More noise than signal

Schindler’s List

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

I guess I should make a confession here – until preparing for this podcast I had not seen Schindler’s List. Not, really, because I doubted that it would be a very good movie, but more because while I’m no WW2 scholar, I’m quite aware of the atrocities committed on the Jewish people by the Nazis, and a three hour exploration of that seemed to be a recipe for wrist-cutting.

I’m pleased to see that my spidey-sense is not altogether inaccurate on this one, as Spielberg’s opus, probably Magnum, or at least a Calippo or Cornetto, is indeed both very good and very depressing. Nazis were bad. Hitler was bad.

For those not familiar with this particular slice of Nazi badness, we travel to annexed Kraków, Poland where the Jews are soon forced from their homes and crowded into a ghetto. Meanwhile Nazi Party member Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrives with the intention of making money. After elaborately smoozing the ranking Nazis, he’s allowed to open up an enamelware factory with a staff composed of Jews subject to forced labour. He quickly finds local official Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to take on the actual management of operations, as well as help finance the purchase of the factory – Schindler’s investment terms being better than the Nazi’s innovative “total forfeiture” current account.

While initially Schindler seems more concerned with profits than working conditions, he at least turns a blind eye when Stern starts bringing in more workers to protect them from being sent to concentration camps, however his attitude starts changing once Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) shows up to run the recently built labour camp. Quite aside from his charming character peccadillo of arbitrarily shooting prisoners, his order to “liquidate” the Kraków ghetto, which is quite the charming euphemism for mass murder, marks the inflection point in Schindler caring more about his fellow humans than Reichsmarks.

As the war rumbles on, and the conditions for the Jewish people get continually worse, Schindler continues to find ways to spare as many as he can from the horrors of the extermination camps, eventually going so far as to open the world’s least productive munitions factory in his hometown in what’s now the Czech Republic. He spends all of his money on colossal bribes to Goeth to relocate workers on the titular list to this new work camp, keeping some one thousand people alive that would otherwise most likely have perished at Auschwitz.

Given the subject matter, it is in no way an enjoyable film. “Harrowing” would be a more apt term. By the end of this I was well and truly harrowed. Harrowed aff ma nut. Charming village, that. We can, however, find a great many things to appreciate. While there’s not a bad performance on screen, of course it’s Liam Neeson, Ralph Finnes and Ben Kingsley that deservedly take the mindshare.

The historical detail is remarkable, and it never looks anything other than completely convincing. Neeson, hard as it is to fathom now, was not a particularly familiar face back in 1993, except to those who had seen Sam Raimi’s thematically similar Darkman or a few supporting roles, and he certainly gives a star-making performance. Portraying well Schindler’s heel-face turn, and the double act with Ben Kingsley swings between entertaining and touching on a dime.

Naturally, it’s Ralph Finnes’ character who casts a bigger shadow, playing a character that would seem to be cartoonishly evil and entirely unbelievable, were there not sufficient evidence to confirm that Amon Goeth was indeed a murderous psychopath of the lowest order. As a hateful avatar of evil, he’s pretty compelling, particularly the scenes with his poor tormented maid.

I don’t know if this is the definitive Holocaust film, to be honest with you. It is, after all, a tale concerned with a small victory amongst the colossal, revolting extermination, but that’s a story better told by history and documentaries than narrative fiction. This is, like the film’s occasional use of colour, about finding some life and light amongst the dark and death. Regarding which, while that child with the red coat has become an enduring motif of the film, and focusing down to the plight of one innocent in particular can make it easier to understand the horrors than when applied to a mass of humanity, it’s a bit too cheesy for my taste. An upmarket cheese, for sure, but cheese nonetheless. Perhaps the effect has been diminished by a million selective colour smartphone apps.

These, well, they’re not even quibbles really, aside, there’s no reason not to give Schindler’s List the plaudits it deserves – it’s one of those rare Oscar winners that don’t leave me scratching my head and wondering why it’s better than such and such or whatever (both fine films).