Before he was saving his daughter, he was saving the Jews. Academy Award nominees Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley and Embeth Davidtz star in Oscar winner Steven Spielberg’s harrowing masterpiece of the Holocaust, Schindler’s List.
Cast of Characters:
Oskar Schindler – Liam Neeson
Itzhak Stern – Ben Kingsley
Amon Goeth – Ralph Fiennes
Emilie Schindler – Caroline Goodall
Poldek Pfefferberg – Jonathan Sagalle
Helen Hirsch – Embeth Davidtz
Director – Steven Spielberg
Screenplay – Steven Zaillian
Based on the novel Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally
Producer – Steven Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen & Branko Lustig
Rated R for language, some sexuality and actuality violence
In 1939, as WWII begins, the Germans have moved the Polish Jews into the Krakow Ghetto. Hoping to make a fortune there, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a member of the Nazi Party, bribes the German officials in acquiring a factory to produce enamelware. Schindler enlists the help of local Jewish official Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) – who has contacts with black marketeers and the Jewish business community – to arrange loans which will finance the factory. Although he maintains a friendly relationship with the Nazis, Schindler continues to hire more Jewish workers ’cause, from a business standpoint, they’re cheaper to hire. Stern, though, views this from more than a business perspective, as it provides him and his fellow Jews a safe haven from being killed in the concentration camps.
Schindler’s business plans are slightly foiled with the arrival SS-Untersturmfuhrer (second lieutenant) Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), who’s to oversee the construction of the Plaszow concentration camp. When the construction is finally completed, Goeth orders the closing of the ghetto, which results in the execution of many of the Jewish occupants. Upon witnessing this massacre, Schindler realizes these workers he has hired look to him as more than just their boss, but their savior.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock your whole life, you clearly know Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest – if not the greatest – film directors ever. You could do a top 10, maybe even a top 20 on just his movies alone. While Jaws, in my opinion, still remains his best film, Schindler’s List is easily top 3 for him, and is by far his most important film.
Schindler’s List is not an easy film to watch. The violence isn’t anywhere near the levels that you see in a typical slasher film, but the realism of it makes it much more unsettling than what you may have seen in a movie where the violence is more gratuitous. Spielberg rightfully doesn’t hold back, yet not in a sensationalist way, nor in a way meant to manipulate the viewer’s emotions. It’s beautifully shot in black and white, which perfectly captures the grim reality of the setting. I wouldn’t consider this what most people would consider a war movie, but there has never been a film before or after this that has depicted an atrocity brought upon by war, such as the Holocaust, more realistically than this film.
Throughout the ’90s, Liam Neeson made a name for himself, starring in Rob Roy, Nell, Michael Collins and Les Miserables. To this day, his role as Oskar Schindler (who proudly wears a Nazi emblem pin for most of the film) remains the best work he’s done. Schindler’s no saint. He’s a womanizer and, at first, him hiring Jews is just him being opportunistic ’cause it’s cheap labor. “People die every day.”, he tells Itzhak Stern, when acting in denial to the horrors mentioned to him, which were as “obvious as a little girl wearing a red coat” (as quoted by Spielberg, explaining his reasoning behind showing the girl’s coat in color). It was his skills as a shrewd businessman, though, that led to over a 1,000 Jews being saved. By the end of the film, he’s not only redeemed by what he accomplished, he’s immensely moved by the surviving Jews’ debt of gratitude toward him and even guilt-ridden by feeling the number of lives saved through him wasn’t enough. It’s a complex character transformation brought to life onscreen through Neeson’s powerful performance. We never get a “hold the viewer’s hand” explanation of why Schindler had a change of heart, nor do we need one. Part of what makes this such a brilliant film is the mystery behind who Oskar Schindler was.
With all due respect to Tommy Lee Jones, who would go on to win Best Supporting Actor over Ralph Fiennes, there’s no way he should’ve won it. I love The Fugitive as much as the next guy, and Jones was great in it, but Fiennes delivered what is one of the greatest villainous performances captured on screen. It’s all the more chilling when you consider he’s portraying a real man. Amon Goeth is as cruel and sadistic as they come. He wakes himself up in the morning by using Jews in the camp for target practice. When he orders a Jewish engineer to be shot, in which she pleads that she was only doing her job, he replies, “Of course, and I’m just doing mine.” That said, there are moments in the film where he shows just a glimmer of humanity, only to be once again smothered by his utter coldness.
In one of his best performances, Ben Kingsley (who seems to have played every ethnicity and nationality in the book) is the second half of the Oskar Schindler/Itzhak Stern (a three-part composite of Stern, factory manager Abraham Bankier, and Goeth’s personal secretary, Mietek Pemper) relationship. Normally known for commanding the screen with performances that can steal a scene with just one line, Kingsley is much more reserved here, and the relationship that develops between him and Schindler is handled with such care between Spielberg, writer Steven Zaillian and, of course, Neeson and Kingsley. When they first meet, Schindler responds to Stern’s legal obligation of informing employers he’s a Jew with a rather nonchalant response, “You’re a Jew. I’m a German. So what?” By the end of the film, they’re embracing each other.
We also get a heart-wrenching, supporting actress worthy turn from Embeth Davidzt (who, prior to this film, was more known to Sam Raimi fans in Army of Darkness) as the one Jew who Goeth develops an attraction for, despite the fact he still could care less that he’s trying to exterminate her people. She’s what makes Goeth such a complex antagonist. His affections for her are to the point when Oskar mentions to him that he wants Helen’s name added to the list, Goeth refuses and talks of dreaming about taking her to Vienna with him. Yet, it still doesn’t phase him one bit that he shot dead many other Jews in the camps without batting an eye.
Even with a running time that is just a bit over 3 hours, I would’ve been fine with an extra half-hour. The importance of this film aside, it’s just great, intense storytelling. That’s what Spielberg does best, and he never overdoes the story for the sake of driving a point home. The performances, writing, pacing, tone, all hit just the right notes, and there’s not a single false moment within this film. Every second of it has you locked in. It’s the type of film where you wanna look away during the rough moments, but you can’t. How can you be truly moved by the hope the survivors finally feel at the end without witnessing the horrors they went through first? Granted, I’m sure even Spielberg will admit he hasn’t even scraped the tip of the iceberg in terms of depicting what actually took place. As I said up above, though, no film before it has come this close and I still have yet to see one get closer today.
Spielberg doesn’t just show us the Holocaust. He places us there. While it’s a dark and grim reminder of one of the greatest tragedies in world history, it’s also a story of hope and redemption. “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”, Stern tells Schindler. The final few emotionally powerful minutes of real-life Schindler Jew survivors, accompanied by those that portrayed them in the film, passing by Schindler’s gravestone show just how much of an impact Oskar Schindler had on those he saved. Spielberg’s unflinching direction, Zaillian’s brilliant script, the magnificent performances, art direction and when exactly isn’t a John Williams score amazing? Schindler’s List is not just one of the best films out of the ’90s. It’s one of the most unforgettable films of all-time. There’s no doubt that this was Spielberg’s labor of love, his most personal film, and it shows with each and every single shot that passes by your eyes.