By John H. Foote
Is it possible that a quarter of a century has passed since Schindler’s List (1993) was first seen on the big screen? The film forever altered the career of Steven Spielberg, the academic community’s perception of Spielberg, and the opinion of far to many critics who considered him a director of mere entertainment. Here was a bold work of cinematic art in which the director was in touch with his own heritage for the first time.
A true story, based on an excellent book, Spielberg was initially afraid to do the film. Finally, summoning the courage he approached Universal and was told, yes, they would make it, but he would have to make Jurassic Park (1993) first. Asking why, they answered, because if you make it right you will never be able to make pure entertainment films again.
What was astonishing about the film, nearly everything, was that the gifted director threw away all his toys, all his filmmaking tricks, using hand held cameras for almost all of the shots which gave the film an urgency, an up close and personal intimacy to what was happening. For a film so filled with death, and there is death everywhere, it brims with hope. Here was a man, a Nazi, a believer in Hitler (at first) who sees terrible things taking place right in front of him, right under his nose, and very quietly does something about it. No one knows why, or when the change in Oskar Schindler took place, only that it did, and eleven hundred Jewish workers were saved. There are six thousand descendants of those people, six thousand living souls because of Schindler. The man was a war profiteer, he was using the Jews to make money, but at some point, saw a terrible injustice and would go broke protecting those who worked for him.
Spielberg knew he had to tell this story, but also was aware he could not make the film as he had previously made any of his films. No shooting stars, no beautiful, sweeping crane shots, no soaring musical score, no movie stars, nothing that was Spielberg-esque. He knew that this had to be unique, hyper realistic, to capture the soul of the story.
Every major actor of the day wanted to be his Schindler. Warren Beatty did a table read with the cast, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and Harrison Ford were all considered. Robert Duvall, one of the screens greatest actors wanted the role, and physically was right, but Spielberg wanted someone else with apologies to Duvall. He had seen his Schindler onscreen, in small roles, and after seeing him onstage he cast Irish actor Liam Neeson, a towering six foot five inches, with an intensity that would be perfect for the role, and not yet well enough known to bring with him any baggage or familiarity.
Spielberg fought Universal to shoot the film in black and white, believing audiences had only ever experienced the Holocaust in those colours, and he wanted to shoot on location in Europe. Though, the keepers of Auschwitz could not allow him to shoot within the gates, they did permit him to build a replica camp just outside the gates. While he shot the film, he was at night supervising the edit of Jurassic Park (1993) which would become the highest grossing film of all time after its release in May.
When Schindler’s List (1993) screened for critics, we emerged from those screening rooms stunned, our breath had been taken away. Nothing prepared us for what Spielberg had accomplished, nothing could have prepared us for the artistry with which he had made the film. Though he had made masterpieces in the past, Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of The Lost Ark (1981), Empire of the Sun (1987) and his masterpiece, E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) each brilliant. We knew Spielberg was a great storyteller, but the Holocaust? Could he?
He could and he did.
Schindler’s List (1993) is a dark, frightening, powerful film about one of the darkest periods in human history. The Nazis are routinely rounding up the Jewish population and displacing them from their homes or just killing them in the street. It is the beginning of what will become known as Hitler’s final solution. Not yet realizing the extent of the madness to come, Schindler hires eleven hundred Jews to work in his plant, and gradually becomes friends with his advisor Stern (Ben Kingsley). One day while out riding his horses, Schindler watches the evacuation of the ghetto, and seeing the massacre, realizes what is happening. His eyes find a child moving through the mayhem and murder dressed in a red coat, like a drop of blood. Stunned at what he sees, he is further horrified when he sees the child again, being pulled out of a mass grave, and tossed on a fire.
Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is the camp commandant with whom Schindler does most of his dealings. Utterly psychotic, Fiennes kills for fun, for sport, shooting the Jews from his balcony with his rifle. In Goeth we experience Nazism incarnate, he believes in Hitler, because his belief in Hitler allows him to behave in the cruel manner he does. Schindler manages to convince Goeth, for a hefty bribe to keep his Jews together, but he does so at his own peril.
When the war ends, it is Schindler who is the fugitive, dressing in rags to avoid detection. His tearful farewell to the Jews he saved is powerful cinema, as he breaks down at what he did not do, failing to see what he did.
Spielberg ran into some criticism for the films epilogue in which the elderly Schindler Jews or their relatives gather with the actors portraying them at the grave of Schindler. Lining up each leaves a small rock, Jewish tradition on the grave of the man who saved them. Some silly critics looking for something negative to say accused the director of trying to find a happy ending within a Holocaust film. How could there possibly be a happy ending of any kind after the murder and inhumane acts we have witnessed?
The reviews were rapturous, absolute raves from all those who mattered.
Neeson was superb as the enigmatic Schindler, capturing the mystery of the man, never allowing us to see when this change came over him. It is a towering performance which earned the actor an Academy Award nomination for a Best Actor.
As the evil Goeth, Ralph Fiennes was a revelation creating perhaps the most accurate and realistic study of Nazi corruption on film. Drunk with power, he cannot help himself from killing them, even after being told the greater power is to pardon them. Fiennes too was Oscar nominated, for Best Supporting Actor, and won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor.
It remains a dirty secret that the film was a huge box office success, just under four hundred million on a twenty five-million-dollar budget. To his credit, Spielberg took no fee, and used his profits to build and fund the Shoah Holocaust Museum.
Other than some lightweight critics, the film received rave reviews from all the major critics, and then began the march to Oscar. Schindler’s List (1993) swept the major critics Best Picture Awards, winning Best Director awards from the National Society Of Film Critics, the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild, and his second prize from the DGA Awards.
Come Oscar night, it was the Spielberg show, with Jurassic Park (1993) winning three, and Schindler’s List (1993) winning seven, including at long last, his first Oscar for Best Director. He had made a film that transcended the art form, somehow elevated cinema, ennobling film.
He had created the film for which he will be remembered, a searing, startling, profound work of art.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.