Sometimes it’s really hard to write something funny about a film. In some cases it can be so inconsequential that it’s hard to think of anything interesting to say about it, and in some cases, especially this one, it’s just a matter of tone.
I hadn’t seen Schindler’s List until quite recently, when it was re-released to mark its 25th anniversary. I had known its reputation as a real cinematic masterpiece, and as Spielberg’s peak, but the opportunity did not present itself at the right time until now.
Now, as I have said in the past, World War II is hardly fresh ground in cinema, even in 1993, it was somewhat old hat to produce a film about the era, but the difference here was how personal this story was to its director. Spielberg, being Jewish, could have opened some personal wounds for himself while making this film, but maybe he felt like it was a story that demanded to be told.
So, with expectations high, and tissues at the ready, lets dive into Schindler’s List.
During the Second World War, businessman and trusted member of the Nazi hierarchy, Oskar Schindler, secretly hatches a scheme to rescue a great number of Jewish prisoners, through putting them to work in his factories.
Now, I am no historian. I know enough about the war to know the true horrors that took place, and the truly horrible people in the Nazi regime, there is a lot to tell about these people, even in grave curiosity, but there was so little I knew about this remarkable story, and the man behind it.
I know it isn’t a documentary, and undoubtedly, there will be inaccuracies and embellishments, but that is par for the course in the long run. This is a war story that deserved to be told, a story, not of evil and genocide (although there’s a fair amount of that about) but of heroism, in the face of death and danger, Oskar Schindler defied the system.
The sheer contrast of tone and style in this film is truly breath-taking. Spielberg does not shy away from portraying the brutality of the regime, unspeakably violent acts take place in such beautifully sharp black-and-white cinematography, each bullet fired and drop of blood spilt is viscerally portrayed on-screen. As exemplified by a beautiful, yet heart-breaking, shot of the one-armed man, executed by the Nazis, spilling blood on the perfect, crisp snow. It succeeds in being both harrowing, and beautiful.
The decision to shoot in black-and-white could have quite easily backfired. Making that decision in modern times can be incredibly pretentious, but used here, it instead invokes the feeling of the era, as well as juxtaposing the brutal violence with it’s sharp, eye-catching palate.
This is a film that feels like it was told for a reason, like Spielberg was on a mission to bring this to the screen, he wanted to show us how every single person died, families were ripped apart, and atrocities committed with no compromise. There are scenes in the ghetto and concentration camps that genuinely come close to being hard to watch, such is his devotion to not compromising his vision, and subsequently creating a feeling of dread in his audience, a feeling of suspense that, at any moment, the big, bad wolf that was the Nazi regime could break down the door and bring this story to an end.
There are very few films that effectively capture the Nazis as the scourge that they were, that showed them as completely irredeemable sociopaths, instead sometimes portraying them as somewhat of a pantomime villain, an unbelievable, outlandishly evil force, when in reality, they were very real, and so much worse than any fairy tale villain. It is rare for a film to give you a feeling of dread whenever a character appears on screen, perhaps apart from this Inglorious Basterds comes closest, but even then, it struggles to come close to the portrayal of Amon Gӧth (Ralph Fiennes).
The acting in this film is as close to perfect as you’re likely to get. I have rarely hated a character quite like I hated Gӧth, and rarely am I so satisfied when a character gets their comeuppance, Fiennes is scheming, violent and utterly reprehensible, it is a masterful performance, in any other film, he would steal the show, but here, he is just one of many great performances.
Liam Neeson leads the cast and is the best he has ever been. His arc is so well realised, his change of character so complete, that by the end, you are crying along with him. He goes from seeing the Jewish slave labour as a valuable resource to seeing it as the lifesaver that it was, he learns to see his workers as people, and in doing so, turns his back on the regime. He goes from being just another Nazi, to a Jewish hero, all within the three-hour runtime, and not one bit of it feels forced, his performance is simply peerless.
In conclusion, this is as close to perfect as a film, neigh a work of art, can be. Heart wrenching story, combined with gorgeous camera work, and masterful acting makes Schindler’s List a cinematic dream, it comes with much praise, and it deserves every bit of it.