By John H. Foote


My apologies it has taken so long to get to number one of my top movies of the 90s, but I found this decade more difficult to write about than any other. It certainly wasn’t because I was having difficulty choosing. There was never any doubt in my mind: my first choice was going to be Schindler’s List. The film simply towered over every other film through the decade.

I remember listening to other critics attack the film for the scene when the people portrayed in the movie appear with the actors who play them at the grave of Schindler. Many critics called it a weirdly happy ending, complaining that only Spielberg would dare to find a happy ending in a film about the Holocaust. How ludicrous to think any film about this event in human history have a happy ending? As these elderly people walk arm in arm with the actors, I made an immediate connection with the horrors they had experienced, things human beings should never see nor go through, locked forever in their minds, seared within. Spielberg chose to celebrate the act of heroism that Oskar Schindler carried out, but a happy ending? Not even close. How could it be after the three plus hours of human carnage we had just experienced.

Seeing Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’ List nearly 30 years after its release and staggering success, I was stunned yet again by the mastery of the film and the choices Spielberg made as a director. Diving into his heritage for the first time, giving himself over to the horrors of the Holocaust, it felt as though he was becoming an artist for the first time. That of course is nonsense because Spielberg had long since established himself as an artist since breaking through with Jaws (1975), one of the most tightly made thrillers of all time and arguably the greatest horror film ever made. His films were often dreamscapes, filled with hope and optimism for the human race and what might lie beyond our world. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) was an extraordinary experience, the last 45 minutes among the most breathtaking emotional sequences ever filmed as man comes in contact with alien beings. Five years later, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) soared into the hearts of the entire world, premiering at Cannes to a prolonged ovation that left its audience wiping away tears.

When Spielberg tried to explore the darkness of the world with The Color Purple (1985), he did so for all the wrong reasons and failed because of that. Coveting an Academy Award for Best Director, which he saw as acceptance of his artistry, but how could they give him an Oscar, a white director making a film about the horrors of being black and experiencing the lasting impact of slavery? The Color Purple received eleven Academy Award nominations, but Best Director was not among them, perhaps a greater slap in the face than his not being nominated for Jaws years earlier. Yet I found little to admire in the film, perhaps because I consider truth essential to great cinema. Though Whoopi Goldberg gives a luminous performance the film feels false, and forced, a Disneyesque version of the black experience in 20th-century America, meaning nothing like it was. There is not an organic moment in the entire film, and the adaptation of a great book was ruined. He became stronger with his next film, Empire of the Sun (1987) in which he explored the loss of childhood brilliantly. The final shot of Jamie showing an old man, his childhood gone, lost in the prisoner of war camp and everything he saw there. Empire of the Sun remains among his greatest works, and despite failing at the box office, it quickly became a major hit on home video, as word-of-mouth saved it.

Neither Always (1989) nor the abomination that is Hook (1991) are worth any mention here, but it should be said that when he headed off to Poland to make Schindler’s List he was also hard at work editing Jurassic Park (1993), which would become the highest grossing film of all time and revolutionize the art of the visual effects.

With Schindler’s List, the director went to another level of mastery, that which is reserved for the finest of the cinema–Ford, Kubrick, Cocteau, Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini, Ray, Scorsese and Coppola. No one would ever think of him as a “wiz kid” again.

The decision to shoot the film in black and white did not just serve the purpose of creating something that looked like the newsreel footage of the Holocaust we have seen for many years. It also created the impression on screen that life is being drained over the course of three hours, brought back only at the end when we see the real survivors and benefactors of Schindler.

Liam Neeson

The film opens with colour, the lighting of a candle and a dinner asking for peace among a family of Jews. The moment ends and we are plunged into the hell of what it was to be a Jew in this era. The endless lining up and the terrible lists, juxtaposing Schindler’s List which is one of life. Using Jewish financing, he sets up factories as a war profiteer, hiring only Jewish workers keeping them safe from the concentration camps. He is a member of the Nazi party, or is he? He sits and drinks with the Nazis, or is he setting them up for his master plan? Who is using whom? Working with Stern (Ben Kingsley), his gentle bookkeeper and contact for the Jewish people, diligently creating a list of the people he wants to keep safe. It seems to become his life’s work.

Twice he sees a little girl running, wearing a red coat, like a drop of blood in the middle of this black and white horror. She moves slowly, with purpose through the chaos of the ghetto, finding a place to hide. Does she live? Later we get our answer when Schindler recognizes that same red coat on a wheelbarrow, dug out of a mass grave being burned in order to get rid of the evidence of what they have done at the Camp. The look on Schindler’s face is heartbreaking, the realization of what his countrymen are doing.

Even when suspected of protecting Jews, he continues, spending a great deal of money to keep them safe, even travelling to the dreaded Auschwitz when a group of his female workers are sent by accident. Rushing to the camp, he demands they be released and boldly admonishes the camp’s leaders for allowing this to happen. In a superbly edited sequence, the train arrives in the camp and the women are unloaded like cattle and their clothes stripped off them. They are taken into a chamber where we expect to see gas flow from the pipes and faucets above them but instead cold, cleansing water pours down upon their joyous faces. Saved by Schindler, they are taken back to the factory, but the eyes of the Nazis are now keenly focused on him.

He spends everything he has made on saving them, these 1,100 whose lives mean nothing to the Nazis or Hitler, but everything to Schindler. H becomes obsessed with saving them. All around them is horror, yet they survive each day because of his wheeling and dealing. Schindler watches the stunning inhumanity with which Goeth treats the Jews, picking them off with his rifle from the balcony of his villa, arrogantly pardoning one of them but unable to contain his fury, shooting him as he walks across the campgrounds, even beating his Jewish maid because he is attracted to her, but believes she is a lower form of life. He shoots a Jewish girl trained as an architect for daring to speak out about the building of a housing unit. She was right, and after she is shot, he does it her way. In every manner, Goeth is a monster, the absolute essence of a Nazi, arrogant, filled with hatred for Jews, and drunk with power.

Why did Schindler save the Jews? Was it his plan all along or was he changed somehow along the way? Did seeing the little girl in the red dress alter him in some manner he did not expect? He is a complete enigma to us, and we never know why he does what he does. He spends all his money doing it, all the wealth he gained during the war was spent saving the Jews.

When Steven Spielberg chose the film, he made some serious decisions. One, it must be shot in Europe; two, it must be in black and white; three, the length was inconsequential, and it would be as long as it needed to be; four, realism was essential; and five, he needed an actor with no reputation to play Schindler. Spielberg knew casting was crucial, and he did not want any actors whom he had worked with before because there would be an attachment to the previous role. Though he did table readings with Warren Beatty, Mel Gibson and Robert Duvall, and liked what he saw, he decided on a relative unknown: the Irish actor Liam Neeson, a towering man of six foot four, who he had seen onstage in a play. Neeson got the role of a lifetime and knew it. You could not very well have Harrison Ford play Schindler and have the audience thinking of Indiana Jones. Warren Beatty truly wanted the role and was bitterly disappointed when Spielberg went in a different direction. Yet, ever the good sport, he made clear Spielberg knew his admiration for the film, calling it “the greatest work of our generation.”

For the scenes set in the death camp of Auschwitz, Spielberg had hoped to gain access for his film, but since it is a museum now, the permission to shoot within was denied. Spielberg came up with a unique solution, getting approval to build a replica of the camp outside the gates. Thus, when the train is pulling into the camp with the women aboard, it was actually pulling out of the real camp into the replica. The overall production design of the film was remarkable, as every tiny detail transported the audience into Nazi Germany and the hell of the Holocaust.

What struck me most about the film, beyond the superb cinematography and magnificent acting, was the portrayal of death. A shot in the head and the body crumples to the ground, no glory, no grand gesture, just dead. The brain has been eradicated by the bullet, and everything stops at once. One shot, the person drops as blood pumps furiously out of the wound, but they are dead before they hit the ground. It was sobering, heartbreaking,

Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley

Beyond Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, an actor discovered on British television, was extraordinary as Goeth, a monster who was hung by the allies after the war, a Nazi to the end, actually attempting a Heil Hitler as the chair was kicked from under him.

Ben Kinglsey as Stern is the quiet conscience of the film and of Schindler, so quiet we might not remember the sound of his voice after the film. Yet he is there and forceful when he is needed to be, padding the list that Schindler holds so dear, elevating the numbers because he knows the list means life. It is a beautiful performance from an actor who knows what presence is, and how to use it to perfection. You do not have to be speaking on film to be in the moment. Watch Stern’s face as a witness to the moments of horror in the Holocaust. His genuine fear when the Nazis burst into the ghetto, his terror on the train, the look of horror as he walks across the yard with Goeth firing shots. When Schindler breaks down in the yard before leaving them, it is Stern who holds him as he sobs, and Stern who supports his legs when they fail him. It is Stern who hands him the gold ring they have had made from the teeth of one of the men, inscribed “He who saves one life saves the world entire” from the Talmud, which Schindler proudly puts on his finger.

Spielberg’s direction is nothing short of astounding throughout the film. He simply is incapable of a weak moment. And his choices are bold, courageous, inspired. Never before has a narrative captured the Holocaust so authentically, capturing as much of its ugliness as we have seen on film. He had nothing more to prove as a director. Schindler’s List began winning awards on its march to the Academy Awards when the New York Film Critics named it the year’s best film, with Best Supporting Actor going to Fiennes. Perhaps to spread the wealth, they chose Jane Campion as Best Director for The Piano. Campion later said, though flattered, she felt silly accepting the award when everyone in the room knew the greater achievement was that of Spielberg.

The critics on the west coast did not make that silly mistake and honoured Spielberg with both Best Picture and Best Director, which was copied by the critics in Boston and Chicago and finally the esteemed National Society of Film Critics.

Spielberg won his first Directors Guild Award as Best Director and when the Oscar nominations were announced, Schindler’s List led the pack with twelve nominations, including Best Picture, Actor (Neeson), Director, Supporting Actor (Fiennes), Screenplay, Musical Score, Cinematography, Production Design, Costumes, Make Up, Sound and Film Editing. On Oscar night, bolstered by his other 1993 film Jurassic Park, Spielberg soared with ten awards spread over his two films, three for his dinosaur epic, and seven for Schindler’s list including Best Picture and at last, Best Director.

In the years since, his work has been formidable, often as brave as this film was. Five years after winning his first Academy Award for Best Director he would win his second for the searing war epic Saving Private Ryan (1998). Liberated from the pressure he placed on himself to be respected by the Hollywood community, he could make anything he wanted. With Schindler’s List he had made a film that was accepted as a work of art, one that ennobled the art form.

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