“Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.”
“It’s Hebrew, it’s from the Talmud. It says, ‘Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.'”
“The list is an absolute good. The list is life.”
“Schindler’s List” is one of the great movies ever made. An Academy Award winner for 1993, the film has always been considered a huge cultural milestone and one feels an incredibly personal expression by Steven Spielberg. The work is still brilliant even if it is a difficult task to bring oneself to sit down and revisit it. Spielberg’s historical drama is not boring and is quite compelling however we are far away from the director’s fantasy adventures (as good as those movies are). Spielberg takes us into the stunning depths of human depravity in stark black and white but hope glimmers through in the sacrificial actions of one man to spare 1,100 people from being murdered by a genocidal regime.
The movie opens with the lighting of candles, a sequence that is a call to remembrance. The recollection revolving around the potential for drastic evil in the human soul. The members of the Nazi Party in the late 1930s were not so different from us. They were people, engaging in business, dancing and drinking. They were proud of their country (nationalistic). We see Oskar Schindler (an excellent Liam Neeson) participating in these events. He hovers around a party, networking and mixing it up with those in power. Photographs are taken as to which Schindler will use later to show his impressive connections. Enjoying booze and womanizing, Schindler is about to make a fortune by his membership and ties to the Nazi Party.
What changes for Schindler? After all, the now celebrated figure was not a superhero and was a considerably flawed man. Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939 and the Polish army surrendered in just over a month. As time goes on, Schindler has his business operations interrupted, for example, by the designation of Warsaw as a ghetto. Jewish residents and families are rounded up in the city and sent to camps. Schindler’s business manager, Itzhark Stern (the legend Ben Kingsley) is having trouble providing factory workers at starvation wages because they all disappeared.
In what is now a famous and memorable scene, Schindler rides on horseback above Warsaw witnessing the racist violence, shootings and removal of people from their homes. The only color in the movie is the little girl he sees dressed in a red coat running for her life in the chaos and hell.
The Nazi psychopath who runs the aforementioned camp, Amon Goeth (a chilling Ralph Fiennes), enjoys randomly shooting the Jewish laborers in the head with his rifle before breakfast and prior to his morning piss. This is a weak man who uses the war as justification for his racist killings.
As Roger Ebert has noted, “‘Schindler’s List’ is described as a film about the Holocaust, but the Holocaust supplies the field for the story, rather than the subject. The film is really two parallel character studies–one of a con man, the other of a psychopath. Oskar Schindler, who swindles the Third Reich, and Amon Goeth, who represents its pure evil, are men created by opportunities of war.”
Perhaps when confronted with such brutality and evil, people make a choice. Either the God-given conscience kicks in where they try act in righteousness for their fellow human beings or they numb their consciences in order to continue on the ethnic cleansing path or perhaps they are cowardly and run from the moral abomination. Schindler and Goeth represent two of those cases as they work each other in the last half of the movie.
Schindler expends his amassed fortune into buying Jews into his factory that was supposed to be producing weapons. Not a single usable weapon was ever produced. When Schindler sits down with Stern and has him type out a list of names of the Jewish people he wants to buy to work in his factory, the revelation falls upon Stern as to what Oskar’s ultimate plan is and this moment is one of the most beautiful moments in cinema. Subtle, not melodramatic and convincingly effective.
With the haunting John Williams score and the masterful screenplay by Steven Zaillian, the audience becomes a witness to this historic atrocity. Some of the torturous cruelty Spielberg leaves to our imaginations. At the Auschwitz camp, we see a long line of Jewish people being shepherded down stairs and into an underground building. As the camera pans up, we see a giant smokestack billowing out ashes. Other murders, beatings and public shaming happen with our purview.
I have seen “Schindler’s List” probably 4 or 5 times in my life. It is one of my favorite all time movies for the themes presented and the impeccable craft from which it is made. When I viewed “Schindler’s List” this last time, I felt something that before I never had experienced. The previous times, the dramatic presentation of what happened in Germany from 1939-1945 seemed distant as if the horror occurred in another world. This most recent time I realized that societies, including ours, are more scarily close to these historic events than we realize. We delude ourselves into thinking, “it can never happen here”. But are we really that immune?
Germany was in economic shambles largely in part to the Treaty of Versailles signed after World War I. Adolf Hitler (who never comes on screen in the movie but whose menace is all around the edges) rose to power in 1933. A perceived strong man. A “hero” who was going to return Germany to its past glory days. An angry leader who pointed his finger at an entire ethnic designation of humanity and sold them as scapegoats. From his rancid perspective, they were the problem: the rats, the vermin who led Germany on this decline.
In my head, I can imagine a scenario where a situation like this could play out in America. A leader who captures the hearts of a significant percentage of the population and proceeds to erode civil liberties and blame minority groups for larger cultural problems. Far fetched? Well…what if this has already happened here? Chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, the trail of tears, and ratified by the United States Supreme Court at the urging of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, “Korematsu”, the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in internment camps (one of which was on Bainbridge Island in WA).
Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” serves as the clarion call to never forget. Remember the horrors that have been committed by fellow human beings. Recall that the evil that brings about mass killings can be resisted and fought by brave people acting in righteousness on behalf of their neighbors (and as we Christians like to say, fellow “image bearers of God”).
It can happen anywhere. It can happen here.
Lester Lauding Level: 5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Review here)
Jaws (Review here)
Jurassic Park (Review here)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Review here)
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (Review here)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Review here)
Empire of the Sun (Review here)
The Color Purple (Review here)
Duel (Review here)
The Post (Review here)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Review here)
Hook (Review here)
The Sugarland Express (Review here)
Always (Review here)
1941 (Review here)