Such is the status of Schindler’s List, it all but defies criticism; it’s the worthiest of all the many worthy Best Picture Oscar winners, a film noble of purpose and sensitive in the treatment and depiction of the Holocaust as the backdrop to one man’s redemption. There is much to appreciate in Steven Spielberg’s film. But it is still a Steven Spielberg film. From a director whose driving impulse is the manufacture of popcorn entertainments, not intellectual introspection. Which means it’s a film that, for all its “virtuous” features, is made to manipulate its audience in the manner of any of his “lesser” genre offerings. One’s mileage doubtless varies on this, but for me there are times during this, his crowning achievement, where the ’berg gets in the way of telling the most respectful version of this story by simple dint of being the ’berg. But then, to a great or lesser extent, this is true of almost all, if not all, his prestige pictures.
Conversely, one can overstate the film’s flaws. With any work set on a pedestal, there will be counters, and most of those – relatively few, but nevertheless vocal and noteworthy – dissenters tend to have a point. Spielberg’s pal Stanley Kubrick is responsible for probably the best-known barrage: “Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t”. It’s a pithy, biting observation, but making difficult subject matter accessible via the methods Spielberg did (focussing on those saved, and by a gentile saviour) is nothing new.
Even lesser but still feted Holocaust pictures The Pianist and Life is Beautiful had to find an “in” in respect of the horrors, be it a broken survivor hiding out or an elaborate game (in which the child at least survives). Kubrick himself, who ditched Aryan Papers in the wake of Schindler’s success, was intending to approach the subject matter from the perspective a woman and her nephew living under assumed identities as gentiles; even then, the director told his wife that he didn’t believe he could recreate such disturbing events (“To make a truly accurate film about the Holocaust, the film would be unwatchable”).
Indeed Claude Lanzmann, who made the epic nine-hour documentary Shoah, expressed particular distaste for Spielberg’s attempt to put something of the event on screen, accusing it of being “very sentimental” (it absolutely is) and false due to its offer of an uplifting ending (conversely, he reputedly loved Inglourious Basterds); “It is not what happened to the vast majority of Jews. The truth is extermination. Death wins”. In case you think he was only gunning for the ’berg, he further commented even more disparagingly of Life is Beautiful, launching a salvo at “people who want to reconcile everything, like Benigni, who makes the Holocaust digestible. This is not digestible. It is not a fairy tale”. And in the final riposte to dramatisers, approaching the place Kubrick was coming to, there are “some things that cannot and should not be represented”.
David Mamet bundled Schindler’s List in with the same white-saviour narrative as Dances with Wolves (“a member of a dominant culture who condescends to aid those less racially fortunate than himself – who tries to save them and fails, thereby ennobling himself, and, by extension, his race. This comfortable them is more than a sham – it is a lie”). As he saw it, it was a film in which “The Jews… are not being slaughtered, they are merely being trotted out to entertain… It is not instruction, but melodrama. Members of the audience learn nothing save the emotional lesson of all of melodrama, that they are better than the villain… The lesson is a lie. The audience is not superior to “Those Bad Nazis”. Any of us has the capacity of atrocity – just as any of us has the capacity for heroism”.
So we have two tenets here, one casting doubt on whether it’s even responsible in the first place to attempt to make a movie about the Holocaust, on the basis that you can never hope to do it justice. And then, assuming you can, there’s the responsibility of treating it in a tonally responsible manner. I wouldn’t seek to pronounce on the former, although I do suspect Spielberg, Kubrick and Polanski were right, and the only way to approach it is sufficiently obliquely that you don’t have to deal with it head on. As for the latter, assuming making a film is legitimate, one might argue that it doesn’t matter, that melodramatic manipulation is implicit in the deal we make when viewing anything that comes out of Hollywood, and by and large, the majority of what we see in the fiction arena, whether it’s based on fact or not (often especially so).
But there is by association and there’s by intention – not least Spielberg’s in tackling important subject matter, in some might say his own hubristic desire for peer recognition as not just a populist filmmaker but an important filmmaker – and arguably, there’s an added onus and responsibility in the area of the Holocaust. Making a thriller about Plastow is slightly different to making one set aboard the Titanic. Although, one could make a case that both are lacking in good taste. Which is not to characterise Schindler’s List that way in the broader sense, but that Spielberg has employed many of the tools of an engineer of blockbusters to make his drama in and around a concentration camp, and there are certainly moments where one comes away slightly stunned that he believed certain choices were legitimate or other than grossly jarring.
It’s clear, just in the choice of black and white, that the director recognises the need for a degree of distancing – his argument was that this was how he experienced the newsreel footage, so that’s how he had to make it – even more than the distancing of a German protagonist we can cut back to as a point of safety and comfort. It’s when we’re in the middle of panic, unmotivated killing and cruelty, where the narrative is essentially a montage of terror, that the film is at its most effective, chilling and powerful, and Schindler’s List rises to the status of something impressive (the same is true of Saving Private Ryan’s opening sequence). You know, rather than the sentimentalised dread of children wallowing in shit (Crispin Glover had his own take on this, of course, which… well, make of it what you will).
Which is to say, the central journey of Oskar Schindler is engrossing – as is his contrast with Amon Göth – threading a readily recognisable and of-a-type redemption narrative. It’s very traditional, very accessible. As such, Neeson is entirely dependable as a playboy and hard-nosed businessman, playing the Scarlet Pimpernel to Göth’s Frenchy. This is very much a suspense plot, the protagonist’s deception lending itself to “movie” movie moments. So the ’berg, having immersed himself in movies, naturally makes the most of it (alternatively, Oskar is Lando Calrissian, and Kingsley is Lobot, even though he gets to speak a little bit more than John Hollis did).
Schindler, and Neeson, are much less convincing when called on to portray the character wracked with guilt and breaking down. And Spielberg makes a meal – even though it’s a sequence commonly praised to the heavens – of Oskar’s Road to Damascus experience of the little girl in the red dress (commonly considered to be “One more person” he refers at the conclusion. Well, the conclusion before the real-life procession to Schindler’s grave, the kind of banal signature of authenticity the director would return to with the fake Private Ryan in his next World War II film).
Spielberg has an eye for anything demanding traditional suspense, and accordingly, he happily juggles lively sequences such as Kingsley’s Stern nearly getting put on a train with other prisoners, and Schindler’s paid-for prisoners being diverted to Auschwitz, and the children nearly getting put on a train (Oskar makes up the story about cleaning shell casings). There’s also lots of crude intercutting (this would reach its nadir with the Munich sex scene), the kind of thing where, if it isn’t done for queasily comic effect, it’s representative of a director who doesn’t trust his audience (Oskar in the lap of luxury “It could be no better”; Jews banished to the ghetto “It could be no worse”; Oskar and the opera singer; Goth mistreating Helen). In both instances, it feels like it belongs elsewhere.
To a degree, Janusz Kamiñski’s photography smooths over many of the cracks that would otherwise flaunt themselves very unflatteringly, but become plainer on revisit. On one level, Fiennes’ performance is mesmerising, but on another, you can fully understand Mamet’s reference to a “waxed-moustachioed villain”; Göth is comfortably cartoonish in his inhumanity, and Fiennes plays him as Leonard Rossiter channelling Peter Cook.
There may be lots of talk about the banality of evil, but the character is not banal; he’s larger than life, and he’s the principal Nazi, so we don’t even get to see the “it could be you” type. There are some very odd choices in respect of Göth too, ones that serve to underline rather than retreat from the comedic potential of the character. Such as the scene where his gun repeatedly jams as he attempts to shoot a prisoner. Or Schindler persuading him to – briefly – turn over a new leaf by showing “Power is letting a man go”; we see Göth struggle with his better instincts, and it is, in any other context, the stuff of black comedy, yet it culminates in him shooting the boy who failed to clean his bath properly.
Most noted, and rightly so, in this “Spielberg the melodramatic manipulator” schema, is the fake-out. Michael Haneke came from a similar tonal place to Mamet in respect of the women’s arrival at Auschwitz (“The mere idea of trying to create suspense out of the question of whether the showerhead gas is going to come is unspeakable”). So again, we have to ask: “What kind of film is this intended to be?” on the one hand, and “What kind of film does it have the responsibility of being?” on the other. Certainly, employing shock tactics and momentary catharsis (the trouble kicking Göth’s hanging stool away at the end, echoing his jammed gun) can only cheapen the whole and dilute the message.
In that regard, John Williams’ score is absolutely horrid, and actively detracts from the overall effect, spoon feeding whatever syrupy content his director has in mind with funereal diligence. His work during the last half hour is especially unpalatable, a part of the film that seems rather hurried, with a subtitle symbolising a flight to safety. But then, Spielberg clearly wanted to get on to the protracted “I could have saved one more”, as stodgy as the over varnished “The list is an absolute good. The list is life”. Whether Schindler wasn’t such a great guy isn’t really the point; it’s that he and his acts didn’t need such sentimentalising.
All of that said, as a narrative, Schindler’s List is more robust than most of Spielberg’s films over the subsequent two-and-a-half decades, and is remarkably sustained and measured in pace throughout its three hours plus. Despite all the listed caveats, it’s an intermittently powerful picture, and when its director isn’t ducking for cover beneath familiar safety nets – which is only ever too often on this occasion – a compelling and immersive one.
I don’t buy into the “It must be good because it raised awareness of the Holocaust” (which, essentially, is Terry George’s rebuttal to the Kubrick quote), as that’s simply facile, but I do think its being more a good film than a bad one means, on this occasion, that what isn’t good is the more damaging to its integrity. I wonder if, for all the “immaturity” of his younger self, a pre-E.T. Spielberg wouldn’t have made a less hand-wringing film, where he’d have run for the comfort blanket less quickly. With a little more restraint, Schindler’s List would have been a more effective picture, but with a little more restraint, it might not have been as successful, and it might not have won Spielberg so many Oscars. Of course, to be very cynical, he was probably quids in there anyway; as we know, the Oscars are an easy touch for Holocaust fare. Just ask Benigni.
Addendum 08/08/22: The broader point here is the manipulation and exploitation of a narrative, the Hollywood approach of capitalising, underlining and placing a full stop after events so as to lend the impression of an official account, and by implication dissuade from further interrogation. Obviously, when it comes to the Holocaust – as opposed to any other given historical event – the latter course is treacherous territory and not a hill I’d wish to die on, but generally speaking, any such decree that a subject is not open for further debate, with punitive consequences, should ring alarm bells.