December 23, 2011

#8: Schindler's List

By my count, this list includes six films having to do directly with World War II, if you include The Best Years of Our Lives since it chronicles the veterans' experience. Saving Private Ryan is really the only other film about the war, taking place during wartime. Interestingly, two musicals (The Sound of Music and Cabaret) are both set on the verge of war with a growing Nazi presence. And Sophie's Choice, while taking place after the great conflict, is directly concerned with its title character's experience in the Holocaust as a Polish Catholic. But as far as this list goes, only Steven Spielberg's 1993 Holocaust drama Schindler's List holds a literal and figurative candle to the Jewish experience. Hoo boy.

Company: Kecia, vegetarian chefstress; Jeremy, vegetarian; Elizabeth, movie-snack philanthropist

Cuisine: Oh boy. Darling roomie made the first dish, a baked portabella mushroom stuffed with quinoa, spinach and carmelized onions and topped with pecorino, with green beans with tomatoes and almonds. Jeremy made the broccolini bruschetta on the right. I've never been happier. Elizabeth also brought Sun Chips (the best kind, Garden Salsa) and Junior Mints to contribute. A feast for all, and we needed it.

Oskar Schindler (Oscar nominee Liam Neeson) was a real German businessman whose heroics were chronicled in Thomas Keneally's novel "Schindler's Ark." By employing Jews (mostly Polish) in his factories, and through his powers of persuasion and charm, he saved over 1,000 of them from certain death in concentration camps. Neeson portrays him as a towering, kind bear of a man, at ease with everyone, including the Nazi officials who see through his profiteering plots and seek to kill his work force. His warmth is portrayed beautifully by Neeson, but we don't really see much vulnerability to this central character until the emotional ending. More on that later.

Meanwhile, Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes gives us one of the great screen villains of all time in Schutzstaffel captain Amon Goeth, sadistic commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp where a portion of the film takes place. Fiennes gave an interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum after the film was released and said this about playing the part:

"Evil is cumulative. It happens. People believe that they’ve got to do a job, they’ve got to take on an ideology, that they’ve got a life to lead; they’ve got to survive, a job to do, it’s every day inch by inch, little compromises, little ways of telling yourself this is how you should lead your life and suddenly then these things can happen. I mean, I could make a judgment myself privately, this is a terrible, evil, horrific man. But the job was to portray the man, the human being. There’s a sort of banality, that everydayness, that I think was important. And it was in the screenplay. In fact, one of the first scenes with Oskar Schindler, with Liam Neeson, was a scene where I’m saying “You don’t understand how hard it is, I have to order so many-so many meters of barbed wire and so many fencing posts and I have to get so many people from A to B.” And, you know, he’s sort of letting off steam about the difficulties of the job. And so I suppose you can step back and that is where the evil is, when you can step back and look at it."

It's a remarkable performance, how unflinching and all-encompassing it is. Terrifying.

While the acting is top-notch, it's Oscar winner Spielberg's hand behind the camera that's most effective here. Besides parallel bookends in color, the film is nearly entirely shot in black and white, a very specific choice that my friends and I discussed. B&W brings the film back to its historical roots, certainly, and the relentlessly bleak subject matter lends itself well to a colorless scope. But it's a major decision to make a film this way in 1993, and I think Spielberg was commenting on the scope of the atrocities committed against the Jews in WWII. It's that whole idea that when everything is special, nothing is special. No one stands out; the faces of these victims blend with each other more wholly in this format than they perhaps would in color. There's a hopelessness everywhere, particularly in the liquidation of the ghettos and the portraits of life inside Plaszow, that strike a darker chord without the relief of color. I was especially moved by the moment when the female prisoners smeared blood on their cheeks to make themselves more appealing to the officials, hoping that would save them. Without color, the blood looks to our eye like dirt; in the eyes of the Schutzstaffel, it might as well be.

The only brief glimpse of color in this over-three-hour-long saga is a girl in a red coat, first wandering through a ghetto and later dead on a wheelbarrow. It's a humanizing moment for Schindler to watch an individual's journey through this experience, especially being a Nazi himself. He may have been motivated by money at first, since Jewish labor certainly cost less for him, but this moment confirms with the audience that he cared deeply for these people and was surely haunted by them long after the war was over.

Schindler goes toe-to-toe with Goeth, convincing him that even the frailest of his Schindlerjuden ("Schindler Jews") were necessary workers on his production lines. He's aided by his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (the wonderful and understated Ben Kingsley) who claims that one needs "three things in life: a good doctor, a forgiving priest, and a clever accountant." Luckily for the Schindlerjuden, he fills that third role.

"Years from now the young will ask with wonder about this day."

But Spielberg cuts back and forth between these tiny glimpses of sunlight and the darker, horrible realities of the camps. How can someone not shudder when this kid climbs into a toilet to hide, only to be told by other kids hiding there that there's no room for him? If there's no room for him in a shit hole, where does he belong? Oh it gives me goosebumps.

For Spielberg (whose other films on this list include crowd-pleasers Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) to step into this delicate territory could not have been easy, and it's fascinating to read about the critical reaction to this film from the Jewish community. For example, Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah, a nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust by which I'm intrigued but have never and might never sit through, blasted Spielberg by calling his film "a kitschy melodrama" that didn't show the horrors of war the way he thought was necessary. Lanzmann believed that after his film was made nothing else needed to be said, which is colossally arrogant and forced Spielberg to defend his film as accurate. Naturally, when bringing an adaptation of real events to the screen, history needs to be altered somewhat; dealing with events that are so close to peoples' hearts is very difficult, and I'm sure that no one could ever please everyone on this. Schindler somehow managed it, and the film went on to receive seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Score (John Williams, how do you manage to be at the top of your form every. damn. time??)

"Whoever saves one life saves the world in time."

When the war is over and the camps are liberated, Schindler gathers his friends (whom he knows by name when he dictates the list to Stern!) for three minutes of silence for those they've lost. We are silent, too, as Spielberg commands his audience to silence. How many directors can reach through the characters that way and grip an audience so firmly? Wow. It's an incredible moment of gratitude; you can feel the endless thanks and unpayable debt in this crowd gathered in the factory. And yet, Schindler says:

"I could have done more."

 Game over, composure.

A beautiful and respectful epilogue, in which the real-life Schindlerjuden walk arm-in-arm with their onscreen counterparts to pay respects at Schindler's grave on Mount Zion in Israel, acts as a eulogy for the dead and a legacy for the living. Williams' score is never more moving than at this moment, the first moment where I really noticed it, as the reverence and absence of dialogue brings it to the forefront. Wow.

Supposedly Roman Polanski abandoned his Holocaust film project when this one came out. Not a bad move. I don't think this film is the definitive look at the Holocaust (no film can claim to be the definitive anything, can it?) but it's certainly a historic and masterful memorial for the lives lost and saved. Beautiful.

Next: a little break until after Christmas, and then we don sandals and endurance for what I believe is the longest film on the entire list (and the last one I haven't previously seen!): Lawrence of Arabia. Until then, happy holidays!

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