Sunday, March 22, 2009

Review: Schindler's LIst

Schindler's List (1993, Steven Spielberg)

One of his 2 1993 efforts, Schindler’s List, starring heavyweights such as Liam Neeson as the titular character, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes, is the cinematic adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark, which itself was an adaptation of sorts of the life of the real Oskar Schindler during World War II as Nazi German who, despite being a rather ruthless and selfish business man at the start of the war, ended up dramatically changing his philosophy and intentionally hiring as many captive Polish Jews as possible to basically save them from the Final Solution. As the film opens at the start of the war (Jews have already been displaced into the Krakow ghettos), Schindler, with what money he owns and through various connections in the black market, begins a pots and pans type of manufacturing plant. As any intelligent business man should, Schindler takes advantage of all the cheap labour available with the Jewish prisoners. The little pin on the left breast side of his blazers may indicate an affiliation to the Nazi party, but at heart he is a profiteer. He isn’t abusing of the cheap labour because they Jews, nor is he keeping these people alive because he wants to protect Jews. He’s purely and simply abusing of cheap labour. To keep a tab on the machinations of his company, Oskar hires an accountant of sorts in Itzahk Stern, played by Ben Kinglsey. The latter takes care of the nitty gritty, the former takes care of the presentation through free gifts which help promote the quality of his company.

Events and emotions begin to take a drastic turn when a major SS representative (a Hauptsturmführer) arrives in the form of Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes). He is leading the construction of concentration camps in a suburb of Krakow. Goth has things start off with a real bang, with the SS hunting down and either capturing or murdering the Jews in the Krakow ghetto (Operation Reinhard). From his horse on an elevated hillside, Schindler witnesses from afar the brutality with which the prisoners are treated. And thus begins inside of him a change of heart. He finds Amon Goth in his villa overlooking the new concentration camp and bargains and bribes his way into hiring more prisoners for his enterprise. It’s bad business after all when your employees are taken away without notice! And thus begins the long and difficult journey of saving as many Polish Jews as possible in the hopes that they may live to see a day after the war.

I have read reviews and spoken to people who have seen Schindler’s List and confidently point to that very movie when criticising director Spielberg for being too sentimental and manipulative with the audience. No film is perfect, this one being no exception. There are, I would concede, a few moments when I felt Spielberg was asking me to shed a tear (which, just for the record, I don’t do easily when watching a film, regardless of the story or subject matter). There is a brief moment during Operation Reinhard when the camera concentrates on a little girl dressed in red walking through the streets filled with people who are subject to tireless assault and carnage from the SS. That was a little bit much since there are much subtler ways of reminding the audience that the children are also affected by the war and the Holocaust. It’s a Holocaust film after all, I think I figured that out about 30 minutes ago. I loath that abused criticism ‘it calls attention to itself’, but to be quite blunt with you, I really don’t know how else to describe what I felt with that scene. It’s a very famous scene, but I admit that I don’t like it very much. Another scene I had trouble digesting was the juxtaposition and intercutting of a lovely concert Schindler is attending with the Goth beating his maid senseless in the wine cellar. I felt that was a tad too obvious. Their different natures, their different positions, their different philosophies on power (a discussion both Schindler and Goth have earlier in the film). Yeah, yeah, I get it. To be honest, I just don’t like it when two obviously connected scenes are juxtaposed simultaneously in a movie in general, it doesn’t really matter that it happens here specifically. There were a few sequences as well, most notably when orders regarding the incineration of Jews are carried out, that the music felt intrusive and indeed, dare I say it, manipulative. This is a strange criticism for me to use against the film because just as music, I do believe that John Williams’ work is marvellous and beautiful to listen to. There are in fact moments when the music fits scenes perfectly. When the main theme plays as groups of people (usually prisoners) are marching onwards towards a place or participating in the construction of something, I really liked hearing the music. The main theme itself is a great piece of music and it accompanied the more general, ‘location setting’ or ‘scene setting’ moments better. There were other moments when I felt the music wanted me to feel very sad, as if what was happening on screen wasn’t sufficient. A usual big no no in my book, but especially in a film such as this one in which images truly are more than enough to tell this horrific story and set the mood appropriately.

Having said all that, I do think that the film is very, very good and, in my humble opinion, it is Spielberg’s masterwork. As you know now after having read the above paragraph, I do not think the film is perfect, therefore we can debunk that silly idea that Spielberg made a ‘critic proof’ film. Any director can misstep with any subject matter.

First and foremost, I do believe that the director handles the emotional and psychological journey of his main character handsomely. The transformation of a profiteering business man to an undercover saviour and finally to a broken man (for his transformation does not end, as many of us know, with him being proud and content with what he has accomplished) is played out with utmost care. We see much of what Oskar sees and the audience follows him from the very early goings up until Germany’s official surrender in 1945. Of course, with over 3 hours to develop and bring this man to life on screen, Spielberg uses the right amount of time to only show us Schindler in his different phases, but help us understand as well as witness his eventual change of heart. But Spielberg can’t, nor should he, be awarded all the praise. The actor at the heart of the project, in this case Liam Neeson, puts on an acting clinic. Charming, witty, devious, manipulative, sleezy, and then compassionate, but always hiding his ulterior motives from the SS, Neeson brings it all to the table. He is a fine, fine actor overall, but I don’t think, based on what I’ve seen him in, that he was ever or has been as good as he is in this film. It’s a role that demands such complexity for an actor. He’s not just a man who decides to do good for Jewish prisoners. He starts the film as an entrepreneur looking to strike it rich off the backs of sorry ass prisoners. He can’t simply have a change of face in front of everybody in the middle of the film, otherwise he would risk grave consequences from the Nazi authorities. He must strategize with subtlety and keep his true intentions in the shadows from those that would seek to destroy him and his plant if they knew the truth. Therefore he must preserve his lavish persona in front of SS officers. It is only in front of his plant manager Itzahk Stern, that he begins to show a different side to his character. Eventually he shows signs of compassion to a privileged few (Goth’s maid being among them), but only in short spurts when in front of them. It is often in his eyes that the viewer notices a different side to him. An actor’s eyes can provide a lot of depth to his or her character and I think Neeson is one of the better actors to have that talent of showing something deep and meaningful with a mere gaze. I simply find there are so many moments during which Neeson takes his acting to remarkable heights, and it is particularly noticeable upon repeated viewings (this was in fact my 3rd time watching the movie).

The strangest role in the film belongs to Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goth. He is clearly a devilish bastard, there is simply no questioning it. However, he sometimes demonstrates these bizarre moments of reason and compassion. Granted, they are far and few between, and his character generally succumbs to his more evil instincts, but once Schindler, during an evening of food and drinks, explains his theory on power, which involves having the ability to forgive those to whom we seek to scorn for various reasons, Goth goes on these weird attempts at showing a different, dare I say, more humane side towards his maid and certain prisoners in the camp. It comes off as terribly awkward, but therein lies the peculiarity of Fiennes’ performance. For a few brief moments, the beast tries to discover a humanistic side within. He fails utterly, but it makes for some of the most strange yet compelling scenes I have ever seen, the most famous of course being when he attempts to make amends (somewhat) with his Jewish maid, for whom he has grown an uncomfortable infatuation. Ironically enough, this takes place only moments before that terrible beating scene I mention in my criticisms section above. One last shout out (although there are many other fine actors involved) should go to Ben Kingsley as Itzahk Stern. He is a stoic man at first, probably not comprehending what Schindler’s motives are or most likely afraid and unsure of what the near future holds for him. As the story moves along however he and Schindler grow closer and Stern opens up a little bit. Kinglsey is quite good in the role. He plays Stern as dedicated and rather intelligent, but at times a bit clumsy with manners and customs, although given that death was probably knocking at his door throughout the war, he should be forgiven for behaving with a degree of uncertainty in the early goings of his career at Schindler’s plant.

For a 3 hour + film, the pacing is surprisingly effective. I don’t have a problem with 3 hour movies per say, but of those that I have seen, many have tended to over welcome their stay. Not so with Schindler’s List. Of course, both the story, which is inspiring, and the acting, which is stellar, facilitate the viewing experience. This is however, where I think Spielberg does deserve a lot of credit. Finding that delicate balance between telling enough story with enough detail for viewers to understand the proceedings without becoming bogged down in too much detail is key in any film, but perhaps more so in a film like this one. It’s a rich story with intriguing characters involved in one of the most dramatic circumstances of the 20th century, which could have easily led to a director getting sidetracked with nitty gritty details or perhaps convoluting his film with too many plotlines, some of which wouldn’t receive enough room to breath. I never felt that the movie suffered from any of those issues. Spielberg really gives the audiences enough time to understand all the major players involved and the setting in which the story takes place. The ghettos, the concentration camps, the factories, the bribing of Nazi officials, the complex relationships of the players involved, all of these are treated with respect and the right amount of screen time. By the end, I wasn’t under the impression that something or someone I may have needed to know more about to understand the story was left unexplained.

To finish off, I would like to commend the filmmakers on the stylistic choice of filming in black and white. The obvious reason is that is looks beautiful. Along with Werckmeister Harmoniak, this is an excellent example of modern back and white movie making. There is a richness to the picture quality that brings out the images on display very vividly. I’ve always been a lover of black and white cinema for aesthetic reasons and I watch a lot of older films because of it. I felt the look lend the film a creepy atmosphere at times, and at other times offered a beautiful images among the horror and chaos that transpired. And although I won’t get into them because this verdict has been going on for way, way too long, I do think there are certain thematic qualities to having the movie in black and white. There are certain interesting thematic theories and possibilities that one can deduce from this artistic choice.

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