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Schindler's List

The story of the Holocaust is one that can be told through the eyes of many different types of people. Victims as well as perpetrators experienced loss and transformation that encompass the human element of the period. The film Schindler’s List, which is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark, follows the true story of German businessman Oskar Schindler and the risks he takes during a dangerous time to employ and thus save the lives of over one thousand Jews. The film, widely considered to be of the greatest films ever made, attributes its success to the rawness and gravitas utilized by director Steven Spielberg, whose background inspired him to present a film that would not only be popular but present his history with dignity. Depicting the horrors of life in the Krakow ghetto and in the concentration camps of Plaszow and Auschwitz, Schindler’s List effectively carries out Spielberg’s vision. The film accomplishes Spielberg’s additional goal of accurately portraying the real-life figures of Schindler, SS commandant Amon Goeth, and Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern- all those who played most significant roles in Schindler’s story. Schindler’s List justly depicts the horrific realities of the Holocaust with support from Mr. Spielberg’s staunch direction.

Schindler’s List can, principally, be so easily accepted by the viewer due to its cinematography. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s black and white, documentary style footage invokes authenticity and captivates the viewer while further promoting the sense of coldness and austerity associated with the time and environment. Hence, it ought to be acknowledged that the lack of both color and cliché in the production design and editing are directly responsible for this film’s greatest strength. Besides maintaining the surface credibility of the film, the visual style creates powerful symbolism. The first scene in the movie, in color, shows a Jewish family gathered around prayer candles that slowly melt down after the family goes to sleep. With each new frame, the candles grow smaller, and the scene slowly turns to black and white. The final shot leaves the candle wax completely gone, with only a bright orange flame burning against a colorless background. The flame, in one right, can clearly represent the Jewish spirit that is soon to confront adverse transformation, but can also be interpreted as hope or as the freedoms of tradition. This powerful image that lingers on the screen immerses the viewer and causes them to assume the mood of the coming history. At another point in the film, color supports an artistic realization, when, once more against a colorless background, a young Jewish girl is shown on the street wearing a bright red coat. Schindler, who notices the girl standing alone while Jews are forced onto trains bound for death camps, is disturbed by the image and soon begins to help Jews in earnest. He has stated in hindsight that “I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system”. The symbol of the girl in red not only inspires Schindler but provokes thought in the viewer as well. What was once a blockbuster drama, albeit one based on actual events, suddenly displays the tragedies of a ‘stolen generation’. When Schindler later sees the girl, her coat still bright red, she is lying dead in a bonfire of bodies. The cinematography and visual creativity in Schindler’s List are used in the cleverest ways possible to enhance the realistic, and thus incredibly powerful, progression of the story.

An unfortunate strength of Schindler’s List is its mildly unrefined depiction of life in the Krakow ghetto. In September of 1939, Germany’s defeat of Poland forced Jews to move to the cities and register all family members, and subsequently saw the herding of Jews into the ghetto. Seventeen thousand people were forced to share a space of sixteen square blocks with three hundred and twenty apartments. A high wall surrounding the ghetto prevented Jews from forgetting their situation, although reminders in the form of violence, disease and starvation were elsewhere inescapable. As illustrated in the film, frequent Aktionen, in which Jews were rounded up to be sent to the death camps, occurred. Violence in the form of random acts was ubiquitous in real life as well as in the movie. The viewer watches as Nazis arbitrarily select Jews on the street to beat or shoot. Still more tragic, however, is one scene in which a resident shares her dismal view that the ghetto is “liberty” when compared to worse things, because at least it keeps “them out”. While occupying only a brief portion of the film, ghetto life seems equally as powerful as other themes due to its somber realism; yet another of its duties is to provide a binary opposition to life in the concentration camps.

Schindler’s List further distinguishes itself from other Holocaust films by putting forth a rather personal documentation of life at the Plaszow camp. The labor camp in real life earned notoriety for its individual and mass shootings, a fact which is synonymous with its depiction in Schindler’s List. The viewer sees an engineer shot for warning Goeth of a flaw in the design of a building. A rabbi is attacked for producing too few hinges while at work in the factory on site. Most disturbing of all, dozens are shot by Goeth from his balcony above the camp while he engages in a nonchalant round of target practice. In addition to obeying a record of truth, the motive for this continuation of accuracy is likely artistic. When watching one man or woman or child get killed, as well as the incident leading up to their murder, the sadness and shock mean more to the viewer than if they were never to form a personal attachment to the victim. The shock also fortifies a wall of astonishment meant to hit the viewer with the sense of humility that Spielberg intended to inflict upon his audience.

Though Schindler’s List explores the horrors of the infamous Auschwitz camp only briefly, the result is sufficiently unsettling. A glimpse is taken into the camp when a train of women that Schindler had saved was mistakenly sent there instead of his factory. The women’s clothes are taken, hair chopped off, and, reduced to the state of animals, they are herded into a room with shower heads looming above. The viewer is gripped by a scene of terror, as the women believe they are in a gas chamber, which soon turns to relief as water pours out of the shower heads. The unfathomable nature of the scene, in addition to the background knowledge the viewer may have of the camp, incites yet another wall of astonishment that, when known to reflect a true history, further promotes the value of the film.

Schindler’s List does a notably exceptional job of portraying its characters in such a way that the viewer becomes transfixed with them. Is it the stark resemblance of the actors to the real life figures that contributes most heavily to this phenomenon? Or could it be the moments of solitude in which the viewer sees the characters at their most vulnerable? Whatever the cause of this clear strength, the accuracy executed by Spielberg in his direction of the actors must not go unacknowledged. Oskar Schindler in real life has been described as “self-indulgent” and “notorious as a womanizer”. Often shown with a mistress on his arm in the film, and never shown as one to ignore a good party- one which involves liquor and cigarettes and women- the screen character of Mr. Schindler stays true to that of the real man, which, as is unforgettable, also includes his serious side. On May 8th, 1945, when Germany’s loss forces him to flee as a member of the Nazi party, Schindler expresses great remorse over his belief that he did not do enough to save as many Jews as possible, such as selling his car or his gold pin. The scene is crushing, because a man that the viewer has come to love cannot seem to love himself. It is these instances, which happened in real life, that enhance the believability of a film in which truthfulness is required in order to deliver a most meaningful presentation. Likewise, but perhaps even more so, the portrayal of SS commandant Amon Goeth carries the believability of the film. Goeth is the archetypical twisted antagonist; a sadistic man both on screen and off whose portrayal in the film is far from superficial. An incident on set from one of Schindler’s Jews, Mila Pfefferberg, speaks loudest in favor of this assertion. Upon her introduction to actor Ralph Fiennes in costume, she “vibrated with terror. She didn’t see an actor. She saw Amon Goeth.” It has been said by another one of the Schindlerjuden, Poldek Pfefferberg, that “when you saw Goeth, you saw death”. Fiennes, who, as well as Liam Neeson for Oskar Schindler, received acclaim for his portrayal of “death”, successfully captures and shares with the viewer the essence of a man directly responsible for implementing many of the horrors people associate today with the Holocaust. Given the emphasis that Mr. Spielberg placed on accuracy in the film, the strength of the effect with which these characters reach the viewer should not be surprising.

As a picture, Schindler’s List delivers a moving and enlightening, but above all an accurate, presentation of history. Upon the conclusion of filming, Steven Spielberg created the Shoah Foundation, whose goal is to “gather and preserve testimonies from more than 52,000 Holocaust survivors and witnesses”. The director’s obvious dedication to the subject, on which he has stated, “as a re-creator of an incident in history; it meant more to me as a Jew”, is the force that drove him to keep the film truthful. There is but one major inaccuracy, and it regards Amon Goeth’s relationship with his Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch. In the film, Goeth was attracted to her, but his other maid at the time, Helena Sternlicht, has stated that his hate ran “much too deep for him to have been attracted to his Jewish maids”. A possible reason for Spielberg to have strayed from truth in this instance is that Goeth’s infamous “sexual evil” was such a factor in the story that he felt it needed to have a stronger contextual foundation. Despite this fact, the other sources that support an uncanny resemblance between the figures override the chance of this inaccuracy detracting from Goeth’s portrayal as a whole. The final scene of the film is somewhat of an epilogue that shows surviving Schindlerjuden and their descendants laying stones on Schindler’s grave in Israel. The willingness of those involved in Schindler’s real story to show dedication in the film version further demonstrates the care and respect with which this film was made. Given that the impact a film has on the viewer is a method of determining its overall quality, Schindler’s List, with its outstanding cinematography and painstakingly accurate portrayal of real characters and places, has earned its place among worthy historical films, and the man, as he must be credited, chiefly responsible for generating such a powerful impact is the equally notable Steven Spielberg.

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