Revisiting Schindler’s List

I loved Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List when I first saw it in 1993. It blew me away. Within a year or so I bought the Laserdisc (used), and watched it two or three times over the next decade. I recently revisited it for the first time in maybe 15 years – this time via Netflix. It’s still an excellent film, one of the best to deal with the Holocaust, and certainly the most accessible to a wide audience.

But it has flaws serious enough to keep it out of my A+ list. I can’t discuss the major shortcomings without spoiling, so I’ll save them for the end of this article.

Has anyone else noticed that Schindler’s List is a white savior movie? That’s a film about a white man (always a man) who saves oppressed people of color. Avatar is a particularly offensive example. I think most people missed that about Schindler’s List because everyone in the film is, by most people’s standards, white.

The movie’s white savior, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) starts out as a horrible human being. He’s a war profiteer, a womanizer, an exploiter of slave labor, and a member of the Nazi party. The only thing in his favor is that he doesn’t hate Jews; he just wants to exploit their terrible situation. (I’m not referring to the actual, historical Oskar Schindler; I’m concerned here only with the film, which I consider fiction.)

But he changes over the film’s 195 minutes, which covers more than five years of story. initially, Schindler protects his workers, and gets extra food for them, because it’s good business. He doesn’t have to train new employees. But slowly, as the noose tightens around their necks, making a profit becomes secondary to keeping these people alive. Eventually, his business is just a front for protecting Jews.

Schindler has an angel whispering in his ear: his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley). Meek and worried, often groveling, Stern brings more and more people into Schindler’s “employment,” where they are unlikely to be starved, shot, or gassed.

Actor Ralph Fiennes creates one of the most fascinating of movie Nazis in camp commandant Amon Goeth. He enjoys his job and especially likes killing Jews. He gladly takes bribes from Schindler and other industrialists. He drinks to extreme excess, as if something inside is eating its way out. He’s attracted to one of his prisoners – a young Jewish woman he picks to be his maid – and the attraction confuses him. He beats her for little reason or no reason at all. And yet his feelings for her sometimes bends towards chivalry.

One short and fascinating sequence cuts back and forth between Schindler and Goeth shaving. One’s facing left, the other right. It suggests they are mirror images of each other.

Spielberg creates several sequences of horrific violence, the strongest of which is the emptying of the Kraków Ghetto. The SS march in, led by Goeth, and load everyone onto trucks. Well, at least everyone they don’t shoot. This harrowing sequence runs, I think, about half an hour.

This sequence contains the first of three scenes where a colored object appears in what is otherwise a black and white film. When I first saw Schindler’s List in 35mm, these spot color scenes looked awful; the technology for projecting color and black and white simultaneously just wasn’t good enough in 1993. That’s not a problem anymore.

Schindler’s List is a harrowing and disturbing film. Anything about the Holocaust should be harrowing and disturbing. But it’s also inspiring. It’s about a man who saved 1,100 people from mass murder.

I can’t discuss the film’s main flaws without spoilers. So, if you haven’t seen the film or don’t care about spoiling, stop reading now.

Okay, on with the flaws:

Schindler’s List develops several supporting Jewish characters, and it makes you care for them. And every single one of these characters survives. We see a lot of Jews murdered in the film, but not a single one that we really get to know. For a Holocaust film, that’s a cheat.

But it gets worse. Late in the film, a clerical error ships hundreds of Schindler Jews to Auschwitz, where they’re shorn, stripped, and marched into the showers. Spielberg designed the entire sequence to make the audience believe that these people are about to be gassed. But this time, it really is just a shower, and they live long enough to be rescued by Schindler.

While this provides great relief for the audience, it’s an even bigger cheat. Those who went into those “showers” didn’t come out alive. Some ninety percent of Polish Jews died in the Holocaust. By focusing entirely on the survivors, Schindler’s List makes it less horrible than it was.

The other problem is minor by comparison. At the end, Schindler makes two big speeches that seem sentimental and out of character. In the first of them, he even puts the lives of “his” Jews in danger merely for a rhetorical flourish. That’s a strange way to treat people for whom you’ve risked your life and lost your fortune.