Rambling ...

I'm an Irish Girl, A Dubliner, with the 'Gift of the Gab' ... I like to talk & to tell you things. In Celtic times news, views and comment were carried from place to place by wandering Seanachaí ~ Storytellers ~ who relied on their host's hospitality and appreciation. I will need that from you too, as I venture to share Politics, Poetry, Laughter, Love, Life & everything in-between ... from Bog to Blog!!

Friday, November 12, 2010

The List is Life!

"Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire."  

It's Friday.  And, In the part of the world I come from we call movies Films. So,  Film Review for Friday for the second week running.  I Suppose I'm adding Film Friday to Movie Monday!!   And given the week that's in it 'Schindler's List' seems so perfect to review.  It is an almost perfect Movie!

Schindler's List (1993) is Steven Spielberg's award-winning masterpiece ~ a profoundly shocking, unsparing, fact-based, three-hour long epic of the nightmarish Shoah.  Italian - American catholic Martin Scorsese was originally slated to direct the film, but turned down the chance, claiming the film needed a director of Jewish descent ~ before turning it over to Spielberg. Then, before the film was made, Spielberg offered Holocaust survivor and director Roman Polanski the job of making the film, but Polanski declined.

Since then, ten years later, Polanski made his own honoured Holocaust film, the Best Director-winning 'The Pianist' (2002).   Equally as Haunting.  Stanley Kubrick abandoned his own plans to make a similar film in the planning stages, called "The Aryan Papers" ~ based on the Louis Begley novel 'Wartime Lies'!

Except for the bookends (its opening and closing scenes) & two other brief shots (the little girl in a red coat and candles burning with orange flames), the entire film in-between is shot in crisp black and white.   The film is marvellous for the way in which it crafts its story without contrived, manipulative Hollywood-ish flourishes (often typical of other Spielberg films).  It is also skillfully rendered with overlapping dialogue, parallel editing, sharp and bold characterizations,  contrasting compositions of the two main characters (Schindler and Goeth),  cinematographic beauty detailing shadows and light with film-noirish tones,  jerky hand-held cameras (cinema verite),  a beautifully selected and composed musical score (including Itzhak Perlman's violin),  and gripping performances all around. 

The Original 'List'
The screenplay by Steven Zaillian was adapted from Thomas Keneally's 1982 biographic novel (Schindler's Ark).  Its documentary authenticity vividly re-creates a dark, frightening period during World War II,  when Jews in Nazi-occupied Krakow were first dispossessed of their businesses and homes,  then placed in ghettos and forced labour camps in Plaszow,  and finally resettled in concentration camps for execution. The violence and brutality of their treatment in a series of matter-of-fact (and horrific) incidents is indelibly and brilliantly orchestrated.

The unanimously-praised film,  with a modest budget of $23 million deservedly won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (the first for Spielberg),  Best Cinematography (Janusz Kaminski), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score (John Williams), Best Editing (Michael Kahn), and Best Art Direction.  It also won nominations for two of its male leads .... Best Actor (Liam Neeson) and Best Supporting Actor (Ralph Fiennes),  Best Costume Design,  Best Sound,  and Best Makeup.  Other organizations including the British Academy Awards,  the New York Film Critics Circle,  and the Golden Globes, likewise honoured the film.  It was the first black/white film since  'The Apartment' (1960) to win the Best Picture Academy Award,  and the most commercially-successful B/W film in cinematic history. In my opinion, deservedly so!!

There have been numerous documentaries and dramatic productions focusing on the Holocaust, including a television mini-series which many consider to be the definitive work. As a result, in deciding to film Schindler's List,  director Steven Spielberg set an imposing task for himself.  His vision needed to differ from that of the film makers who preceded him, yet the finished product had to remain faithful to the unforgettable images which represent the legacy of six million massacred Jews.  Those who see this motion picture will witness Spielberg's success.

Schindler's List gives us three major stories and a host of minor ones. First and foremost, it tells the tale of the Holocaust, presenting new images of old horrors. These are as ghastly and realistic as anything previously filmed, and Spielberg emphasizes the brutality of the situation by not pulling punches when it comes to gore.  The blood, inky rather than crimson in stark black-and-white,  fountains when men and women are shot in the head or through the neck.

  The second story is that of Oskar Schindler, the Nazi businessman who saved 1200 Jews from death. Schindler starts out as a self-centered manufacturer, concerned only about making money. He hires Jews because they're cheap, not because he likes them.  But his perspective changes, and he risks losing everything to save as many lives as he can.  His eventual lament that he couldn't save more is heartbreaking.

The third story belongs to Amon Goeth,  the Nazi commander of Krakow, a man who teeters on the brink of madness. Despite his intense hatred for Jews, he is inexplicably attracted to his Jewish housekeeper,  Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz).  Disgusted by his feelings, he lashes out at her with a display of violence that is almost Scorsese-like in its blunt presentation. As written, Goeth could easily have become a conscienceless monster,  but Spielberg works carefully to show unexpected depth and complexity to his character.

Often, the experiences of the minor characters provide the most lasting images.  Helen's story is memorable, as is the plight of young Danka Dresner and her mother as they strive to avoid death while staying together. There's a Jewish couple that marries in the Plaszow camp, even though their chances of survival are dim, and a Rabbi who survives a close encounter with a Nazi gun.

Of course the Holocaust images are grim, but scenes of mass graves and exhumed bodies are not unique to Schindler's List.  While it's impossible to deny their power,  potentially more distubing are the instances of callous,  individual murder.  Spielberg doesn't spare his audience when it comes to sudden violence or the dehumanizing factors involved in such events. Schindler's List is replete with moments like this.

The acting is uniformly excellent. Liam Neeson's 'Schindler'  is shown in all his complexity, and his transformation is played with studied control. This is no sudden reversal of philosophy,  but a matter of conscience that slowly dawns on the man. With a keen sense of Schindler's character,  Neeson depicts the metamorphosis from self-centered businessman to driven self appointed messiah.

Ben Kingsley, whose Gandhi depiction also transfixed audiences, has the movie's most understated role ~ one that he acts with simple sincerity.  Equally as impressive is Embeth Davidtz, who snares the viewer's attention during her limited screen time as Helen Hirsch, the object of Amon Goeth's twisted affection. Speaking of Goeth, Ralph Fiennes stuns with his intricate, savage portrayal of the Nazi commander,  a man fascinated by power and murder. Fiennes' Goeth has the rare ability to both mesmerize and repulse,  and this is a performance that will long be remembered.

Despite the grisly subject matter,  this movie is essentially about uncovering a kernel of hope and dignity in the midst of a monstrous tragedy.  The story of Oskar Schindler sets this apart from other Holocaust dramas.  Uncompromising in its portrayal of good, evil, and all the shades in between,  Schindler's List offers a clear view of human nature laid bare .... hatred, greed, lust, envy, anger, and, most important of all, empathy and love. Because this film touches us so deeply, the catharsis has a power that few, if any, other moments in film history can match. And that's what establishes this as a transcendent motion picture experience.

And I've added the Music Video below because it clarifies such a defining moment in the movie ... where the extent of the ghetto liquidation is depicted through the eyes of Oskar Schindler as he begins to comprehend the Nazi programme of genocide in its fullest sense.  We see his senses shiver with his conscience as a humane human.  And, the little girl in the Red Coat who touches his comprehension shows the thoroughness of the cleansing sweep that swept through Judaism in Europe's Ghettos in those years.

"Today is history. Today will be remembered. Years from now the young will ask with wonder about this day. Today is history and you are part of it. Six hundred years ago when elsewhere they were footing the blame for the Black Death, Casimir the Great - so called - told the Jews they could come to Krakow. They came. They trundled their belongings into the city. They settled. They took hold. They prospered in business, science, education, the arts. With nothing they came and with nothing they flourished. For six centuries there has been a Jewish Krakow. By this evening those six centuries will be a rumor. They never happened. Today is history."

I did say on commencing this review that this movie was 'almost' perfect.  My two real negative quibbles are this ....  First,  is the old Rabbi whom Goeth chooses to execute, but every German pistol within a stone's throw somehow jams, saving his life and stretching believability too far. Second, and much more egregious, is the scene where the women are led into the shower rooms at Auschwitz but are greeted with water instead of poison gas. This, for me, is unforgivable ~  if there's a single image that sums up the Holocaust's mechanized, efficient destruction of  Judaism, it's the gas chamber, and the cheap "gotcha!" when that water rather than the poisonous gas comes down is among Spielberg's most cowardly mistakes as a director!!

And I'm not sure what I'd think if it turned out to be really true. It feels like melodrama, not reality.  The film is certainly melodramatic at times, especially the scene on the train tracks where Schindler weeps about how many more people he could have saved, but that scene tears me up every time.  I don't mind being manipulated if it's done so well.  And this movie is done Oh! so well in almost every aspect.  These are, however, tiny quibbles in what is essentially a Masterpiece of Cinematic Interpretation.

Watch & Weep!!


  1. I had the same two criticisms. The prospect of a single Walther P .38 jamming (let alone a half dozen) is pretty remote, but not impossible. And the shower scene was simultaneously whorish & horrifying.


    Yeah, it just wasn't believable. Especially when they suddenly killed the lights. 100% pure pandering- and such treatment dilutes the subject matter which deserves a more serious treatment.

    There were a few other rough spots as well.

    But any movie which has ONLY a handful of bumps is on it's way to greatness and this movie is no exception.

    I thought that Liam Neeson & Ben Kingsly were excellent choices.

    The character Amon Goeth was... I don't know. I can't decide if the acting is a masterpiece or a disaster. I will say this: They did an excellent job portraying a sociopath and genuine subhuman. Even on the gallows, he was incapable of self-redemption.

    And of course, the ultimate irony of the Nazis is that genuine subhuman monsters self-justified their evil work by telling themselves that they were cleansing Europe of the allegedly "subhuman."

    :shakes his head in utter disbelief:

    Another thing I noticed- Steven Zillian (an Armenian) wrote the screenplay. That's an interesting choice. I have no idea if it was just coincidence that he was Armenian and just happened to be the best person for the job, or if there was perhaps an intentional subtext which were are supposed to infer from this. I would imagine that a writer with such a background would be able to relate on a personal level and deliver just the right sense of pathos. But perhaps I am reading too much into this choice.

    He could be from China for all I care. The man did an excellent job writing the screenplay.

    If Schindler's List moved you, then I recommend Sophie's Choice & Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days).

  2. A mind blowing review Pana ... perfect in it's critique.

    I didn't know that Seven Zillian was an Armenian, Greg, thanks for that!

    And I agree with the Sophies Choice recommendation per Greg. Both the Novel & the Movie. Meryl Streep equals her 'Deer Hunter' performance!

    Kudos on the review oh! Astute literary one!!!