Schindler's List (1993)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Embeth Davidtz
Reviewing a film like Schindler's List isn't easy. Either I'm going to repeat most every reviewer and call it excellent, or I can be that guy who disagrees, just to be disagreeable.
I'm not going to be that guy. The film is excellent. It's one of the most haunting films I've ever seen, if not THE most haunting film I've ever seen. It's a difficult film to watch, purposefully, but an important film to watch. I'm usually loathe to call a movie "important", but I think this qualifies.
A lot of people will watch such a film once, remark on its quality, and never watch it again. Which is their prerogative, and I understand why, but I feel that doing so lessens the overall impact of the movie, and the viewers appreciation of it (which, I suppose, is true of all movies). After one viewing, most will be affected by the most intense scenes of the film. So much so that other calmer, and important, scenes will go forgotten. The intense scenes of the sadistic Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) shooting prisoners from his balcony, the girl in the red jacket (the only colour used in the narrative portion of the film), the mistaken trip to Auschwitz, and the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow (possibly the most affecting scene I've ever seen in a movie) get burned into the memory of the viewer, overshadowing other scenes.
Which makes re-visiting the movie from time to time a rewarding (for lack of a better word) experience. The film is actually around 40 minutes in before any of the truly harsh scenes start in, which gave me the weird feeling of discomfort as those scenes drew closer. As the impending doom crept closer, I started to wonder why I decided to spend a Sunday night watching it. Surely, there are more pleasant ways to spend an evening.
But, I wasn't looking for pleasant anyway. I was looking for brilliance. Also, as numbingly horrifying the events in Schindler's List are, the overall message of the film is a positive one, revealing the difference one person can make. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) put together a factory using Jewish labour for one reason, to make money cheaply during the war, and when faced with the choice of taking his money and leaving, or doing something, he wound up saving the lives of 1100 Jews while most of the world looked the other way. His story, as similar stories have, proves the lie that many like to tell about World War II Germans. Many like to think that there wasn't anything they could do. If they tried to help, they'd be killed. But the choice to help was there, but most people chose to look the other way, or participate, while millions of Jews were rounded up and murdered. I'm not saying that resistance was an easy choice. I'm not saying that resistance wasn't a dangerous choice. But it was a choice. A choice many did not make. Sure, Oskar Schindler had a unique opportunity to save thousands, but others could and did help a few people, or one person. But they didn't.
That's the biggest lesson of the film for me, that there are moral absolutes in this world that need to be defended, even if doing so puts your own life in danger. Just following orders is not an excuse, not when those orders require one to engage in genocide.
Getting back to the movie, it is truly Steven Speilberg's masterpiece, fully deserving of the 7 Oscars it collected in 1994 (including Best Picture). The only mis-step in this otherwise flawless film is the scene near the end after the fleeing Schindler receives the ring from his Jewish workers and he proceeds to go into a drama queen sob-fest on how he could have saved a few more by selling his car or his gold pin. It's overwrought and doesn't fit with the rest of the film. The Onion A.V. Club listed it in their "When Bad Scenes Happen To Great Movies" article. But, the rest of the film's brilliance more than makes up for it.
For those watching on DVD, be sure to check out the Voices from the List documentary. This 77 minute film interviews surviving Schindler Jews, many of whom are characters featured in the film, who share their remembrances of the man and their experiences. It turns out that many of the scenes in the movie are true stories from their experiences. In particular, I always wondered if the scene where the women are mistakenly taken to Auschwitz instead of Schindler's camp in Czechoslovakia, and were stripped, shaved, and forced into a shower room ever happened. It turns out, it did happen, and like in the movie, the women were unsure whether or not they were being showered or gassed. It turns out that they ended up spending three weeks in Auschwitz before Schindler was able to get them out.