“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”
Rarely does a film so desperately need to be made, and so powerfully attach itself to our culture – not just American culture, but the culture of the world. Schindler’s List is the most well regarded film about the Holocaust, created by perhaps the biggest name in the industry in 1993. Just five months after dropping Jurassic Park on American audiences, Spielberg presents a film that would go on to win him his first Best Director Oscar, along with winning Best Picture and countless other accolades. I wasn’t sure how to prepare myself going into this kind of film, and you certainly can’t watch this type of movie in any sort of mindset, but I felt the need to knock out a longer, more difficult film on a free evening, and Schindler’s List felt like a box on my list worth checking. This is not an easy film to watch, and the horror of the events it portrays is captured so powerfully that it serves as an emotional gut punch, also in part due to the humanity which Spielberg invests in these characters. It’s a film that stuck with me, and it’s one that I would call a necessary masterpiece of cinema.
The film focuses on the Schindler Jews of the Holocaust, a now-famous tale of humanity and preservation of life that took place during the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a German businessman and member of the Nazi party who begins utilizing Jewish workers in his enamelware factory to turn an easy profit. He is aided by his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), who is using the employment opportunities to preserve the lives of Jews who would otherwise face death at Auschwitz. Schindler eventually becomes more empathetic towards the Jews and attempts to save as many as he can through his factory, which begins running at a loss in order to keep this operation alive. The film also presents a terrifying, unrelenting portrayal of the Holocaust as it accurately took place, brimming with disturbing disregard for human life enacted by the Nazi Party. Other noteworthy characters include Caroline Goodall as Emilie Schindler and Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goth, brutal Nazi commandant of the concentration camp.
This isn’t just the most effective Holocaust film ever made, but it may well be one of the best historical films ever made as well. There’s a power that surges through Schindler’s List that ceases to yield for its entire runtime (over 3 hours). The characters serve as towering figures, played with such intensity and passion by an immensely talented team. Rarely does a character feel like a set piece; rather, every face in the film feels like a genuine part of history. Coupled with the powerful writing and cinematic direction, you really feel like you’re watching history, something that just about any other historical narrative can’t manage in a film. You also witness a tremendous amount of respect for the victims and very limited exploitation for its own sake from Spielberg’s direction, but he also refuses to cut back on the horrors of the atrocities committed, creating a dark, captivating sense of epic realism in the film.
Purely from a cinematic standpoint, if you could ever separate the film from its cultural significance, Schindler’s List is a splendid piece of narrative cinema. While the subject matter and the way it’s handled push the film towards such high regard, Spielberg doesn’t let up on visionary direction. The film is shot in such a captivating way where the story is allowed to speak for itself, and only moments of intensity are shot in a heightened way. I find it fascinating how much of this film is nothing but conversations, but the weight these conversations hold and the simplicity of their presentation suggest such power to the audience. Simple banter about factory quotas towards the beginning of the film could dictate the loss of human life. As Schindler grows more sympathetic throughout the film, we become emotionally invested in his struggle through this simple but powerful direction as well. The ending scene where Schindler laments that he couldn’t save one more life is one of the most gut-wrenching scenes I’ve witnessed in a film, and the moment feels so earned by the end of the film that Spielberg really slows down and gives it the attention it deserves.
I think there are a lot of things about this film that make it unique in a way that will preserve its legacy as a masterpiece. The decision to shoot in black and white works tremendously in the film’s favor, and it really feels like the only way this film could be made after watching it. The girl in the red coat is the perfect touch of humanity to send Schindler from one side of the moral compass to another, and I think it makes a powerful statement about the importance of taking real action instead of being passive to such atrocity. I was also worried about the film’s runtime before going in, but I think it actually paces itself tremendously well, likely because Schindler’s List is a rare scenario where every scene is great. Too often, a film will try to become an “epic” by working with a lot of fluff elements, but this is a film that approaches its subject matter so powerfully from so many important angles that it actually feels worthy of the label.
This is an experience that sticks with you long after viewing. It transcends standard points of weakness that a film might possess due to Spielberg’s sharp direction, and its subject matter lends the film such a unique presence in the world of cinema. Some may argue that the film’s legacy has been bolstered primarily by its status as the Holocaust film, but I would hold this film up against any of “the greats” on its cinematic merit alone. It’s not the type of film I’ll watch again soon, primarily due to how heavy it is as an experience, but I certainly hope to see it again in the future, taking in more elements and noticing aspects that can’t be fully grasped on a first viewing. This isn’t just a fine film, but it’s also fine art. It’s not meant to excite, but to serve as a reminder of an event that deserves to be remembered. If you’ve never seen Schindler’s List, I’d really implore you to give yourself this experience if you’re in the right mindset. Again, it’s not the easiest film to watch, and it’s not a film I would call it a “personal favorite,” but it’s truly among the best.
Films Left to Watch: 912
Also, for anyone interested, I’ve rewritten my Citizen Kane review to account for my thoughts after a second viewing. I actually want to go back and brush up a lot of my old reviews, which are much shorter and less articulate. We’ll see how that goes.