of last year. I liked Lin­coln, but didn’t love it.

I’m of­ten mildly put off by the whiff of self-im­por­tant di­dac­ti­cism that at­taches to some of Spiel­berg’s work. He is a great di­rec­tor and a se­ri­ous man who cares very much about mak­ing good movies, but it’s al­ways a lit­tle too easy to see the les­son em­bed­ded there. I wish he’d ended Lin­coln when it ended the first time in­stead of go­ing on and on; I dis­like the fram­ing de­vice of Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan.

It might be heresy to sug­gest that solemn coda of Schindler’s List seems un­nec­es­sary.

These quib­bles are mat­ters of taste, but I some­times wish that Spiel­berg wasn’t so blunt and earnest, that he didn’t have a need to make sure the slow­est child in his class grasps the ma­te­rial be­fore mov­ing on. What would be a won­der­ful virtue in a civics teacher is a drag in a film­maker.

On the other hand, I know there are peo­ple who know noth­ing of the Holo­caust who might stand to be ed­u­cated by Spiel­berg’s work. He has made a cou­ple of movies that ought to be shown in ev­ery high school his­tory class, though I might edit Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan down to that first half hour, the hor­rific real-time se­quence on Omaha Beach. His crafts­man­ship is im­pec­ca­ble. I agree with a friend who says that Spiel­berg ought to be given an Acad­emy Award ev­ery 10 years or so sim­ply be­cause he does so much for the movie in­dus­try.

But 25 years on, I don’t know that Schindler’s List is any­thing more than well­made. I wish it were what Spiel­berg wanted it to be, the sort of tran­scen­dent art that makes us bet­ter peo­ple. But I’m not sure most peo­ple don’t take it as a kind of hor­ror movie.

For some, de­pict­ing the Holo­caust is like ut­ter­ing the name of God, an act of blas­phemy. Claude Lanz­mann, the French di­rec­tor who made nearly nine-hour Shoah, the 1985 film com­prised of in­ter­views with sur­vivors of the Holo­caust and their Nazi op­pres­sors, has of­ten said he con­sid­ers any fic­tional re-cre­ation of the Holo­caust ob­scene and “tan­ta­mount to fab­ri­cat­ing archives.” I don’t hold with that sen­ti­ment; I wouldn’t for­bid any artist from work­ing with what­ever ma­te­rial he might find, in what­ever medium he might deem ap­pro­pri­ate.

Writ­ers like Bruno Schulz and Primo Levi dealt with the Holo­caust as black com­edy, but there is a moral dif­fer­ence be­tween a book writ­ten by a sur­vivor and a movie made for pop­u­lar con­sump­tion by a well-in­ten­tioned Hol­ly­wood mil­lion­aire.

While Schindler’s List is per­haps the best that we can do given the com­mer­cial re­al­i­ties that at­tend the mak­ing of a Hol­ly­wood movie, it’s un­clear if good in­ten­tions and great skill are enough to de­feat some of the problems in­her­ent in try­ing to make such movies. It is a tricky busi­ness to cre­ate an en­ter­tain­ment about the slaugh­ter of in­no­cents — to light it right, to give the mur­derer a hu­man face. Spiel­berg is re­spect­ful, he un­der­stands the line he is walk­ing.

Still, it is just a movie, and we all know that in a blackand-white film, cho­co­late syrup can be read as blood. [email protected]­


Three-year-old Oli­wia Dabrowska plays the iconic “girl in the red coat” in Steven Spiel­berg’s Os­car-win­ning Schindler’s List. Dabrowska promised Spiel­berg she’d wait un­til she was 18 to see the film but she broke that prom­ise and saw it when she was 11. While she’s now proud of her role in the film she says see­ing it at such a young age scarred her for years.

In Steven Spiel­berg’s Schindler’s List, Ralph Fi­ennes plays SS of­fi­cer Amon Goeth who — ac­cord­ing to tes­ti­mony of sev­eral wit­nesses as recorded in his 1946 in­dict­ment for war crimes — per­son­ally mur­dered be­tween 30 and 90 women and chil­dren dur­ing the liq­ui­da­tion of the War­saw ghetto.

Liam Nee­son as the enig­matic fac­tory owner Oskar Schindler.

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