During World War II, an entrepreneurial member of the Nazi party, Oscar Schindler (Liam Neeson) takes advantage of the mistreatment of Jewish citizens by using them for cheap labour in his enamelware factory. However, as he gets to know his workers better – particularly his right hand man Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) – and witnesses first hand the inhuman brutalities they must endure – particularly at the hand of concentration camp overseer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) – Schindler begins to realise the change he can make to the people around him.
This film was nominated for me to watch by JD Duran of Insession Film. It’s a film I have seen before, but only once, and only in a Religious Education class back at school, maybe 14 years ago? Jeez, now I feel old, that’s half my life. It’s not exactly a film I’ve ever been compelled to re-watch, given the nature of what it depicts and how gut-wrenchingly it does so, but nominated it was, and on the 1001 List it appears, so watch it I did, reviewing it I am and reading this you are. There’s not much I’ve got to say that hasn’t been said many times before, but I’ll see what I can do.
This is, as has been well documented, a great film. In fact it’s so great that I cannot even begin to begrudge it winning Best Picture over Jurassic Park back in 1994. The fact that Spielberg could direct both movies in the same year may be the most impressive thing I’ve ever heard. The only comparison could be Francis Ford Coppola knocking out The Godfather Part 2 and The Conversation both in 1974, but as I haven’t properly seen either of those (yes, yes, I know) then I can’t really comment. I will throw lots of judgement on the Academy for not even nominating Jurassic Park for Best Picture and including the likes of The Piano instead (I’ve still yet to see In The Name Of The Father or The Remains Of The Day, but if either is even close to the greatness of Jurassic Park I’ll be astounded. Astounded I say!). I made a concerted effort to not cry throughout this film, which I knew would be difficult but I tried nonetheless, and I pretty much made it. That’s right, I’m dead inside. The little girl in the red coat, which was perhaps all I could remember from that first viewing because how the FUCK do you forget something like that, almost got me, but I powered on through. Liam Neeson’s climactic break down, regretting the luxuries he chose to keep over the lives he could have saved was another close call, but not quite. Nope, I remained dry of face and bereft of handkerchief right the way through. Right up until the survivors and their descendants all placed rocks on Schindler’s grave. And when they all walked over the hill towards the camera. Holy god damn shit, I didn’t stand a chance.
Something I often admire about Spielberg’s work is his use of cinematography, and here was his first collaboration with long-time director of photography Janusz Kaminski, with whom Spielberg has so far worked 14 times, with another two currently scheduled. Just as he did with Lincoln, Kaminski has a way of making what could be very boring scenes utterly beautiful. There’s lots of scenes of two or more men sat in offices not doing a whole lot that’s terribly cinematic, but the manner in which they’re shot could be justifiably hung on the wall, and it works on the exterior shots too. The use of shadows, silhouettes, lighting etc, it’s all great. The camerawork and staging are terrific too, as with most Spielberg movies, and I’ve been trying to pay attention to the way Spielberg uses slightly longer shots, of around 1-2 minutes, without making them feel like they’re dragging the pace down.
The acting is superb too. Neeson is great, as is Kingsley, but the shining star in my book is Fiennes, as the villain of the story. His Goeth is an utter shit, but Fiennes imbues him with humanity. The first time we meet him, 49 minutes in, he is taking over the camp and is clearly distressed and disappointed at how much smaller his living conditions are than he’d expected, having been told he was staying in a villa, when in reality it’s just a decent-sized house. Compare this to the Jewish people crammed into bunks and there’s an immediate disliking of this character. And yet, when he’s selecting a new maid from a line-up of Jewish girls, he has the decency to try and not give them his cold, covering his face with a handkerchief and warning them to keep their distance. It’s possible this is an efficiency manoeuvre, as if he were to infect a worked, then soon they’d all be infected and productivity levels would plummet, but it’s also just as possible that he genuinely doesn’t want to spread his illness to others. Of course, as the film goes on he starts shooting people for little to no reason left, right and centre, but early on I saw some humanity in him.
Speaking of Goeth’s cruelty, there was one stand-out heart-wrenching scene for me that had me on edge in terms of tension and anger. During a routine inspection of the factory, Goeth stops to time a man making a hinge. They have a new shipment of workers coming in, and Goeth wants to make room for them by removing the slower workers. Understanding this, the obviously nervous machinist makes a hinge at a good speed, but then Goeth calculates that his daily output doesn’t match a day’s constant working at that speed, so he takes the man outside and shoots him. Except his gun doesn’t fire. Cue a seemlingly endless series of clicks and tinkers from Goeth and his two assistants, all attempting to ascertain what is wrong with the gun so they can shoot this innocent man – whose low output was due to the machines being down for some time and him having to shovel coal during this period. And throughout the whole scene front-and-centre is the man, awaiting the inevitable ending of his life, the fear and pain written ever deeper on his face. It’s unbearable.
Speaking of unbearable, this is one of those films that just makes you angry. My partner was unable to watch it for long stretches, just witnessing the hardships these people were put through. Starting with being kicked out of their homes and paraded down the street, with the non-Jewish children yelling “Goodbye Jews!” and throwing stones at them as they pass. A one-armed man is shot in the street for not being able to shovel snow well, regardless of his prowess at his actual job as a metal polisher. Workers are shot just to make others work harder. Whilst the men and women are reviewed for fit they are for work, their children are shipped off to a concentration camp. When a man escapes his work detail, he is caught and Goeth kills half of his barracks, every other man, but leaves the escaped one alive. I saw a lot of this story as the victims becoming ever more accepting of their increasingly worsening situation. From being forced to live in cramped spaces with strangers, to working like slaves in lice-infested quarters, to losing friends and family members for the most trivial of reasons, throughout it all there’s always an accepting faction within the Jewish people, always a thought of how fortunate they are compared to others.
At the start of the film I even began to get annoyed not just at the treatment of the Jewish people, but also the depiction of them in the film. I kept on thinking about the fact that we were only being shown a comparative handful of those who escaped much of the more extreme hardships; what about the many, many, many more who were not so fortunate? Are we just glossing over those and pretending they don’t exist? Fear not, they too are accounted for, as the film covers not just the worker camps, but the concentration camps too, most notably Auschwitz and its horrific gas showers. It’s worth noting that back in the worker camp some of the Jewish women have a discussion about the myth that is the gas shower, and many of them agree that it could not possible exist, because it makes no sense. It’s ludicrous. Why would the Germans kill their workers? It makes no sense. That just goes to show how utterly insane and barbaric the Nazi plan was, that even those affected by it couldn’t fathom the full scale of its atrocity.
It’s not much of a criticism, but one thing that annoys me slightly with this film and a few others recently is how in order to tell a story of a victimised people, it seems always necessary to tell it from the perspective of a non-traditional victim. What I mean by this is that The Help could only be told predominantly from the point of view of the white girl who saved the black maids. The main character in Glory is not any of the black soldiers, but their white leader, played by Matthew Broderick. Even 12 Years A Slave showed the plight of slavery, but from the perspective of a man initially free. Surely someone who was a slave from birth would have had a more arduous life? Just as here the main character is Schindler, rather than Kingsley’s Stern. Heck, even when we first see the Jewish people being evicted from their homes and moved to the ghetto the first family we follow is a wealthy couple, formerly living in a lavish home but now forced to share a small room with another larger family. I know the reasoning behind this. The greater the juxtaposition, the more cinematic the story feels. It’s riches to rags, not rags to tatters, but it’s often something that irks me with this kind of story.
Of course in this instance Schindler’s perspective is used because his is a story very much worth telling, and it’s one that needs to be told from his point of view. I found his increasing levels of humanity so interesting, especially the notion that in order to make someone a hero, someone else needs to be the villain. Before Fiennes’ Goeth shows up Schindler is focussed on nothing but business and productivity. One morning Stern forgets his work papers, is stopped in the street and finds himself on a train heading for Auschwitz. Schindler hears of this, races to the train station and just about manages to save Stern, after threatening the two officers there that they’ll soon be working in Southern Russia if they do not help. Stern is saved (this is one of those moments I was screaming “But what about the hundreds of other people on the train!”), but Schindler is annoyed with him, reprimanding him by asking “What if I’d got here 5 minutes later? The where would I be?” He cares little for having saved the man’s life, more that he has his factory manager back, at least for now.
Like I’ve being saying, this is a masterpiece. At times you can feel Spielberg manipulating your emotions, but with a subject like this, how else could it possible have been done?
Choose Film 10/10