reviewed by Greta Christina
Okay. I take it back about Steven Spielberg. All the nasty, sniping things I've said in the past about his filmmaking abilities: I take them back. He's redeemed himself here.
I'm not going to join the critic's chorus and tell you that Schindler's List is an unblemished masterpiece -- I don't think it is. It has some very serious flaws, both in style and in content. What I will tell you is that you should not miss it. It is beautiful, it is powerful, it is complex; and, with a few notable lapses, it is unlike any Spielberg movie I've ever seen.
Schindler's List stars Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist and Nazi Party member who, through an inspired combination of influence peddling, deception, political manipulation, and outright bribery, protected over 1,100 Jews from being exterminated in the Holocaust. The film also stars Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern, the Jewish accountant who manages Schindler's factory and, as such, works with Schindler (although without his knowledge at first) to turn his factory into a sanctuary.
The most obvious message of this film is that one person can make a difference, and therefore that each person has the responsibility to do so. The most obvious way it does this is in the heroic mode, by showing the example of a single man who overcame his own greed and self-involvement to do good work in an evil world. But the film is more complex than that. It doesn't flinch from the flip side of that message; that each person can make a difference for evil as well as for good. By showing the endless bureaucratic and logistical details of the genocide, Schindler's List reminds us that evil is not just Hitler or Mengele or the one who turns on the gas. Evil is also the one who stamps the papers, the one who sorts the confiscated belongings, the one who types the orders, the one who drives the train.
One of the most potent aspects of this film is its response to the question, "How did it happen?" Obviously no one story could ever even come close to answering that. But Schindler's List provides an important fragment of an answer: It happened step by step. The film shows the tens of thousands of Polish Jews being herded, first into the cities, then the ghettos, then the work camps, an ever-narrowing corridor that dead-ends at the gas chamber. It shows the gradual process of dehumanization graphically and convincingly; how each piece of suffering and degradation inflicted makes it that much easier to see your victim as less than human, thus making it that much easier to degrade and injure them even more. Not surprisingly, the response to the question, "How did it happen?" becomes at the same time a response to the question, "Could it ever happen again?" (People who write letters to the editor about how the homeless are vermin, please take note.)
But as important and complex as these concepts are, the most powerful quality of Schindler's List is in its imagery. While other big Hollywood studios have made films that are connected in some way with the Holocaust (Sophie's Choice, Judgement at Nuremberg, Enemies, A Love Story), Schindler's List is the first major Hollywood film to tell about the Holocaust itself. It takes its characters (and therefore its audience) through the ghettos, the roundups, the train rides, the work camps, the gas chambers. Filmed almost entirely in black and white, the film has some of the most moving and disturbing visual imagery I've seen in a Hollywood film. It has both the sweeping impact of documentary and the personal impact of narrative.
Now, most films that I recommend this highly have, at most, minor-to-moderate flaws, problems that are distracting at worst. Not so with this film. The flaws in Schindler's List are unfortunately quite severe, contradicting and even undercutting the film's message.
The most obvious problem with this movie is the entire last half-hour of it. It is dreadful, unremittingly dreadful, dreadful in a way that only Steven Spielberg could achieve. The script, which has weak spots throughout the film, bursts forth with sentiment and bathos and dumb drippy speeches, thrown into sharp relief by the hideously bombastic John Williams soundtrack. The delicate moral complexity of Neeson's Schindler, the weakness and doubt and selfishness that makes him so human, are engulfed in the sea of white light and virtue that Spielberg bathes him in at the end of the film.
And the very focus of the film, the decision to present Schindler as the hero of the story, is in itself a problem. It's the same problem I have with films like Mississippi Burning, Dances With Wolves, and The Long Walk Home, to name just a few: Why do mainstream Hollywood movies about oppression always tell the story of the heroes who come from the oppressor's side?
In the case of the movies I just mentioned, I think the answer is largely racism. The movies were made by white people -- of course they wanted to show white folks that are sensitive and caring and brave and honorable and supportive of their Black or Indian brothers and not even a little bit racist. But with Schindler's List, the answer isn't that simple. Spielberg is Jewish. He's also one of the most powerful people in the movie industry today. He could make any film he wanted to. Why did he make this one? Why didn't he make a film about one of the countless Jewish heroes of the Holocaust? Why didn't he make a film about, for instance, Itzhak Stern, Schindler's Jewish accountant? Why did he make this film instead?
Here's what I think the problem is. I think Americans have a hard time seeing heroism in the valiant, clever, courageous struggle on the part of a people to save themselves. I think we are inclined to see that struggle, not as heroism, but as self-interest. I think we are far more likely to see heroism in the valiant, clever, courageous struggle to save someone else; and I think we are especially impressed when that struggle works directly against the hero's benefit. If Schindler hadn't been penniless and ruined at the end of the war, I don't think we could see him as a hero.
Copyright 1993 Greta Christina. Originally published in San Francisco Bay Times.