In the past, Steven Spielberg has frightened us with B-movie stuff that we could laugh off: sharks, spiders, raptors. Schindler’s List, his overwhelming movie about the Holocaust, may well be the most frightening movie ever made. Everyone who sees it will take home at least one indelible image of horror. For me, the image is of a Jewish hinge-maker in a labor camp who displeases a Nazi commandant. The Nazi orders the man to make a hinge, timing him by stopwatch. When the hinge is finished, the Nazi remarks that the man has made only a handful of hinges all day. So the hinge-maker is dragged outside to be shot. We’ve been watching Jews killed left and right, randomly, so we cringe in anticipation of another murder — but the Nazi’s gun won’t fire. The scene, which seems to go on forever as the man expects to be shot and the gun keeps misfiring, is agonizing.
Spielberg, the king of candied entertainment, the Hollywood Peter Pan, has finally grown up. Watching Schindler’s List, I had to remind myself it was a Spielberg film: The very words “Spielberg film” have become synonymous with “sweet, escapist, insignificant.” This movie is none of the above. Yet it isn’t a dour lump of suffering, either. In a shocking reversal, a master of cinematic toys has tackled the most hideous subject of the century and emerged with a genuine work of art. Who could have guessed? Some of the thrill of Schindler’s List derives from Spielberg’s shock at himself, his surprise at the level of candor he turns out to be capable of. Except for three small lapses in judgment, the film is a triumph of restraint and intelligence, the definitive Holocaust drama.
The hero of the movie (and of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 historical novel) is a paradox. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German industrialist and Nazi party member, comes to Krakow in 1939 to capitalize on the developing tragedy. At first, Schindler views the Nazis neutrally: If they can help him, he helps them; one hand washes the other. But he finds that when dealing with Nazis, you might wash their hands but yours come away bloody. With the help of Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley in a striking performance), Schindler the war profiteer sets up a supplies factory, employing Jews as unpaid workers. It’s slave labor, but at least the Jews, as “essential workers” in the war effort, stay clear of the death camps. Stern is quite aware of this, even if Schindler isn’t at first.
Stern, in fact, becomes Schindler’s conscience in a process of awakening that begins during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. Sitting mightily on horseback, gazing down at the chaos, Schindler spots a little girl in a red coat (the only bit of color in the black-and-white frame) wandering through the crowd. Spielberg and screenwriter Steven Zaillian don’t hype this wake-up call too much, but the point is clear: Drawn into identification with this lonely, anonymous girl, Schindler sees the Jews as actual, suffering people, not cheap labor. And he launches a conscious, aggressive plan to save as many of them as possible, losing his fortune in the bargain.
Liam Neeson, a robust actor who’s been fascinating in many bad movies as well as good ones, fills out a deliberately hollow role. Spielberg realizes that to overanalyze Schindler’s motives would strip him of his mystique. (Many who knew the actual Schindler never figured him out.) Schindler the philanderer, drinker, gambler, and Nazi associate is uniquely qualified to be Schindler the savior: His Nazi cronies aren’t likely to peg him as a closet Gandhi. Neeson’s slyness in the role also suggests that Schindler loves outfoxing the Nazis for its own sake. After a string of pristine heroes, Spielberg gives us a richer breed of hero — one who can be selfish, hedonistic, even objectionable, but no less heroic. Neeson’s key contribution is his confident charisma, augmented by his bullish physique. His Schindler is a man who knows he can get away with anything.
Not long before seeing Schindler’s List, I attended a screening of the Indiana Jones trilogy at the Wang Center in Boston. Aware that Spielberg’s Nazis in Schindler’s List would be realistic, I paid close attention to how he handled them in the Indy films. They were comic-book skunks, largely objects of ridicule; there was even a gag in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade featuring Hitler himself. I doubt that Spielberg would attempt such a joke now. The Nazis in Schindler’s List are terrifyingly human, people deformed by hatred, who otherwise have recognizable traits — they haven’t landed here from another planet. Spielberg has discovered the banality of evil. These Nazis aren’t lurid, hissable villains; they’re hearty, presentable, fun-loving guys whose idea of recreation is killing Jews. Spielberg stages their obscenities without editorializing — the acts speak for themselves. These are true monsters.
One such monster is Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), a commandant who arrives at the Plaszow labor camp and establishes his authority by executing a forewoman in front of her workers. For amusement, Goeth sits up in his balcony and picks off prisoners with his rifle. (Disturbingly, Spielberg’s camera takes the point of view of Goeth aiming at his victims randomly, in effect forcing us into complicity with genocide for a moment.) Fiennes, a British actor theretofore unknown to Americans, gives a shattering and amazingly layered performance. He understands the true horror of Goeth: not just that the Jews live or die according to his whims (which vary from moment to moment), but that he doesn’t even enjoy it much; he’s not a sadistic caricature — he sees himself as a guy doing a job, who would really rather not have to be here in frigid Plaszow executing Jews, if not for the troublesome fact that they exist. Goeth is appalling, but Fiennes manages to locate his humanity, the glimmers of kindness or tolerance that make him all the more appalling when he chooses to deny them. After Schindler has told a drunken Goeth that real power is when you have every reason to kill someone but don’t, the audience’s relief is enormous when Goeth actually entertains this advice — for a few hours. He’s as frighteningly capricious as a tornado; the concept of mercy bounces off him.
Generally, Spielberg’s direction is strictly meat and potatoes (though sumptuously photographed by Janusz Kaminski), never regressing to his trademark dolly shots or sense-of-wonder angles. The filmmaking is gritty, hand-held, journalistic, and beautifully compact; the movie’s three hours and fifteen minutes feel like fifteen minutes. Spielberg does, however, get a bit fancy — and offensively so — in the editing of a scene in which Goeth brutalizes his servant (Embeth Davidtz). Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn (whose work is otherwise unimpeachable) bounce us between three scenarios: Goeth abusing the woman, two prisoners being married, and Schindler dancing with a woman. Intellectually, the contrast is readable, but it’s distracting, with intrusive transitional cuts. Goeth has kept this woman alive because he feels something for her, but what? Is it love? Does he see her as sanity in the midst of annihilation — does he hate himself for the part of him that is trying to reach out to her, the human part of himself he must then squelch through sadism? If any scene needed to be straightforward, it was this one. Perhaps, though, Spielberg didn’t want to get too deeply into Night Porter territory.
I also didn’t warm to the finale, invented for the movie, in which Schindler breaks down because he feels he could have saved more Jews. Stern reminds him that he did everything he could; it’s as if Spielberg thought we needed reminding. This emotional display comes out of left field (it’s certainly out of character for Schindler as Neeson plays him for most of the film), and is jarring and beside the point; Schindler, surrounded by people who have real reason to despair, has no right to weep. Spielberg does have the tact to pan across the faces of the workers, most of whom are unmoved by Schindler’s tears — they’re worried about finding their families. The emphasis should be on them, not Schindler. And the coda, shot in color, with actual surviving Schindler Jews being led to Schindler’s grave by members of the movie’s cast, verges on self-congratulation. These people come on for a cameo, and we realize we hardly know most of them as individuals. Again, the emphasis here is wrongly on Schindler, on the Jews’ enduring gratitude to the great German. He was a great man, no question, but the title is Schindler’s List, not Schindler.
Still, overall, Spielberg keeps his head and focuses on what matters, and if Schindler is a bit too overwrought at the end, his presence is welcome elsewhere. Schindler is no Indiana Jones, swashbuckling through Krakow and kicking Nazi ass. His weapons are deception and an unerring business instinct. (Only a die-hard capitalist could convince the Nazis that he wants to divert little girls from Auschwitz not because he cares about them, but because their tiny hands are ideal for polishing the insides of shells.) This is the hero as bullshit artist. Spielberg must sense that without Schindler’s snake-oil charm and bullheaded optimism (you just know he’s a man who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “nein”), the film would be too relentlessly horrifying.
Schindler’s scenes give us respite from the hell of the ghetto and the camps. Big-shouldered and shrewd, Schindler can take care of himself while moving among the vipers; we know he’ll take care of his workers, too. Yet the nonstop cruelty in the camps shows us how limited Schindler’s power is next to a random bullet to the head. Fittingly, Spielberg’s final image is of a road paved with Jewish gravestones. Schindler’s List is equal parts rage and hope: a tribute to those who did what they could (Schindler was far from the only Holocaust samaritan), with a howl of anguish at its core. If Spielberg’s reflexes as an entertainer get the best of him near the end, compelling him to hype Schindler as a saint, that doesn’t seriously mute the film’s cumulative impact. Spielberg is a new filmmaker here. Plunging into the darkest chapter of recent history, a subject so nightmarish it defies comprehension, he uses his considerable resources to heighten whatever understanding we could possibly have of the Holocaust, and at God knows what emotional cost. Spielberg has painted his masterpiece with his own blood.