Brad’s April Escape - Part 12
April 20 - Schindler's List
Each weekday this month, I’ll screen a film from The Bearded Trio Cinematic Universe and list 10 random scenes, characters, musical cues or performances that I particularly enjoy and look forward to upon every viewing. I’d love to hear similar little things you enjoy about these films, and hope you join me in this escape from the present-day world.
Next up is the most important film Steven Spielberg will ever make, Schindler's List (1993).
Schindler's List - An Introduction
Let's get this out of the way - I hated this film as I was watching it in the theater with a couple of college friends in December 1993.
I didn't know any of the back story of Schindler's List. I had a vague idea that it was set in the World War II time frame, and that my beloved Steven Spielberg was directing. I settled into my seat ready to be entertained in the same Spielbergian way since enjoying Raiders of the Lost Ark 12 years earlier.
Almost immediately, that bad taste crept into my mouth. "What is this?" I asked myself. My face probably grew more and more red as this film progressed. "Look, I came to the theater to enjoy a movie, not to go to history class" was the sentence bouncing around my brain for the three difficult hours that this film takes up.
What I wasn't old or mature enough to understand is that I was watching a film that cannot be labeled with the word "entertainment." It's hard even today to honestly classify it as anything other than an historical document of supreme importance.
By just about any metric, Steven Spielberg is the defining storyteller of his age. He has explored depths of humanity's past, present and future with a flair and skill unparalleled, all the while thrilling audiences with his vision. But this was different. Here, Spielberg made an undeniable pivot in his career, to the historical drama, and he produced a film that every American needs to see.
10 Things I Like - Schindler's List
1. I put two screen shots with this entry, taken just a couple of minutes apart.
As everyone knows, color is a rare commodity in this film. But we see it right away with the flame in the candle as the film opens. I interpret it as the Jews themselves, a bright light in the darkness. Just a handful of frames later, we see the light go out, a single trail of smoke drifting in the air as the light is extinguished. Lot of storytelling symbolism here.
2. Our introduction to Oskar Schindler, at the party, is a very important one to me. It shows a side of late 1930s Germany not often see - high society. As the Nazi army was committing unspeakable atrocities across Europe, the elite were drinking, dancing, and carousing without a care in the world. It was a peek behind a curtain I didn't know existed, and from this point of view, all seemed rather normal. It was a party, just like thousands of such gatherings before and after.
I honestly don't know if the music playing here is a Williams original cue, or something parsed from the era. But man, I get such a subtle feeling of dread listening to it. It has a foreboding tone, despite the lively activity going on with the characters on screen.
3. I identified three key turning points for Schindler from ruthless businessman to humanitarian champion. The above shot is the first. He had just had his lunch interrupted by a worker who wanted nothing more than to express his thanks for having a job. After expressing extreme annoyance, we linger on Schindler sitting at his lunch table, processing this latest interaction. It clearly had an impact he didn't expect.
4. Turning point number two. Here, Schindler is on horseback, witnessing the liquidation of the ghetto. There is so much to read into Liam Neeson's brilliant performance, throughout this film, but especially here. This is not what I am making money for, you can tell he's thinking. He's slowly coming to an understanding of what he's a part of, and it's disturbing for him.
Now, I see his character arc bend in a rather jagged way in this film. It's not going right from point A to point B to point C. He slides back into his armament manufacturer self on a number of occasions before seeing the light. It's his default setting. Money is what he uses to justify the horrors he's slowly beginning to understand. And it does provide him a certain level of comfort. But eventually, that comfort gives way to a conscience that is there, though buried under a pile of cash.
5. This is the low point of the film from a humanity standpoint. This shot is madness at its most raw and pure. Piles of bodies being burned while this Nazi officer screams and fires bullets into it.
I can see Spielberg assembling his thoughts on whether or not to shoot this scene, how to shoot the scene, and what to include. He didn't have to include the Screaming Nazi. But he also understood the level at which he was willing to go to tell this story. He "went there" on so many other occasions, so he did here too. "Going too far" wasn't in Spielberg's lexicon while making this film.
6. Turning point number three. The compilation of The List.
Finally, Schindler comes to where the audience has been all along. Seeking to right this unfathomable wrong. He has seen enough, and decides that there are things more important than filling a sixth briefcase with cash.
This scene is perfectly edited and executed, with the John Williams score playing along as Schindler fully completes his "turn."
Throughout this sequence, Neeson utters a couple of one-word lines that resonate so powerfully:
7. "The list is an absolute good. The list is life." I am a writer at heart, and I couldn't write words more perfectly than those uttered by Itzhak Stern here.
An underrated aspect of this film is the dueling dynamics between Stern and Schindler. It is obvious at first that Stern is the one who has to find his way to Schindler's level. But I read an undercurrent of a character test that Stern constantly applies to Schindler, that Schindler cannot measure up to. But there are several occasions where Schindler goes out of his way for Stern. Rescuing him from the train and from being detained at camps. These acts brings Schindler up in Stern's mind as the film progresses. Finally here, when the list is being made, Stern sees Schindler as a character equal.
8. This factory scene, late in the film, gets a genuine smile out of me. Schindler assures Stern he has no interest in seeing a single product that passes quality inspection to ever come out of this factory. "Yes," the audience says in a relaxed tone. "You're finally on the good side."
9. Items nine and 10 on this list are out of chronological order, according to the film, but for the purpose of this blog, I feel it's justified.
Schindler's character arc comes to a close here, in the scene after the Axis Powers surrender as he prepares to depart the factory.
"I could've gotten more," he says over and over again, as the depths of his regret and shame on display for all to see. To the cynical viewer, this would qualify as "the Oscar moment." An obvious grab for award season statues. But we have gone along with Schindler on this journey. And this scene is necessary to provide closure to his arc. He is a full 180 degrees away from where he started. Just making the List wasn't enough.
10. While this candle scene wasn't the end of the film, it provides the ideal bookend to this blog entry about this film. The blue of the flame is visible here, giving us a welcome return to color, and to the light that is the group of Jews saved by Schindler.
Yes, we had the young girl in the red dress earlier, but that color represented a far different idea than the color of the flames here. The red dress is seen at the film's lowest points. The blue of the flames here comes at high points - the beginning and the end.
Brad’s Escapism Moment in Schindler's List
My God, what a powerful conclusion. The real people saved by Schindler line up to place stones on his grave, the actors portraying them joining in. The Ben Kingsley appearance, with Mrs. Stern, stands out to me. Kingsley is as stately and respectful as humanly possible. Then there's this final shot, from far away, as Liam Neeson is contemplative near Schindler's grave.
In a way, this is the kind of fairy tale happy ending that Spielberg, as well as George Lucas, often aim for in their films. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Return of the Jedi define this exact concept. And we have that same idea expressed here. Only it's not a fairy tale. This actually happened. Oskar Schindler was a real-life hero, and here are the people he literally saved. The reality of this moment is still hard to fully wrap one's head around.
And a final word on Steven Spielberg here. The fact that one person could produce Jurassic Park and Schindler's List in the same lifetime - let alone the same year - is beyond remarkable. How can one man produce two such distinct and historic bodies of work?
In the same way I am fascinated by the life of George Lucas between 1983 and 1999, that same level of fascination applies to Spielberg between 1993 and 1997. He didn't direct a film between Schindler's List and The Lost World. The experience must have tapped him emotionally to such an extent, that he could do nothing afterwards, but revel in the exhaustion.
Schindler's List was Spielberg's first of two Oscars for Best Director, and represents the last time John Williams won an Oscar for Best Original Score.
Schindler's List is hard to watch. I couldn't, and wouldn't, do a screen shot of the sequence where the sick are being separated by the well. But Spielberg went there. He ventured to places no filmmaker has ever gone, and what came of it is something that should be required viewing in every history class in America. Don't worry about the R-rated stuff. People need to see this, to understand what the Holocaust was.
Less-informed observers say Spielberg "grew up" over the course of making this film. That's trash. He was already well grown up. His films had already impacted society worldwide many times over, and his work had already exhibited levels of skill and sophistication rarely seen. But with Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg achieved something else. Something more.
Coming next: Saving Private Ryan
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