In defiant preparation for his campaign to murder all the world's Jews, Adolph Hitler said, "After all, who remembers today the Turks' extermination of the Armenians?" As destruction of the infamous Podgorze ghetto in Krakow begins in Steven Spielberg's devastating Schindler's List, a Nazi commander sneers at the half-millenium of prosperity Jews have enjoyed in Poland by saying, "After today, it never happened." The world didn't learn the lesson of the Turkish murder of two million Armenians and thus allowed the Nazi murder of six million Jews. The sick among us now, whether they are the dupes of a Klansman like David Duke or the followers of a black racist like the Nation of Islam's Khalid Abdul Muhammad, try to deny the fact of the Holocaust. In paranoid frenzy such anti-Semites maintain that the story of the Holocaust is a plot by Zionists to camouflage Jewish sins, curry undeserved favor in the court of world opinion and thereby enhance the power of Jews across the globe. We might wish to dismiss such vicious nonsense as the propagandist ramblings of a insignificant fringe. But we dare not. Neo-Nazism is on the rise in Germany. And surveys among today's American schoolchildren indicate a frightfully widespread ignorance about Hitler's policy of murder.
In a world which must forever muster the will to stand against it, the memory of evil is crucial. Already it seems we are steeling ourselves to forget current events in Bosnia. But there as elsewhere, evil exists. Men have believed and continue to convince themselves that genocide is justified. That's why Schindler's List is so important; it is history for the masses. It makes immediate and tangible that which has so soon grown distant and in some minds debatable. Schindler's List isn't just the film of the year. It's a film for the ages.
Based on the non-fiction novel by Thomas Keneally and adapted for the screen by Steven Zaillian, Schindler's List is the true story of a handful of Jews who miraculously survived the Holocaust and of one strange and complicated German man from the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia who defied the policies of an entire nation in the midst of a homicidal rampage. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrives in Krakow shortly after the Nazi victory in the fall of 1939. An inveterate gambler and shameless flatterer, Schindler has already joined the Nazi party in hopes of boosting his business connections. In Krakow, Schindler converts his meager resources into a fine suit of clothes, a gold Nazi pin and a small wad of cash. Then, armed mostly with audacity, he sets out to hustle himself an entrepreneurial career. By night he frequents the city's nightclubs, buying drinks and otherwise befriending Nazi officers. By day he leverages investments from Jews who are already being packed into the sixteen square blocks of Podgorze. Soon he's in position to bid for rights to a dormant enamelware factory and to exploit his Nazi connections for lucrative contracts as a military supplier. Schindler turns management of his company over to a savvy Jewish accountant named Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) and, employing unpaid Jewish workers for whom he's charged only a user fee by the S.S., Schindler quickly begins to amass a fortune.
The Oskar Schindler we meet in the film's opening passages is hardly admirable. He's unprincipled and self-absorbed. He's a hard drinker and a shameless womanizer. He cares for nothing, it seems, save the pursuit of pleasure and his own chance for riches. He seems to suffer no pangs of guilt, for instance, when he takes occupation of a luxurious home from which a Jewish family has been brutally evicted. Even at this stage, however, Schindler is different from the Nazi officers he spends so much time courting. There's no malice in him. He's more than a bit blind to the inherent evil of the Nazis, but he doesn't suffer from their racist disease. He drives a hard bargain with those Jews he recruits as investors, but he still treats them as men. He forthrightly takes advantage of their desperate circumstances, but he doesn't degrade them. This lack of racism is the crack in Schindler's selfishness which Stern exploits to turn a Polish enamelware factory and its Czechoslovakian armaments successor into shelters where nearly 1,200 souls manage to ride out the Holocaust's bloody storm.
Spielberg pointedly contrasts Schindler's character with that of Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), commandant of the slave camp at Plaszow. Goeth is a psychopath whose tortured intellect would be laughable if the man weren't so deadly. Goeth shares with Schindler a love of pretty women, rich food and fine liquor. He's amiable enough a dinner and drinking companion that Schindler fails to see his true nature for far too long. Goeth's devotion to the Nazi gospel is so devout that he tells a pretty Jewish girl to whom he's paid a compliment, "Of course, I realize you're not a person, in the strictest sense of the word." Goeth is possessed of such polite social niceties as to warn his Jewish housekeeper not to stand too close because he doesn't want to give her his cold. But then in another moment he can murder the innocent with the same yawning detachment he might employ in the swatting of an insect. Goeth is like the lynch mob leader McLendon in William Faulkner's "Dry September" who rallies his townspeople to murder with the cry "Are you going to let the black sons get away with it until one really does it?" Goeth is annoyed when a pretty female Jewish engineer informs him of construction flaws in the building of the slave camp and has her shot for impudence. Then with a shrug immediately thereafter, he orders that the dead engineer's design corrections be instituted. Once the Plaszow camp is completed Goeth often strolls out on his balcony after breakfast, and in a routine as reflexive as that of stretching and scratching himself, randomly shoots Jewish laborers for committing the sin of falling into his gun sights at a moment when his trigger finger itches. Among the horrors this film makes commonplace is the way in which the Jews at Plaszow gradually become hardened to Goeth's morning rifle fire as an unavoidable condition of the dawning day.
When Schindler witnesses the liquidation of Podgorze, his attitude toward the Nazis changes, almost, it seems, against his own wishes. Schindler loves the luxury that his money has provided him. He cares little for either the product or the management of his factory and initially suffers only embarrassment when his Jewish workers try to thank him for saving their lives. Schindler's evolution is gradual. Early on he feels great warmth only toward Stern (who is understandably slow to return it), but with time he comes to feel connected to many of the people who work for him. Once he realizes that the Nazis aren't planning just to discriminate against Jews but actually kill them all, he strives to frustrate their plans, first by arranging employment for as many Jews as possible, far more than he actually needs to run his factories, finally exhausting his fortune in bribing Goeth for the opportunity to provide sanctuary at an armaments plant in Czechoslovakia for a list of 1,200 people.
The space available to me here is not adequate for detailing all the praise I feel this film deserves. Acclaim is due to author Keneally who assembled the individual stories which give a human face to an atrocity almost beyond comprehension. Director Spielberg's decision to override the wishes of Universal Studio executives and strive for a documentary look to Schindler's List gives his picture a feel of history captured in progress. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's icy black and white images appropriately suggest the lowest reaches of hell. Steven Zaillian's screenplay shows us the good that can be done even by unheroic men when they respond to the dictates of conscience. Liam Neeson's lead performance never frames Schindler with an icon's halo, but always keeps a fundamental ambiguity at the center of his character. And Ben Kingsley's work as Stern underscores the critical extent to which Jews were vitally involved in their own survival.
One hopes that Schindler's List finally silences those petty naysayers who have derided Steven Spielberg despite such masterworks as E.T. and Empire of the Sun. From the religious candle at the opening which burns out and dissolves into the smoke of the Nazi ovens, to the director himself standing vigil by Schindler's grave at the end, this is haunting filmmaking. The light of world Judaism flickered in the winds of Nazi bigotry. But it did not go out. Oskar Schindler is one of the people who shielded the flame from the ovens' snuff. Steven Spielberg keeps it alive today through the artistry of his filmmaking craft.
In the nascent years of the film medium, D.W. Griffith realized the special power of cinema to communicate with the masses. Woodrow Wilson called Griffith's classic The Birth of a Nation "history written in lightning." But Griffith's epic tale of the Civil War and Reconstruction is anything but history. Even today it remains a dazzling instance of filmmaking, but it's also an egregious exercise in bigotry which makes heroes of Ku Klux Klan nightriders and villains of the freed slaves. By the time Hitler was launching his blitzkrieg across the plains of Europe he had a skilled filmmaker in his diabolical service. Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will makes Nazism look self-sacrificing, glamorous and thrilling.
In the pages of this publication and elsewhere I have confessed my concern about the power of cinema to misinform, misconstrue and mislead. A work like Oliver Stone's execrable JFK takes deliberate liberties with fact in order to promote a paranoid thesis. And yet for thousands, maybe millions, Stone's conspiracy theories about John Kennedy's assassination become the popular understanding of fact. That's why I was so hard on Alan Parker's mostly well-meaning Mississippi Burning. In service to his story about the 1964 murders of three civil-rights workers, Parker makes heroes of the FBI and passive victims of the movie's black characters. Since J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was anything but an agent of social change, and since the legacy of the civil-rights movement was one of activism and profound courage, I complained loudly at the release of Mississippi Burning in 1989 that Parker was forging a popular history that was diametrically wrong.
Historical purists might fault Spielberg on these grounds, I suppose. Keneally has complained publicly about a fictional development near the end of Schindler's List. As the war in Europe is about to end, Schindler gathers his Jewish employees about him and informs that soon they will be free. His own fate, he explains, will be more problematical. He is a member of the Nazi party, after all, and he has run war industries utilizing slave labor. As the Jews prepare for liberty, Schindler must go into hiding. Then at the time of his departure, he breaks down, lamenting that he has saved even a farthing for himself, because with a fine suit of clothes or a gold pin or a luxury automobile, additional lives might have been snatched from the gas chambers. In fact, Schindler made no such speech, engaged in no public second guessing of himself whatsoever, and hurried away into the night in a car laden with jewels. Spielberg has explained that at the end of his picture Schindler speaks for all of surviving humanity and that the variance with fact is in that way defensible. I shall not bother to engage the director on this point save to credit him with elsewhere having fully established the complexities of Oskar Schindler's odd journey to heroism. I should note, however, that in emotional terms the closing twenty minutes of Schindler's List do not require Schindler's fictionalized speech to develop the greatest impact I have ever encountered at a motion picture.
In most every other regard Spielberg has indeed written history in lightning. There are a score or more of unforgettable scenes. Among them in the early going is the casual torment of a Jewish student who is cornered by storm trooper thugs on a Krakow street. The Jew hasn't done anything. He represents no threat. He is harassed and humiliated because he can be, because the society in which he finds himself has silenced all voices who might speak out for fundamental human decency. This is a society which has encouraged hate to the extent that we see a pretty eight-year-old blond German girl with her face screwed up into a venomous mask, cursing and spitting at distraught Jewish families being herded from their homes with only such possessions as they can carry into the holding pen at Podgorze. In a series of scenes we witness the mad illogic of the Nazi mind. Stern has long been recognized for his superb organizational abilities, by Schindler, of course, but by Goeth and other Nazis as well. So as the "final solution" is being prepared, Stern is placed in charge of the mobilization. He's to maintain proper records, arrange the rail transportation and relocate every Jew in Poland to a death camp. Stern is invaluable, but he's a Jew. And so he must reserve a place on the last train to Auschwitz for himself.
A repeated motif in Schindler's List is the stubborn hope of the incarcerated Jews which manifests itself in sad self-delusion. Surely the Nazis won't do anything other than steal their homes and crowd them into a ghetto. Surely the Nazis have done their worst by establishing slave camps like that at Plaszow. Surely the Nazis wouldn't undermine their own war effort by squandering the advantage of free Jewish labor. Surely the rumors about gas chambers aren't true. The incarcerated Jews deceive themselves in part because the alternative is despair. But we must rid ourselves of such deceptions today. We must look the truth in its sometimes ugly face. Racism possesses the power to turn men into monsters. Racism stands ever ready to alchemize atrocity into justice.
Late in the film the women at Plaszow try to prepare themselves for the latest purge which will send many in their midst to the gas chambers. New Jewish slaves are arriving from Yugoslavia and space must be created. Goeth orders that the sick, aged and weak shall be culled out and sent to the ovens at Auschwitz. Huddled together in their dark, cramped barracks, the starving, panicked women try to make themselves look healthy and strong. They brush their hair and bite their lips in hopes of adding color. Finally, they prick their fingers to rouge their cheeks, shed their own blood in a desperate bid for life. In a subsequent scene, holding their flimsy clothes in a bundle before them, naked Jews are run past a row of tables where white-smocked Nazi "doctors" sit "evaluating" their health. Playing like a scene out of Caligula's Rome, the "doctors" arbitrarily direct these runners into two separate lines. Those in one line will live another day; those in the other will be murdered immediately.
In countless scenes like these, Spielberg depicts the Holocaust's unspeakable horror. And yet Schindler's List is finally a story about life, not death, about hope, not despair. Its end is a catharsis. For whatever murky reasons arising from his opaque soul, Schindler accomplished the impossible. Twelve hundred people survived in his sanctuary. A half century later the heirs of the Schindlerjuden exceed 6,000 in number while in all of contemporary Poland there are fewer than 4,000 Jews. This is the history lesson of Schindler's List the Holocaust was; the Jews are. We must learn the lesson of the Holocaust. We must never forget the long nightmare of Europe's Jews lest those who hate should some day prevail. This is Spielberg's triumph: viewers of Schindler's List will remember.