Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley in a still from Schindler’s List
  • Release Date: 15/12/1993
  • Cast: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Jonathan Sagall, Embeth Davidtz
  • Director: Steven Spielberg

The list is an absolute good

The list is life

                                                                                                       — Itzhak Stern

Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) was a man of many talents but working hard was not one of them. Presentation! That’s what he was all about. He was a creature of pleasure and panache. A man who could make, three Nazi officers, sitting at a great distance from him in a party arrive at his table one after another and never leave. He could make the rest of the room in the same party follow pursuit in a matter of days. He could get himself clicked with the top brass of the government without being ‘a somebody’ and use it to his advantage. He could do all this only by using exotic bottles of alcohol and his charm. He knew presentation and it was his presentation of a self sure, war profiteering, Nazi party member that gave him the rare opportunity to save 1200 Jews during the holocaust that left 6 million others dead. Oskar Schindler and his panache were the only things standing between those men and annihilation and he triumphed in great style.

Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is a monumental film in its reach and achievements. The film takes us through a period of roughly six years wherein we see the Jews in Krakow, Poland loose their right to exist. We see how they are first hauled into Ghettos and then later into concentration camps where a large number of them are killed for just being Jews. Schindler comes to Krakow to try his luck at business. He had apparently failed at many businesses before but this time he had something that he didn’t have before, a raging war. He employs the services of a Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) who turns out to be a great enabler. He sets out by overtaking a defunct Jewish enamelware manufacturing unit, gathering funds from persecuted Jewish businessmen, and starting productions for the Nazi army. As the film progresses, we see how Schindler uses his company to re-assign and save hundreds of Jews who he employs as a sizeable working force in his company. Why he does it is a question that is left for us to decipher.

Sadly, where there is a Schindler, there is bound to be a Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). A ruthless SS officer who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing and murdering Jews, Goeth forges a strong business alliance with Schindler who plays him for his vanities and uses his position to further his plans of saving lives. Goeth displays traits of madness from time to time. Once he is made the commanding officer of the concentration camps, Goeth is constantly under duress from his superiors who keep bringing him more and more Jews to contend with and he has to find reasons to clear more and more of his existing crowd so as to make room for the new arrivals. This lets him get creative from time to time with how and why he kills certain people. Shooting prisoners who are not breaking their backs every second or shooting his own servant for not being able to clean off a stain from his bathtub is just routine. He also keeps a certain Jew, Helen Hirsch, as his servant and takes sadistic pleasure in seeing her suffer. Goeth also shares a certain camaraderie with Schindler who he takes to be a womanizing war-profiteer and this gives Schindler some much-needed leverage over him under difficult circumstances.

A still of the much talked about “girl in the red coat” scene from Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List is 3 hours 15 minutes long but to me, it felt more like a 2-hours long film. The greatness of the film lies in how entertaining it is even though it documents one of the most repelling and horrifying series of events in human history. There are multiple cues in the screenplay documenting the changing fortunes of the Germans and Jews as they switch places. One of the best examples of this is where we see a wealthy Jewish, family stripped off their abode, arriving at their assigned home in the Ghetto intercut with their home being awarded to Schindler who settles himself on the bed and approves of what has been given to him. I cannot stress enough how heartbreaking this scene is even though there is no violence or torture in it.

Most viewers invariably notice the “girl in the red dress” scene. Truly, it is a horrifying sequence but I was even more shocked by the portion where we see Goeth round up every child in his camp, put them on trucks, and sends them to Auschwitz. The mothers, who have just made the cut to stay back at the camp and are nearly celebrating, are petrified to see two trucks departing with their kids waving at them happily. I cannot explain in words the kind of emotions that this scene incited in me. One of the kids is shown escaping from the trucks and trying to find refuge somewhere in the camp. Every place he knocks into is already taken. He finally jumps down the toilet hole into faeces of the inmates who had inhabited that camp before. It is a sequence that will forever haunt me.

Schindler’s List is a Masterclass in direction. The greatness of what Steven Spielberg has achieved in this film can never be weighed through awards and recognition. The only true scale to judge his achievement is to weigh it against the reaction of the viewers and the kind of emotions the film incites in them. I am confident that anyone who doesn’t have any idea of the holocaust will still get the central theme of the film and it will definitely cater to their human sensibilities. The ones who know about the Holocaust will have their knowledge of the horrors of the events add to the proceedings of the film and it will turn certain scenes even more terrifying for them. Spielberg, in his previous films, defined many techniques in terms of how he tells his stories, and here too there are ample examples of how he uses the medium, camera, lights, color, and all that is at his disposal to tell an affecting story.

Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson in a still from Schindler’s List

This is the best that Liam Neeson has ever been. I have always enjoyed his renditions of action heroes but in this film, he is more heroic than he has ever in his most outrageous action avatar. The last time that we see of him, he is shown breaking down among the Jews he had saved by admitting to himself that he could have saved more. While he is at it, his collaborator Itzhak Stern tells him that he has in fact saved generations. Stern’s words are not much of solace to him but there is an undeniable sense of respite and humanity in this scene. It is this scene that turns Schindler’s List from being a tragedy to a survival story. Neeson’s rendering of the scene is my favorite moment in the entire film and goes a long way to underline the fact that humanity can exist in the most unexpected of places and people.

Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth is terrifying. Strangely, he is also immensely likable in scenes where he is shown helping Schindler, sometimes aiding his hidden agenda and at many junctures simply protecting him from being shut down. He is a despicable monster who takes pleasure in murdering but throughout the film, we are given hints to his less than sound mental state that effectively explains a lot about the things that he does. It isn’t a mean feat to pull off a character that is so despicable and at the same time so charming. Goeth is enigmatic and Ralph Fiennes essays him with such authority and realism that he becomes real. The way his life ends is another shocking visual representation that will stay with the viewers for a long time.

Ben Kingsley is natural in any character that you put him in and Itzhak Stern is no different. He has a bewildered look on his face from start to finish. He is at a total loss of expressions on the sheer goodness that Schindler shows him and his kind. He initially takes him to be someone who is trying to profit out of slave labor but as the story progresses he realizes that this man might be spending more than what he has earned to save Jewish lives. His character is in the middle of two polarizing attitudes towards Jewish people that he cannot sum up and it shows in his mannerisms throughout the film. The camaraderie that he shares with Liam Neeson and the little moments that Spielberg puts in their scenes together immensely increases the importance and charm of Kingsley’s act.

Schindler’s List is haunting the recreation of a story that is as much about the triumph of humanity as it is about a will to survive. Oskar Schindler saved so many Jews that their subsequent generations outnumbered the total number of Jews in Poland in the year of the release of this film. For a contribution of this magnitude, a befitting cinematic representation was needed and Spielberg’s effort is a worthy salute to a man who risked it all to save humanity.

Rating: 5/5 (5 out of 5 Stars)       




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