Schindler’s List: not pleasant, but powerful
Originally written October 2020 for Jumptin
It took a long time to find long enough to give Spielberg’s momentous Schindler’s List a fitting viewing. Coming in after one failed attempt 8 years ago and three years of film studies, I was at-least a little wise as to what awaited me as I settled down for the afternoon, but still woefully unprepared to travel through this wartime tragedy epic unscathed.
Few don’t know what it’s about, or some of its more notable aspects. I was in the same boat and yet each moment hit as though it were its own revelation. The measured sincerity of Liam Neeson, dancing around Ben Kingsley’s heartbreakingly conflicted Itzhak Stern, is a most confusing thing to enjoy, and yet it is just so exceptionally played out that even with eyes full of harrowed tears it shines through.
Spielberg went to great lengths to demonstrate the very lifelessness of the holocaust and Nazi Europe in general, and such plainly explainable use of a cinematic sledgehammer like greyscale worries a well-fed eye, but those concerns are misplaced. While colour is one, actually rather small aspect of this film’s import, the remarkable profundity of it for me was just how human it remains in spite of its morbid story, enormous runtime, memorial-esque pacing and unrelenting commitment to the horror of the holocaust. There are brave cracks of joy, standing on the shoulders of horror-fraught, black moments of dramatic relief from the platform to the shower block. In the closing bookend and even the bittersweet tribute that finally brings proceedings to a dignified end, there is hope for humanity, and thus by extension, simply, humanity.
There is humanity also, a more innate, quite instinctive kind, in the care and nuance with which some of the darkest figures in our history are explored. Ralph Fiennes exceptionally fills Amon Göth’s goose stepping boots large enough to let us poke and prod at him up close in all his sadistic horror, but nevertheless — imperatively — as a self-questioning, almost vulnerable, and certainly not inaccessible human. A prolonged, unblinking glimpse into the monster’s psyche, spending moment after uncomfortable moment with him, is so much more powerful than beating about the caricatured Nazi bush — no matter how safe and sanctioned that practice may be, and is another realm in which this film lifts itself to a special kind of level.
While it dramatises and reorganises aspects of its source story, Schindler’s List even earns a rare but contextually valuable nod from the creative graveyard that is historiology, and experienced a near clean sweep of victories in the handful of censorship battles it was faced with back in 1993. Whether it would stand the same success in today’s political climate is a worthy question, but not of my interest right now, in the throes of a knife-edge American election which pits old but gold centre-right rationalism on par with shit-splurging, truth-gutting, self-centered and institutionally maleducated demagogy. The only thing more sad than the revelation that this harrowing but transformative cinematic reminder may be more needed than ever, is the realisation that it would likely fall on blind eyes and deaf ears today, though I suppose those facts go hand in hand, and the world could still be a different place tomorrow. Anyway, it remains only to be said that this film very briefly makes the strongest moral argument for capitalism I’ve ever seen, before one realises that the entire origin of the nightmare it is set within is a direct consequence of it. There is still such an encouraging and, for me, completely disarming demonstration of the innate goodness of (some) men, but it would of course have been better were heroes like Oskar Schindler never needed. A bit like this film altogether really, to go full circle.
Bringing this home, I’m left resisting an urge to lift the tone of this write-up, but I know to do so would cheapen the point of the film in question. I can only go so far as to say that the other niggling urge, that familiar pressure to see merit in a film as legendary and decorated as this, need not be indulged to admit the achievement of this work. Granted, it completely lifted a scene from the little-known Zastihla mě noc but other than that, and the runtime if you’re really not in the mood (though why would anyone in their right mind watch this on a whim), this is an incredibly hard-hitting, well made, and most importantly human piece of cinema.
I’m on Letterboxd.