Source:  The Christian Century, Feb 16, 1994 v111 n5 p172(4).
    Title:  Schindler's List._(movie reviews)
   Author:  John Ottenhoff
 Subjects:  Motion pictures - Reviews
   People:  Spielberg, Steven
            Neeson, Liam
            Kingsley, Ben
            Fiennes, Ralph
Rev Grade:  A
  Magazine Collection:  72H0045
Electronic Collection:  A14841384
                   RN:  A14841384

Full Text COPYRIGHT Christian Century Foundation 1994

NEARLY THREE hours into Steven Spielberg's monumental Schindler's List, a
group of Jewish women, newly liberated from the Plaszow Forced Labor Camp, are
sent--because of a paperwork error--to Auschwitz instead of to the haven of
Oskar Schindler's munitions factory in Czechoslovakia. Schindler (Liam
Neeson), a German industrialist turned "angel of mercy," immediately arrives
at the scene, eager to ransom his workers from certain death. The laconic S.S.
officer at first refuses, offering Schindler instead several cattle cars of
other prisoners who are about to arrive from Hungary. "You shouldn't get stuck
on names," he calmly advises.

Schindler's List repeatedly reminds us of the power in names and of the more
than 6 million individual stories of horror in the unspeakable horror of the
Holocaust. Like the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, which emphasizes the
simple power of naming the dead and the accumulated weight of so many names,
this film repeatedly reminds us of the names of those who perished--and the
few who survived.

The names most often are enmeshed in the grim efficiency of the S. S. machine
as it corrals Jews in Cracow, funnels them into the ghetto, and then
transports them to labor and extermination camps. Spielberg brilliantly
captures the banal efficiency of evil in careful, repeated shots of
symmetrical oppression: neatly ordered rows of tables and chairs, the
instruments of war in the form of pens, stamps and permits, and the repetition
of names as Jews step forward to be stripped of their possessions and then
their lives. But the film also reverses that bureaucratic appropriation of
names. Schindler's rescue of nearly 1,200 Jewish prisoners also depended upon
names--the names on the list of workers in his enamelware and munitions
factories. The film ends in a powerful tribute to Schindler by surviving
Schindlerjuden and their descendants-- numbering some 6,000--many of whose
names are flashed on the screen as they gather at Schindler's tomb.

Skeptics may question the appropriateness of one of America's great purveyors
of film entertainment taking on the Holocaust. But this film's power, its
dignity as well as its craft, should silence those murmurings. Make no
mistake, despite the grim subject and black-and-white photography, this is the
work of a great Hollywood director. Yet it is equally the work of a sensitive
and gifted artist committed to the dignified telling of a powerful story about
a heinous event.

Of all the ways to tell the story of the Holocaust---one that has not been
told often or effectively in modern American films--why choose the story
(based on Thomas Keneally's 1982 nonfiction novel) about Oskar Schindler?
Schindler, after all, was a war profiteer, a Nazi sympathizer. Drawn to Cracow
early in the war by the smell of profits, Schindler mixes easily with Nazi
society as he smooths the way to turn a defunct enamelware plant into a
thriving supplier of war materials. Jews provide a ready supply of cheap
labor. But Schindler also finds himself annoyed by Nazi interference with his
workforce--which begins with harassment, but ends in summary executions, the
liquidation of the Cracow ghetto and forced removal into labor camps.

Schindler, as we first see him, cares mostly about business: the Nazi excesses
hurt his profits. But the indifferent, hedonistic profiteer changes. His
Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) quietly helps him build the
business while insinuating care and conscience. One notable moment occurs
after a one-armed Jewish worker, one of Stern's placements in this relative
haven, profusely thanks Schindler for his graciousness and repeatedly tells
Schindler that he's a great man. Schindler wants no such praise and acts
annoyed that Stern would hire the disabled. But in the next scene the man is
executed by Nazi thugs, and Schindler begins to see that the issue is deeper
than that of an available workforce.

Schindler's compassion grows as he comes into contact with Amon Goeth (Ralph
Fiennes), the young Nazi commandant of Plaszow. In many respects Goeth fits
the profile of Official Nazi Movie Monster. Lounging shirtless on his balcony,
he entertains himself by randomly shooting prisoners. He speaks in a menacing
Austrian accent, delights in cruelty, and shudders at his attraction for his
Jewish housekeeper. But Goeth becomes more than a stereotype, largely because
Spielberg develops the parallels between the Nazi monster and Schindler.
Together they drink wine, admire women, consider the profits of the war
machine, and help each other out of binds with the bureaucracy. Spielberg's
camera also juxtaposes the two: Goeth looks down on his fallen victims in a
shot remarkably like the preceding image of Schindler observing the
liquidation of Cracow's ghetto from a hill overlooking the city; both men are
filmed gazing down from on high at the helpless victims. Both men approach
Goeth's Jewish housekeeper in the cellar of the Plaszow commandant's villa,
and aggressive cross-cuts later emphasize the parallels in their interactions
with women.

The interaction with Goeth in his camp paved with the tombstones of Jews
accelerates the change in Schindler's outlook. By the time Schindler declares
to Goeth that true power involves not the unlicensed ability to kill but the
bestowal of pardon, we see a hero taking shape. Yet in transforming Schindler
from an indifferent profiteer to a troubled helper ("What am I supposed to do
about it?") to a liberator, Spielberg carefully presents not so much a heroic
man as a man who performed some heroic deeds. Schindler's story emphasizes
that good actions are not always totally pure and heroic. The few maudlin
moments that portray Schindler as a hero stand out because they are so rare.
The most notable is the speech Schindler makes in front of his Jewish workers
as the war ends. If only I had done more, he sobs, if only I had lived less
excessively, I could have bought more people their freedom. But even here,
Schindler remains ambiguous: clearly this .crafty man, who' has achieved good
because of his ability to work within a corrupt system, must also be thinking
of his next step in a changing world.

As one can expect from an artist with Spielberg's gifts, Schindler's List
offers a vivid, riveting cinematic experience; few three-hour films move this
quickly. The craft surely lies in the seamless storytelling, helped by the
power of the events themselves but also by the compelling trio of Neeson,
Kingsley and Fiennes. But Spielberg's craft also lies in the details. An early
scene of Schindler wining and dining Nazis at a Cracow cabaret, shot in the
stunning subtlety of the film's blackand-white photography, captures the fine
nuance of his leather jacket creaking as he bends forward in a confidential
whisper; it is the sound of an assured and wealthy man who knows how to get
things done. As Schindler begins to achieve a moral awareness, we see him
dressed in his usual lavish fashion while a record plays Billie Holiday
singing "God Bless the Child"; the tune and the juxtaposition convey a world
of commentary. The large moments are equally powerful aurally and visually,
especially as the Nazi troops march through the ghetto, their boots echoing
through the theater and chilling the air. The vivid scenes of Jews being
herded in a frenzy of fear quite consciously 'alludes to Sergei Eisenstein's
classic Potemkin, but most of all they strike us with terror.

Spielberg's cinematography maintains a highly realistic tone while generally
avoiding the feel of familiar newsreels. Extreme closeups, occasional stunning
beauty and touches of cinema verite reveal the director's touch. Only a few
times does Spielberg allow us moments of great emotion or release or even
surrealism, such as the scene of a Nazi trooper blithely playing a piano while
the mop-up of the ghetto takes place around him. Even more striking in this
sequence, as the mayhem of the liquidation fills the screen, is the shot of a
little girl in a red coat moving against the current. Was that a red coat in
this black-and-white film? We wonder as the girl calmly hides under a bed. An
hour later, having seen nothing more of the girl or of any trace of color, we
glimpse her body and the red coat being exhumed from a mass grave outside the
work camp. One might dismiss the touch as Hollywood sentiment (especially
since it figures in posters for the film), but it is more a reminder that
these were individuals who died.

One might question Spielberg's attempt to re-create the horror of Plaszow and
Auschwitz. The scene of Schindler's female workers being stripped and herded
into a shower room at Auschwitz seems especially manipulative as they wait to
discover whether they'll receive welcoming water or exterminating gas. We see
a truckload of children leaving Plaszow, most of them waving gaily while their
mothers grimly recognize that their destination is death and a few remaining
children hide in latrine muck. Prisoners strip and face physical examinations
that will determine death or continued life as profitable labor. These scenes
aren't essential to the telling of Schindler's story and perhaps endanger
Spielberg's enterprise by bringing the unspeakable to the comprehensible
grammar of film. But these scenes also sober us, assault us, and remind us of
the choices and tragedies that Schindler and every individual in this gruesome
story faced.

Schindler's List seems very much Steven Spielberg's personal film. Indeed, one
is tempted to draw some parallels between Schindler's story and Spielberg's
effort. Schindler accomplished some truly good things despite his mixed
motives. Spielberg works within a system devoted to entertainment and profit,
and many have questioned the appropriateness of a Hollywood encounter with
such an indescribably monstrous event. Yet Spielberg has created a film with a
message that transcends the profiteering of Hollywood, and he has accomplished
some measure of good in doing so. It is not a perfect film and, yes, it is an
entertaining film. But in making it Spielberg has used his vast talent and
resources to prompt each of us to recall events and names too often left to
generalization or indifference.
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