- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Writers: Steven Zaillian, based on the novel Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally
- Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagall, Embeth Davidtz, Malgorzata Gebel, Mark Ivanir, Beatrice Macola, Andrzej Seweryn, Friedrich von Thun, Norbert Weisser, Anna Mucha, Adi Nitzan, Piotr Polk, Rami Heuberger, Ezra Dagan, Elina Lowensohn, Hans-Jorg Assmann, Hans-Michael Rehberg, Daniel Del Ponte, August Schmolzer, Ludger Pistor, and Oliwia Dabrowska
- Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#8), 7 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Steven Spielberg, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Liam Neeson, Best Supporting Actor – Ralph Fiennes, Best Costumes, Best Makeup, Best Sound)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to Showtime, Buy or Rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
It is hard to fathom today, but polls of Americans and Europeans prior to the 1993 release of Schindler’s List showed that many people did not have a good idea what had happened in the Holocaust. It was that educational purpose that caused Steven Spielberg to finally make the movie when he did, after putting it off for at least a decade. His studio agreed to finance a movie that they assumed no one would want to see, on the condition that Spielberg direct Jurassic Park first. Today, most people did not live through the Holocaust or World War II, but there is something about Schindler’s List, whether it’s Spielberg’s unflinching gaze or his key decision to film the movie in black and white, that makes many people feel like they know exactly what happened. Schindler’s List has thus done more to educate the public on the horrors of the Holocaust than any other movie, even any of the crucial documentaries on the subject.
The movie is based on a Booker-prize winning historical novel by the Australian writer Thomas Keneally, but it is a real story. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) was a Czech-German industrialist who used his status as one of the in-crowd with the Nazis to save approximately 600 Jews during the Holocaust. He did this by having them work in his factory and having them classified as “essential workers.” For much of its length, from a pure plot perspective, it’s a movie about a con man, except that instead of conning people out of money he’s conning the Nazis into letting the Jews live. He is assisted throughout by his accountant Itzhak Stern (a composite of several historical figures), played by Ben Kingsley. Ralph Fiennes plays a hulking concentration camp commandant, who lives in a large villa above the camp where he can randomly shoot the interned Jews for sport. At the end of the movie, Spielberg shows us the actual, real-life people Schindler saved, now elderly, along with their descendants, paying their respects at Schindler’s grave. It is a moving statement of the power of one human being to make a difference even at the darkest of times.
The movie frames the Holocaust as a struggle between “absolute good” and “absolute evil,” the latter personified by Fiennes’ character. But interestingly, it centers around a main character in Schindler that we’re not actually sure is a good guy. We see glimpses of him being a sleazy womanizer, and he and his wife are seen to be on the rocks. Even in normal times, we get the sense that he basically makes his living ripping people off. At the same time, he pushes his efforts to save the Jews obsessively, far beyond the point of danger to himself and everyone else involved. Schindler is depicted as the right man in the right place at the right time, and maybe that it is all it takes to make someone a hero.
I had dreaded coming to this movie, thinking it would be very depressing, but I actually found it, if not uplifting, surprisingly watchable, for the most part. That assessment should, of course, be qualified with the statement that this is a three-hour movie that does not shy away from depicting many of the horrors of its subject. In particular, the desperate 15-minute sequence depicting the “Liquidation” of the Krakow Ghetto is truly devastating. But there is something in Schindler’s ongoing con that lightens proceedings. This is obviously not a comedy, but the characters do make at least a few jokes, as actual humans do even in the darkest of times. And there are moments of, if not joy, then at least catharsis, as in the moment where Schindler gets the Nazis to hose down a line of railway cars filled with Jews in the sweltering heat.
In film circles, Schindler’s List is probably the closest thing to a sacred cow that you’ll find, but even so it has not been above its share of criticism over the years. The director Claude Lanzmann, whose Shoah is perhaps the definitive factual documentary about the subject, said that he just didn’t think any fiction should be made about the Holocaust, even if it is “based on fact,” and also criticized Spielberg for telling the story through the eyes of a German. Stanley Kubrick had been planning his own movie about the Holocaust, but dropped the idea completely after seeing Schindler’s List. A writer asked him if that was because he thought it to be a great movie about the Holocaust, and Kubrick replied that the Holocaust “is about six million people who died. Schindler’s List is about 600 people that didn’t.” Others have criticized the movie for giving the impression that it was possible to survive the Holocaust if you were clever enough, like Schindler and his assistant Stern, and for the somewhat bait-and-switchy scene where several of the female characters are herded naked into a shower and we’re worried they’re all about to be gassed, but water comes out of the shower heads instead. I agree with the assessment that this last scene, using concentration camp showers to basically build movie suspense, seems like an error in judgment, but I would definitely say that Schindler’s List has done far more good than bad over the years since its release.
The great Northern Irish actor Liam Neeson had been in a wide variety of small and medium parts in a lot of movies over the decade prior to his casting as Oskar Schindler (his big break came when director John Boorman saw him on stage in Belfast and decided to cast him in Excalibur). However, it would be this role that put Neeson into the top tier of star actors, where he has remained to this day. This was also the first film role for Fiennes, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it proved to be inspired casting. Fiennes reportedly looked so convincing as a Nazi that many of the actual Holocaust survivors involved in the movie felt uncomfortable around him, and conversely an elderly Polish local felt compelled to walk up to him and tell him that she thought the Nazis had always gotten a bad rap and “they never killed anyone who didn’t deserve it.” He has gone on to a long, illustrious career, including several other iconic villain roles, such Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise, a psychotic crime boss in In Bruges, and a serial killer in Red Dragon, along with less villainous roles, including as the title character in the Best Picture-winning The English Patient.
Schindler’s List also launched a new, more “mature” phase of Spielberg’s career, in which he often took on “more serious” material than the likes of Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park. While Spielberg still made many more “popcorn” movies as time went on, he also made Saving Private Ryan, Munich, and The Post, among many others. But of course, the biggest legacy of Schindler’s List is in preserving the memories of people, at a time when many of the people who actually remember them are passing away themselves. For me personally, the most memorable scene in the film comes near the end, as the Red Army marches toward Schindler’s factory. He knows that he will be seen by the Russians as a war profiteer and killed, so he has to flee before the factory is “liberated.” Before he leaves, his workers present him with a gold ring inscribed with the words “he who saves a life has saved a world entire.” Schindler breaks down in tears, not exactly because he is moved by the generosity of this gift from people who have nothing, but because he does not feel he deserves it. He collapses, muttering “I should have done more,” over and over, while surrounded by hundreds of people whose lives he saved.