Schindler's List
by Donna West

 

"He who saves a single life, saves the world entire."
(Schindler's List)

Steven Spielberg made an excellent aesthetic choice when he decided to film his 1993 movie Schindler's List in predominantly black and white.  The only use of color in the entire movie was for the red coat on a little Jewish girl during the liquidation of the ghetto at Krakow, Poland, and for the present day survivors of Schindler's list shown at the end of the movie placing rocks on Oskar Schindler's tomb in Israel.  The black and white effect used in the film depicts the somber theme of the Holocaust with a realistic, if savage, view of the inhumane treatment of the Jewish people by the Nazi-Germans, and the atrocities committed.

The movie based upon a true story is taken from the book by Thomas Keneally, Schindler's List published in 1982.  The movie was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and won seven.  This film won the Best Picture and Best Director in 1993 at the Academy Awards, the British Academy Awards in 1993 and 1994, the New York Film Critics Circle in 1993, and the Golden Globe Award in 1994.  In 1998, the American Film Institute named Schindler's List, as one of the "100 Greatest American Movies."  The film critic Mark Deming asserted that Schindler's List "...quickly gained a place as one of the finest American movies about the Holocaust."

Liam Neeson, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, does an excellent job in his portrayal of Oskar Schindler.  Schindler is a man out to make his fortune in the war by supplying the German Army with war goods---pots, pans, etc., from a factory in Poland.  Although a German himself, Schindler finds he is not immune to the suffering and the animalistic treatment of the Jews.  At first he does not heed what is happening all over Krakow, but once he becomes involved with the Jewish people working in his factory, he can no longer remain indifferent to their plight.

The German 14th Army captured Krakow on September 6, 1939.  On October 26, 1939, the areas of Poland that were to be annexed to the Reich were put under a German Governor-General, Hans Frank, former Reich Minister of Justice.  On November 8, when he assumed his new post, Frank began a persecution of Polish intellectuals and Jews.  The Germans began the methodical dehumanization of the Jewish people by taking away their homes, furnishings, jewelry, money, but most of all, their dignity.  The Jews became numbers to the Nazis, nothing more, nothing less, mere figures on a page.  The film depicts the propaganda instilled in the Nazi officers when Untersturmfuhrer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) refers to the Jewish people in the Plaszow forced labor camp under his charge as mere vermin in want of extermination.  The prisoners were starved to skin and bones, and worked almost to death.  Any excuse at all could be used to put a bullet in a Jewish prisoner.

The Nazi ideal was that of the perfect race: the Jews did not fit into their concepts.  Anyone who was considered useless---which could mean anything from working too slowly, being crippled, too young, elderly, infirm or even in the wrong place at the wrong time---was subject to prompt execution.  The portrayal of the casual offhand disposal and blatant disregard of human life allows one to see what racism and blind hatred can lead to---genocide.  During World War II, the Nazis used the Jewish people for laborers, medical experiments, grave diggers, but they also used the crafts and skills of the Jewish workers for their own or Germany's profit.  No thought was ever spared for how the Jewish people themselves felt when they woke up one day and realized they were in Hell.

The Aryan goal of racial purity was not new in 20th-Century Nazi Germany.  The persecution and hatred of the Jewish people, especially in Germany, reaches back in time to the early Middle Ages.  Indeed, animosity towards the Jewish people has been a significant part of Europe's history.  The isolation of the Jewish people in Pales or Ghettos often added to cutting them off from surrounding mainstream society.  The fact that to some people the Jews seemed to prosper no matter what environment or their circumstances did not help matters either.

Whatever the historical forces behind their fierce hatred of the Jews, nothing justifies the treatment of the Jews as a people in this era.  The Krakow ghetto was exterminated in 1942, and the Jews that survived the extermination were moved into the newly completed forced labor camp of Plaszow.  Those that had work permits were allowed to move to the labor camp and those that did not were shipped out on trains.  Amon Goeth, the overseer of the Plaszow Labor Camp, was full of Nazi sentiments and himself.  Fiennes does an excellent job of portraying a callous and amoral young Nazi officer with the power of life and death over the Jews in his labor camp. 

The Nazi doctors came to Plaszow to check the health of the camp laborers; any who were found to be sick or infirm were separated out and sent to Auschwitz to be gassed.  The children were the first to be taken to Auschwitz.  After Schindler leased his Jewish laborers from Goeth, they were supposed to be transported by train to his hometown where a factory would be started making munitions for the German army.  Instead, when the men and women were shipped in separate trains---the men wound up with Schindler and the women wound up in Auschwitz.  Schindler had to bribe several officers and go through a long chain of officials at Auschwitz to obtain the women's release.  The scene depicts the brutality of Nazi "efficiency," the terror of the helpless, trapped victims and the corruption of the Nazi bureaucracy.

In addition to other supplies, Schindler's new factory was to make shells for the war.  However, in all the time the factory was in operation, it never produced a working shell.  By this strategy, Schindler did his part in avoiding the responsibility for more people dying at the hands of the Nazis.  Although Schindler was out to make a profit off the war, he realized that money was not as important as human life. 

Schindler it seems had a heart after all.  The Jewish people forgave him and he was found not guilty when the Germans were prosecuted for their war crimes.  The people that Schindler had saved, approximately 1100 men, women and children, came forward and spoke on his behalf.  After all, if it had not been for him, they would not still be alive.  The war profiteer Schindler in the end became the humanitarian, because he could not turn his back and ignore the blatant disregard for human life that his own people showed.  All the money Schindler had made from the factory went to buy the freedom of "his Jews."   He would die poor and virtually unknown in 1974.

The famous poetic quotation at the end of the film---He who saves one life, saves the world entire---has a nice, warm, human touch.  It is not the exactly original saying that is found in the Jewish Talmud.  The actual verse in the Talmud is, "Whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, Scripture ascribes to him as if he had preserved a complete world."

This movie is highly recommended for those interested in history or even for those who simply enjoy excellent, intelligent and serious film making.  Those interested in reading more about Schindler and what happened in Poland during the Holocaust should read Thomas Fensch's edited study,  Oskar Schindler and His List: The Man, the Book, the Film, the Holocaust and its Survivors.  Elinor Brecher,  published  Schindler's Legacy: True Stories of the List Survivors.  For Steven Spielberg fans, a book written by Franciszek Palowski about the making of the movie, The Making of Schindler's List: Behind the Scenes of an Epic Film is worth while.