Aug 18, 2010

24FPS Top 100 Films: No. 71

DIR: Steven Spielberg

Why is it on the list?
SCHINDLER’S LIST is a deeply upsetting film, and yet it is also one that re-affirms your faith in humanity, by showing you that even amidst perhaps the most evil act in the history of mankind there were still people doing good. The film is based on Thomas Keneally’s fact based novel Schindler’s Ark, which he wrote after being told the story of Oskar Schindler by one of the Jews he saved from the gas chambers of Auschwitz; Leopold Pfefferberg. Despite Hollywood’s fascination with World War Two the film took some time to get made, passing in the process from Billy Wilder, to Martin Scorsese, who then passed it on to Steven Spielberg, because he felt that this was a story that should be told by a Jewish filmmaker. Offered the film in the mid 1980’s, Spielberg sat on it for nearly a decade, saying that he didn’t feel that he was ready as a filmmaker at the point he was offered the project.

If there was ever a film that could have been marred by Spielberg’s often-sentimental eye, this was it, but (at least up until the epilogue) Spielberg’s gaze is unwavering, and as harsh as the black and white the film is shot in. Though I love many of his earlier films it is clear that this film marks a real shift in its director’s work, it is, in effect, the sight of cinema’s Peter Pan growing up. There are moments that are purely Spielbergian (the little girl in the red coat that he follows through the astonishing twenty minute sequence of the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto) but even these are used to drive home the horror of the events the film documents.
Spielberg had previously demonstrated mastery of action and an ability to capture a sense of magic in his films, but here he delves deep into the real life horror of the holocaust and the assurance with which he captures it is somewhat surprising.

Perhaps the most striking moment of pure cinema in this film, maybe in Spielberg’s career, is the unbearable ten minute sequence in which a train full of Schindler Jews is mistakenly directed to Auschwitz Birkenau, as they are processed the sense of doom and despair grows ever heavier, and then when, in the shower room, water flows from shower heads that would usually dispense gas it is a moment of such unalloyed joy. Those ten minutes alone mark SCHINDLER’S LIST as the work of a master filmmaker, but the rest of the film is just as strong.

For this film Spielberg assembled a cast made up of an interesting mix of established character actors like Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes and newcomers like Embeth Davidtz. From Neeson’s powerful and complex leading performance (Schindler, a committed nazi, was no angel and neither Neeson nor the film paint him as one) all the way on down to Bjork’s brief cameo appearance as a Jew Schindler takes a shine to at his birthday party, there’s not a wrong note struck by the performances. Several stand out though; Ben Kingsley’s dignified Itzhak Stern is one. Embeth Davidtz, who deserves to have a much higher profile career, is exceptional as Helen Hirsch, a beautiful Jewish worker with whom Ralph Fiennes’ concentration camp commandant falls in love, especially in one scene in which Fiennes, trying to decide whether to kiss her, compares Jews to rats.

It is, however, an Oscar nominated Ralph Fiennes who walks away with the film. As Amon Goeth he is truly, perfectly, loathsome. It’s a performance more chilling than any horror film, because Goeth is a finely etched portrait of the utter banality of evil. He doesn’t kill Jews because he’s evil, or because he hates them. He kills them because it’s his job, and sometimes because he’s bored. So completely did he pull off the illusion of becoming Goeth that when he was introduced on set to the woman who inspired the Helen Hirsch character she began shaking. Fiennes commits totally to bringing Goeth to life, and never lets him simply become a two dimensional bogeyman, which makes him even more hateful and even more terrifying.

SCHINDLER’S LIST is a film you can’t help but have a reaction to. It upsets, it infuriates, it terrifies. It is, as well as being a great film, a truly important one, a film that, while it couldn’t be accused of dispassion in its documenting of the holocaust, is never exploitative and can take its place among the great pieces of art and great statements made about the holocaust.

Standout Scenes
The scourging of the Krakow ghetto was one of the great crimes of the second world war, and here Spielberg plunges us into that nightmare from ground level. It’s a sequence he’s never matched for intensity since.

Is this the face of a rat?
A vile monologue from Goeth, but delivered in a perversely affectionate to to a completely petrified Helen Hirsch (Davidtz)

The Train
The ten minute sequence that takes the Schindler Jews to and through Auschwitz Birkenau is the single most nightmarish thing Steven Spielberg has ever put on film.

Memorable Lines
Amon Goeth: They cast a spell on you, you know, the Jews. When you work closely with them, like I do, you see this. They have this power. It's like a virus. Some of my men are infected with this virus. They should be pitied, not punished. They should receive treatment because this is as real as typhus. I see it all the time.

Amon Goeth: This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that. That's cruel!

Itzhak Stern: This list... is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.

Reiter: I'm a graduate of Civil Engineering from the University of Milan.
Amon Goeth: Ah, an educated Jew... like Karl Marx himself. Unterscharfuehrer!
Hujar: Jawohl?
Amon Goeth: Shoot her.
Reiter: Herr Kommandant! I'm only trying to do my job!
Amon Goeth: Ja, I'm doing mine.

Oskar Schindler: I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don't know. If I'd just... I could have got more.
Itzhak Stern: Oskar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.
Oskar Schindler: If I'd made more money... I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I'd just...
Itzhak Stern: There will be generations because of what you did.
Oskar Schindler: I didn't do enough!
Itzhak Stern: You did so much.
[Schindler looks at his car]
Oskar Schindler: This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people.
[removing Nazi pin from lapel]
Oskar Schindler: This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this.
Oskar Schindler: I could have gotten one more person... and I didn't! And I... I didn't!

Amon Goeth: I would like so much to reach out to you and touch you in your loneliness. What would it be like, I wonder? What would be wrong with that? I realize that you are not a person in the strictest sense of the word, but, um, maybe you're right about that too. Maybe what's wrong, it's not us, it's this... I mean, when they compare you to vermin, to rodents and to lice. I just, uh, you make a good point. You make a very good point. Is this the face of a rat? Are these the eyes of a rat? "Hath not a Jew eyes?" I feel for you Helen.
[leaning forward to kiss her]. No, I don't think so. You Jewish bitch, you nearly talked me into it, didn't you?


  1. Not to increase your dislike of the Oscars, but Ralph didn't actually win. A phenomenal film though, glad to see it on this list.

  2. Ooops. Will correct that tomorrow. And, because you can't say it often enough; Fuck the Oscars.

  3. Whatever happened to this series of articles? I was quite enjoying them.

  4. I'm really sorry. I WILL get started on this again soon, just been rather busy I'm afraid. I'll try and bash out no. 70 by the middle of next week.