My relationship with Schindler’s List is an odd one and goes back before the film was even made.
Flashback. Years ago while in college I was waiting for someone in a dormitory lobby and laying on the coffee table beside my chair was a tattered paperback copy of Albert Speer’s “Inside The Third Reich.” Before this time I had absolutely no interest in Hitler or Nazi Germany. In fact, quite the opposite. At the time of the Eichmann trial in the early 60s TV was inundated with documentaries about concentration camps and the holocaust always showing dead, naked and starved bodies shoved into mass graves by bulldozers. These documentaries left me unpleasant memories that I just didn’t want to relive. In addition a childhood friend’s father was an Auschwitz survivor (Tattoos on his arm and all) and it was a really taboo subject in that family and I had picked that up. In short I had more pleasant things to think about
But I found “Inside The Third Reich” fascinating and (this is a confession) actually took the book with me when I left. (That’s called stealing.) The book’s portrait of Hitler was interesting. The man wasn’t the raving lunatic the movies I had seen showed him to be but someone presented in human terms—Speer and he were close—which made Hitler even more of a monster considering everything he had done. He suffered what we call today a “borderline personality disorder” which is not uncommon. For me, Hitler in person would be much like someone who might be sitting next to me on a subway and I found that both scary and eye opening. But what really fascinated me about the book was Albert Speer, whom I call “the Technocrat as Artist.”
I will elaborate. Speer had been Hitler’s personal architect and designed many of the iconic Nazi structures like the Nuremberg Party Rally Stand, The Stadium for the 1936 Olympics as well as the Reich Chancellery. The construction of the Chancellery was an amazing achievement. From inception to completion—because of Speer—it took a year. That’s like building a structure half the size of the U.S. capital in that short a time. As I mentioned, it was an amazing accomplishment and it was achieved because of Speer’s approach to problem solving. What he did was to apply an artist’s method of problem solving with its flexible non formulaic methodology to what were essential technical projects. This was the opposite of what was usually done with these sorts of effortss in which highly technocrat and formulaic methodology is utilized.
It was because of this talent of Speer’s that when the head of the Organization Toldt was killed, Hitler put Speer in charge of the Organization Toldt which meant that he was now head of the German armament industry. At this he was nothing less than brilliant and (this is nothing to be proud of) due to his efforts the war probably lasted a year or so longer. Example: when Hamburg was firebombed and left in ruins, it took Speer four days to get the city’s armament industry running at 80 percent capacity.
At the same time I was developing this interest. Albert Speer was still alive living in Heidelberg and I corresponded with him for a bit. He was very good about answering letters. As he explained to me and as he wrote in a second book, prison had changed him. Instead of technical material he now read philosophy, sociology, psychology, anthropology—all the disciplines that were the opposite to technological thinking. When Speer was one of the most powerful Nazis in Germany he never thought in terms of people—of human beings. He only thought in terms of the job, what needed to be done to accomplish it and how he had to organize and direct the elements at his disposal to get it completed efficiently in the shortest possible time. He wrote that it was in this way that he could work for a Hitler, who, although Speer didn’t know everything Hitler was doing, he knew enough. He could work for the man by selling himself that what he was doing was to help his country and fellow countrymen live. In other words he blinded himself. For me, all this proved both fascinating and illuminating.
Eventually Speer was put on trial at Nuremberg as part of the Trial of the Major War criminals and spent 20 years in Spandau prison. This led me to read the complete transcript of the Nuremberg Trials and that led me to develop an interest in the roots of the Holocaust. In other words how could the most civilized and cultured country in the world became a country populated by monsters. Because of the Holocaust, as I was growing up, I looked upon Germans as one might look at a member of Isis today. Searching for the answer I must have read shelves of books—many of which I still have.
Some of the testimony during those trials and the trials of the Minor Criminals the following year tore my heart out. Examples: mother’s watching their infants thrown in fire pits, the atrocious experiments with children, the entire population of towns murdered and the town leveled. The Murder squads in the East and the death camps in the West. I read all about it and this gave me an experience I never wanted to go through again—to read how inhuman, humans can be. And then came the next insight: realizing that any of us under the right circumstances could become a monster. Frankly, it was just too frightening for me to understand the things I had come to understand. This wasn’t a Hollywood horror story it was a real horror story and we could be the monsters.
And this brings me to SCHINDLER’S LIST. When it was released there was no way I was going to watch that movie. Not because it was about the Holocaust—I had seen others—as much as knowing what I knew, I concluded “how could a Hollywood entertainment—made by Steven Spielberg of all people—possibly convey how truly terrible the holocaust was.” There is no way that actors could play workers in any of those camps. They would have to be starved near to death to look right and have a look about them where all hope, all sense of one’s value as a human being had been stolen. In short, they were reduced to animals living a day and a meal at a time not knowing whether it would be their last. How could any film possibly convey that?
So I refused to go to the movie. That was 1994 and didn’t see the movie despite the reviews and despite the awards. Then, maybe three or four years later I was visiting a friend’s and there sitting on a table was the two cassette VHS of the film. Looking at it I said to myself, “OK, I have to watch this movie. I am a film buff, everyone thinks it’s a great movie so I have to watch it and get that out of the way so I can move on.”
So I asked to borrow it, took it home and putting the tape in my VHS player watched SCHINDLER’S LIST on my 19 inch TV. (In those days that was pretty much how we watched movies on TV, although 30” CRTs were on sale but would soon we wiped out by Plasma.) It was a pan and scan version but that didn’t matter; not with this film.
Within 30 minutes of popping in that first cassette I realized that I was in the hands of a master film maker and all of Spielberg’s films that had preceded SCHINDLER’S LIST, had merely been preparation as he learned to master the medium of film making as well as storytelling.
I was correct in that this film nor any other could really show what it was to function in those death camps or the expressions of human or better put, inhuman desperation. Knowing this Spielberg made several important choices.
First, he filmed SCHINDLER’S LIST in black and white. Visually it is one of the most beautiful black and white films ever made in capturing a specific time period. There is not one shot in that film that makes you forget this is the 1940s. It literally picks you up and drops you into that time period.
Second, he chose not to take us into the death camps. Instead the ghettos where he concentrates on Schindler’s workers who were decently fed and didn’t look to be on death’s door.
Third, he used specific scenes to put you into the head of these people; the senseless murder of the female engineer, the desperate woman begging Schindler to let her parents work in his factory, the plight of the commandant’s maid, the children hiding in the latrine, the Germans’ machine gunning the ceilings to make sure they found Jews hiding and most especially the little girl wondering about with her red coat—the only bit of color used in the main body of the film—and seeing her dead (red coat on) on a cart having been dug up and now sent to be burned in a pile of bodies three stories high. There are so many of these moments and each is incredible as the other.
Fourth, the casting of Ralph Fiennes. His handsome, appealing, almost boy like face and personal charm combined with the actions of a monster who, fundamentally, sees no value in human life. This all presents a true picture of a monster and Fiennes is brilliant. I don’t think he’s ever been better.
Fifth, Spielberg’s presentation of the Nazi and SS in very human terms. Only on rare occasions do they come across as “movie monsters” instead, merely soldiers doing their job. This is one of the most frightening aspects of the film as it hammers home that these events, although monstrous in their enormity, represent an aspect of human behavior which is not particularly alien as the obedience experiments of Stanley Milgram demonstrated over 50 years ago.
Finally, that Spielberg chose not going to make a film about death but about life and human compassion in the midst of human madness. For this he uses Oscar Schindler. Initially presented as a manipulative, opportunistic man whose only interest is self-interests. As the film progresses, as Schindler watches the horrors around him he changes. He changes because he has the power to save people. At first these impulses come reluctantly, as if he is almost ashamed of what he sees as a weakness. Then, all pretense is finally stripped away and he and we come to understand this in the discussion he has with Fiennes about what real power is—not to kill but to grant life and of course the scene with the water hoses and train cars that follows.
It is this theme that the film slowly builds towards. As such this doesn’t make SCHINDLER’S LIST just another holocaust movie but a film that utilizes this horrendous backdrop to explore what REALLY constitutes basic humanity. Not to kill—that is an aberration of a sociological necessity—but to respect life so much so that it is this aspect of who we are that is really who we are.
I really wish my writing skills could match the quality of filmmaking I am struggling to describe. Let me just say that this is truly great film that everyone should watch as it will not only “entertain” but open the viewer up to greater understanding of themselves and the world around them which is the highest purpose of art.
I was so moved by the film that I simply couldn’t watch it again as I didn’t want its emotional impact diluted by multiple viewings. I wouldn’t watch it again until I had a 65” TV and a Blu-Ray copy of the film. Watching the movie again far from being diluted the film’s impact only increased. I now watch it at least once a year and each time I see it by the end of the film I am weeping.
About an hour ride from where I live is a summer camp exclusively for Auschwitz survivors. There is a documentary about it where the men and women there go about their lives like the rest of us and then talk about the camps in a casual way that I found extremely unsettling. And then I realized they had experienced the horrors but instead of spending their lives in sorrow had moved on and accepted those years as a terrible time but not a time in which they defined themselves. It was quite enlightening. Otto Frank for example remarried and had a second family.
My wife who is Polish grew up about 25 miles from Auschwitz. Many Poles in addition to Jews, Gypsies etc. were also murdered there and if her grandmother hadn’t gone into hiding on various farms in rural Poland who knows what would have happened to her family.
One man’s madness and horror is brought to the world and so many suffer needlessly. As much as I have read on the subject, it still boggles the mind—my mind at least. And that it’s still happening in various forms all over the world is something that I simply cannot come to grips with or even approach understanding.