The AFI Top 100 Films: Schindler’s List (#9)

Entertainment 150Schindler’s List (1993)
Starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley
Written by Steven Zaillian (screenplay) and Thomas Keneally (novel)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

The Holocaust is one of those singular events in history that’s very difficult to wrap your head around. How could an entire country of people stand by and allow the systemic genocide of an entire race? Neighbors, employers, friends and countrymen were rounded up, stuffed inside a terrible, small patch of land, and then finally carried by over-crowded train to camps where they were starved and abused and eventually murdered. How could this happen? How could anyone work within a system that did this?

It’s easy for us to demonize the perpetrators of this atrocity, simply because the idea that they were just people, like us, who gave in to their worst possible impulses is so hard to swallow. Imagining the Nazis as human beings with the same potential for kindness and complexity somehow makes their ability to bring such suffering to their fellow man that much difficult to envision. We want to write them off as simple monsters. We want to write off the people who sat by and watched it happen as either helpless or callous. Doing so means that we never have to think about the fact that, gods help us, it could be us watching this happen or even MAKING it happen.

Schindler’s List tells the story of one man who takes the opportunity of the war to open up a profitable business. Oskar Schindler (Neeson) bribes the SS to open and run a factory, then hires Jewish administrator Itzhak Stern (Kingsley) to handle its operation. Stern hires Jewish labor to make sure as many people are deemed “essential to the war effort” as possible, and Schindler agrees mainly because Jewish labor costs less. Over time, the men begin to bond and, as Schindler is exposed to more and more of the brutality wrought by the Nazi regime, shift the focus of their work from running the business to saving as many lives as possible.

One of Schindler’s friends — and the frequent recipient of his bribes — is Amon Goeth (Fiennes), the overseer of one of the concentration camps Schindler is working so hard to save people from. Goeth is a true psychopath, shooting people at random from his balcony, mistreating his Jewish servant at the same time he covets her, killing one Jewish engineer when she tells him a building’s flaw is so fundamental she won’t sign off on it. Goeth is a fascinating representative of the SS. He is a man who has clearly given himself over to his darkest instincts without question, and there’s clearly something psychologically wrong with him. He is driven, uncompromising, and cruel. Even the affection he displays for Schindler and his maid is tainted with a casual, consistent sneer. Yet while he is clearly evil with very few good qualities to recommend him, Fiennes embodies him with a humanity that’s startling and recognizable.

That’s the major achievement of this film — it doesn’t hyperbolize. It would be easy, given the subject matter, to heighten events to elicit a visceral emotional reaction. Spielberg instead tries to keep everything as grounded as possible, using the artifices of film only very sparingly. The black-and-white cinematography gives the movie a historical weight, and the expertly handled movement of the camera gives it a documentary film. There aren’t any zoom or crane shots, no images chosen for their aesthetics. It doesn’t aim to be high art; it aims to be historical record.

Yet as art Schindler’s List is profoundly effective and extraordinarily moving. Schindler begins the film as a callous, ambitious businessman. He only cares about other people in as far as they can provide him with something. But when he sees just what kind of world he’s moving through on the way to his fortune, he realizes that he has the chance to relieve the suffering of many, many people. And he does so, right under the noses of the people he rubs elbows with.

This transformation is a wonderful thing to behold. What makes it so affecting is that Schindler didn’t throw everything away to oppose the SS regime directly — he worked within its system, using the tools that he had, to stop the atrocities as he could. He was one cog in an enormous machine, and while he didn’t stop Nazi Germany from carrying out its mission, he saved the lives of more than a thousand people.

We often feel that things are happening in the world with a momentum we couldn’t possibly stop. It feels hopeless to even try to resist the tide. What Schindler’s List does is show us that while we might not be able to change everything with our actions, we each possess some small power to change something for the better. All we have to do is decide to do it. Even a small difference is one worth making.

Do I need to talk to you about the quality of the movie? Of course not. When it was released in 1993 it was an instant classic. It won seven Academy Awards and was nominated for another five more. It’s difficult to think of another movie that directly addresses the Holocaust without this coming up first. There’s a reason for that — it’s astonishingly well-made, timeless in its execution, built to serve as a lasting testament to what happened.

It’s most important impact as such, then, is what we take from it. What does it motivate us to do? How does it change the way we think? To me it shows the power of small actions and the importance of backing up your morals with actual application. If you think something is wrong, don’t participate in it, but don’t isolate yourself either. Help right it, however you can.

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