Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - Schindler's List (#85)

The Favorites - Schindler's List (#85)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Schindler's List (1993/USA/dir. Steven Spielberg) appeared at #85 on my original list.

What it is • Oskar Schindler arrives on the screen with an aura of glamor, charisma, and mystery, as superficially charming as he is morally bankrupt. All around him the Jews of Krakow - rich and poor, old and young, cynical and idealistic - are stripped of their property, huddled together in ghettos, herded into work camps, and executed on the whims of their German occupiers. Schindler's concern is to get his enamelware business going, taking advantage of the war (and the possibility of Jewish slave labor) to make a fortune which he can then spend on lavish parties and the best in consumer goods. It would be easy to set Schindler up as an instinctively despicable figure, but instead Spielberg and star Liam Neeson encourage us to enjoy his company, to see the world simultaneously through his eyes and through a wider lens which perceives the suffering he is oblivious to. This is a risky gambit (it would have been easier to focus the film through his eyes entirely OR to make a docudrama about the horrors of the Holocaust) but one that ultimately pays off as these two distant worlds come crashing together, and the awakened Oskar discovers the humanity of those around him, and of himself.

Why I like it •
First of all, the movie is both extremely moving, and exceedingly well-directed, a fact recognized even by its detractors (indeed, these qualities are often placed at the center of their critique - is the emotion exploitative, the art too artificial?). It would be hard to imagine a film more effective, and unsettling, in its mixture of entertainment and art, storytelling and historical recreation. As noted above, Schindler's List is essentially two tightly-interwoven films: an individually-oriented narrative of personal redemption and a broader, more anonymous and collective study of Jewish life (and death) in Krakow of the early 1940s. The first is told through a tight, fluid narrative structure, the epitome of Hollywood screencraft, while the second is demonstrated via standalone setpieces which depict an escalating sense of horror. I've generally been more critical of the second approach than the first but on this viewing, I found the power of the sequences amplified by the film's focus. Another aspect which doesn't get discussed enough is Ralph Fiennes' terrifying and hypnotic performance as camp commandant Amon Geoth - usually described as a straight-up monster but depicted in a much more nuanced (and thus troubling) way onscreen, in a fashion that illuminates the flawed Schindler's heroism. As in no other film he's ever made, Schindler's List joins Spielberg's acknowledged facility for manipulation to his underappreciated gift for discovery.

How you can see it • Schindler's List is available on DVD from Netflix and from these streaming services. I have written a longer review, discussing it alongside Spileberg's later film Munich.

What do you think? • Does Spielberg bite off more than he can chew by approaching Schindler's List in epic fashion? Should he have focused on either telling a broader story or simplifying his approach to this one? Is this the film in which Spielberg became a more "adult" filmmaker or do you locate that transition earlier or later (or not at all)? Are there other films, or artworks, you feel do a better job with this subject matter or is it unfair to compare them? Does the film trivialize its subject matter, as J. Hoberman and allegedly Stanley Kubrick claimed, by focusing on a story of success amidst massive tragedy? Is Schindler's climactic breakdown a storytelling flaw or a powerful sequence? How do you feel about his characterization in the final act? How does this film grow out of Spielberg's earlier blockbusters...or does it arise from a different sensibility altogether?

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Previous week: Miraculous Virgin (#86)
Next week: Raging Bull (#84)

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