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Film Review – Schindler’s List (1993)

On March 29th, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One will be playing in theaters across the country. In honor of this great director, let’s revisit some of his iconic films, starting with Schindler’s List.  A winner of seven Oscars, Schindler’s List is a classic piece of cinema that brought tears to its audience with its black-and-white cinematography and shockingly realistic violence. The following review will be spoiler free.

Synopsis

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Thomas Keneally (book), Steven Zaillian (screenplay)

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, and Embeth Davidtz

1939–The Nazis are relocating Jews to the Polish ghetto in Krakow. Oskar Schindler (Neeson), a shrewd businessman, arrives in Krakow, Poland, in hopes of exploiting the cheap labor to start a factory producing enamelware for the Germans. He hires a Jewish man, Itzhak Stern (Kingsley), to help him with his finances. Stern, using his underground connections, is able to secretly falsify documents to hire on as many Jews as possible, saving them from concentration camps and death. At first, Schindler is angry, but after watching the brutal treatment of the Jews under Amon Göth (Fiennes)–especially his maid Helen Hirsch (Davidtz)–he decides to help Stern. In the end, he spends nearly all his money to “buy” and save over 1,000 Jews.

Schindler's List

Image via WingClips

Background

Schindler’s List is actually based on the book Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. As many already know, this movie is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler’s valiant efforts to rescue over 1,000 Polish Jews. Because of his efforts, he is the only member of the Nazi party buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion–an extraordinary honor.

Schindler’s List was the result of Poldek Pfefferberg’s pushing. As one of the Jews saved by Schindler, Pfefferberg made it his life’s work to honor Schindler and even tried to negotiate a movie deal with MGM in 1963, but it fell through. Spielberg was attracted to the man’s determination and met with him in 1983. During that meeting, Spielberg promised Pfefferberg (who is credited as a consultant under the name Leopold Page) that he would start filming in ten years. After reconciling a few reservations, Spielberg made good on his promise.

Schindler's List

Image via Mental Floss

Ralph Fiennes Playing Pure Evil

For Harry Potter fans, Ralph Fiennes has always been wicked, as he played the role of Voldemort. However, Ralph Fiennes plays an entirely different kind of evil in Schindler’s List. When one looks into the eyes of Amon Göth, they see only their reflection staring back at them. No warmth. No kindness. Somehow, Fiennes rid himself of any and all emotion other than pure hatred and indifference to effectively play the Nazi commandant.

It’s more than just his evil deeds that show his character–it’s his body language while he commits them. When he is ordering his men to execute Jews, his face reveals nothing but a bland contempt. When he himself is pulling the trigger, he emits nothing but tightly controlled rage and confidence, and perhaps a few sadistic quips. His conversations with Schindler are punctuated with insensitive jokes and a disregard for human life. His disinterested body language conveys that he does not care for anyone but himself. Fiennes gives a magnificent performance as a cold Nazi with no love left in his heart.

Schindler's List

Image via Killing Time

Stunning Use of Color Symbolism

Schindler’s List is shot in black-and-white, with the only splotch of color being a little girl in a red dress wandering through the ghetto during the liquidation. Spielberg himself explains the reasoning behind the decision to film in black-and-white: “The Holocaust was life without light. For me the symbol of life is color. That’s why a film about the Holocaust has to be in black-and-white.”

As for the little girl in red, Spielberg has said it symbolizes how obvious the Holocaust was to the government, and yet they chose to ignore it. Others have said the red represents the blood of the Jews who died. Some even say it represents when Schindler finally realizes he needs help these poor people. Whatever the reason, it was a brilliant choice and remains an iconic part of this film.

Schindler's List

Image via Carnegie Council

On a side note, Oliwia Dąbrowska–the young actress who played the girl–was told by Spielberg to not watch the film until she was eighteen. Being a regular, mischievous child, she watched it at age eleven and said she was “horrified.” However, she later said she was proud to have played the part.

Minimalist Film Score That Says So Much

The score of Schindler’s Listcomposed by John Williams–is very simple. It relies mainly on the longing melodies of a violin and the haunting refrain of a piano. These instrumentals are joined every so often by a larger, yet still minimal, orchestra. It’s astounding to me how so little can say so much.

Though simple, the score summons so much emotion that one can practically feel the character’s pain. The shrill notes puncture our hearts with the knowledge that none of those murdered can return. Lower bass sections fill us with dread at witnessing even more of the innocent die. John Williams’ masterpiece tugs at our heartstrings with his orchestra until we cry in anguish.

Schindler's List

Image via Watches in Movies

Liam Neeson Gives the Performance of His Career

This is Liam Neeson’s best movie. He portrays the character development of Mr. Schindler in a way that is both realistic and extraordinary. His easy smile and careless manner show through at the beginning of the movie. Near the end, his haggard features and tired eyes reveal the struggles he went through and the sleep he lost saving the Jews.

Neeson shows the love Schindler gains for the Jews throughout this movie. One scene that especially stands out is the scene when he reassures Helen Hirsch that she will survive, despite Göth’s violence toward other Jews. His gentle voice, the way he concernedly paces around the woman, to the way he awkwardly exits, shows the man he was becoming, and the change taking over his body–it is in these moments you understand why he does what he does.

Final Thoughts

Schindler’s List is a deeply emotional film that will help you understand what millions of Jews went through during the Holocaust. All actors and actresses give incredible performances and portray their horror and grief believably. The score is beautiful and the cinematography is genius. It is simply one of the greatest movies ever made.

Grade: A

Schindler's List

Image via SBS


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4 Responses

  1. Yes, a moving movie. Never fails to bring a tear no matter how many times you see it.

  2. backuphill says:

    I used this film for over ten years in my high school history class. The younger students heard about it year after year and they all anticipated seeing it in class. They student knew before going into the unit that it would be emotional and impactful, and everyone one of them said it was the most heart-wrenching, powerful unit they ever had in a history class.

    Many students these days have never seen this film, but it should be a “MUST VIEW” for every high school student. There is incredible depth and powerful symbolism through the film – not just the girl in the red coat (there are actually four color scenes in the film: the prayer at the beginning, the candle at the beginning, the red coat, and the candle at the end).

    This film should top anyone’s list of “Best Movies.”

    • Kali Tuttle says:

      My mistake about the color scenes–totally forgot to include the beginning and ending scenes.
      I appreciate you using this film in your history class. Oftentimes we learn about the Holocaust but we don’t truly understand what went on or we have just become so numb to it. This movie really helps break through that numbness to portray it as it was: scared, innocent people subject to the some of the worst cruelties.

  3. Nick Kush says:

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