Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Schindler's List (1993): Control Is Power

Oskar Schindler first meets Amon Goeth in the dining room of a villa overlooking a concentration camp. He has come to Goeth with a problem: “I go to work the other day... nobody’s there. Nobody tells me about this... I have to find out. I have to go in. Everybody’s gone.” He awaits for Goeth’s reply.

Goeth listens to Schindler, takes a walnut from a bowl on the coffee table, and smiles. He thinks this will be easy. “No, no, they’re not gone,” he explains. “They’re here.”

“They’re MINE!” Schindler roars.

It is an unexpected outburst. And Schindler doesn’t stop there. He goes on a tirade about the problems of no longer having his workers. He’s losing money every day. He has to go through the arduous process of finding new workers and then training them. He doesn’t care when Goeth promises him that he’ll be made a rich man anyway—it’s bad business. Goeth wants to persuade him that he is wrong. Neither Goeth nor Schindler is aware that the man sitting across from him has secret intentions. Goeth would like to see all of Schindler’s workers executed. Schindler wants to take them back to his factory and keep them there. He is determined to save their lives.

This single scene demonstrates how Steven Spielberg will turn Schindler's List into a masterpiece. He will show us two very different members of the Nazi Party, and then make their similarities and differences the flaming furnace of the film. It is a parallel narrative between two Nazis: Oskar Schindler, a good man who is also capable of corruption, and Amon Goeth, a corrupt man who is also capable of goodness. The conflict between these two men will inspire a list of Jews who will narrowly escape the fires of the Holocaust, and we agree with one of the prinicipal characters when he concludes, "The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf." Yes, and within its margins lies the voices of the extraordinary Jewish survivors who lived to tell the stories of both men.

Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) enters the film without his face entering the frame. If Peter Coyote’s nameless scientist in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) was initially identifiable only by a set of keys jingling from his belt, then Schindler is initially identifiable only by the Nazi lapel pin attached to the breast of his business suit. In the very first complex tracking shot of the film, Spielberg’s camera follows Schindler as he approaches a private restaurant, tips a Maitre ‘D (producer Branko Lustig) and is led to a table before the camera then veers around to rest on his face. He orders drinks for some tenured Nazis sitting at another table, gets them and their mistresses to come over to his table and, pretty soon, is recognized as the celebrity of the evening. And that suits him just fine—he enjoys having access to so much privilege. When his wife, Emile (Caroline Goodall), asks him if this is all just a charade, he lays his chin on the palm of his hand and grins, “Take a guess how many people are on my payroll… my father, at the height of his success, had 50. I’ve got 350. 350 workers on the factory floor, with one purpose: to make money. For me.” He knows world war is coming, and that’s even better. Being the oily businessman that he is, he’ll do what any capitalist in his right mind would do, and capitalize on the war.

Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) enters Schindler’s List much as Schindler does. We don’t immediately see his face; we just see his fellow Nazi officers speaking to the camera. If Schindler entered the film proud, then Goeth enters the films weak and pathetic, with a tissue pressed to his nose while he complains about the living conditions of a new labor camp at Plaszow (“That’s not a villa... that’s a house!”). But after he executes a female Jewish architect (Elina Lowensohn) for no apparent crime other than doing her job, we realize that Goeth has the ability to harness his pathetic weaknesses and turn them into a deranged, untamable power. Upon opening the camp, he gives a speech in which he declares, “Today is history.” It's a speech which seeks to turn back all of the progress Jews have made in Krakow for hundreds of years. That’s when we realize that Goeth’s atrocious powers are worse than we have feared.

Both men are senseless opportunists. Goeth is free to shoot prisoners from his balcony while his buxom mistress throws pillows at him ("Amon, you're such a DAMNED FUCKING CHILD!") and begs for him to make her a cup of coffee. Schindler, like Waldo Lydecker in Laura, would rather "eat my lunch while it's still hot" than have to wait and listen to the sincere thanks of an elderly one-armed man (Henryk Bista) for giving him a job; after Nazi guards put a bullet in this man’s brain, Schindler recoils from the annoyance by going to bed with his own mistress (Malgoscha Gebel) immediately afterwards.

Schindler and Goeth are also womanizers, and not just because of the several girls they have wrapped around their shoulders in every other scene. Spielberg exhibits their sexism halfway through the film by intercutting a sequence in which Goeth is abusing his victimized Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz), with a scene on Schindler’s birthday in which Schindler forcefully kisses a helpless Jewish mother who brings him a cake. When Schindler is arrested for this, he is thrown in jail—not for molestation, but for kissing a Jewish woman. “Did your prick fall off?” his Nazi cellmate asks. Schindler gets a laugh out of that. Spielberg further compares Schindler and Goeth by intercutting the two of them shaving in an earlier sequence. So, in retrospect, Schindler and Goeth are men not unalike in that they smear the same shaving cream, revel in the same bourgeoisie luxuries and share the same “real taste for Jewish skirt," although their superior, Julian (Andrezej Seweryn), warns against this (“That’s not just old fashioned, Jew-hating talk,” he reminds them. “It’s policy now.”).

It is only when he witnesses, firsthand, the slaughter of the people working under his command that we begin to sense a change in Oskar Schindler. The day when the Nazis liquidate the ghetto, Schindler and his mistress are gazing, from horseback on a grassy hill, down at the massacre in the streets. The appalled look on Schindler’s face is a typical Spielbergian shot that can indefinitely be traced all the way back to Chief Brody in Jaws, or maybe even Dennis Weaver’s David Mann in Duel (1971): a protagonist frozen in the headlights of a horrendous sight before him. This is as far as the filmmakers go in hinting at a transformation in Schindler from a selfish capitalist to a benevolent humanist—they go no further.

The most famous part of this sequence, however, is the appearance of a little girl in a red coat (named "Genia" in the novel), summed up chillingly by Thomas Keneally in some of the novel's most unforgettable passages:

At the rear, dawdling, was a toddler, boy or girl, dressed in a small scarlet coat and cap. The reason it compelled Schindler's interest was that it made a statement, the way the argumentative shift worker in Wegierska had. The statement had to do, of course, with a passion for red.

Schindler consulted Ingrid. It was definitely a little girl, said Ingrid. Girls got obsessed by a color, especially a color like that.

As they watched, the Waffen SS man at the rear of the column would occasionally put out his hand and correct the drift of this scarlet node. He did not do it harshly - he could have been an elder brother...But it was brief comfort. For behind the departing column of women and children, to which the scarlet toddler placed a meandering period, SS teams with dogs worked north along either side of the street.

..His eyes slewed up Krakusa to the scarlet child. They were doing it within half a block of her; they hadn't waited for her column to turn out of sight into Jozefinska. Schindler could not have explained at first how that compounded the murders on the sidewalk. Yet it somehow proved, in a way no one could ignore, their serious intent. While the scarlet child stopped in her column and turned to watch, they shot the woman in the neck, and one of them, when the boy slid down the wall whimpering, jammed a boot down on his head as if to hold it still and put the barrel against the back of his neck - the recommended SS stance - and fired.

Oskar looked again for the small red girl. She had stopped and turned and seen the boot descend. A gap had already widened between her and the next to last in the column. Again the SS guard corrected her drift fraternally, nudged her back into line. Herr Schindler could not see why he did not bludgeon her with his rifle butt, since at the other end of Krakusa Street, mercy had been cancelled.

...Their lack of shame, as men who had been born of women and had to write letters home (What did they put in them?), wasn't the worst aspect of what he'd seen. He knew they had no shame, since the guard at the base of the column had not felt any need to stop the red child from seeing things. But worst of all, if there was no shame, it meant there was official sanction. No one could find refuse anymore behind the idea of German culture, nor behind those pronouncements uttered by leaders to exempt anonymous men from stepping beyond their gardens, from looking out their office windows at the realities on the sidewalk. Oskar had seen in Kakusa Street a statement of his government's policy which could not be written off as a temporary aberration. The SS men were, Oskar believed, fulfilling there the orders of the leader, for otherwise their colleague at the rear of the column would not have let a child watch.

Later in the day, after he had absorbed a ration of brandy, Oskar understood the proposition in kits clearest terms. They permitted witnesses, such as the red toddler, because they believed the witnesses all would perish too.

Spielberg himself explained his visual choices for this sequence in a video interview with Richard Schickel:

"He [Schindler] wondered... why the most obvious person wearing the loudest coat - the coat that was crying out to be captured and put into a truck - why the Nazis were gathering everybody else but this little, bright red spot moving down the street.

"I did it in color... for another reason, which was that the Holocaust was known about... and Churchill knew that the Holocaust was taking place. It was as obvious as a little girl, wearing a red coat, walking down the street. But I thought that if there was any turning point at all, it was his
[Schindler's] observation of the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto from horseback."

Yes, and if I may add to Spielberg's comments, consider the moment when "Genia" appears again in the movie, during the second half - in a pile of burned corpses in a wheelbarrow. Why? It’s because every time Genia makes an appearance, be it alive or dead, she’s a wake-up call to Schindler. Her first appearance is sort of like an omen that Schindler’s Jews are going to be torn away from him and taken to a concentration camp. Her second appearance is less an omen and more a direct warning: if Schindler doesn’t do something, quick, he’ll lose them for good. They’ll be sent from the concentration camp to the death camps and then that will be it.

The reactive Goeth, as good of a friend as he is to Schindler, remains a threatening obstacle. Spielberg could have easily reduced Goeth into a one-dimensional caricature, like one of the Indiana Jones Nazis, but instead he does something braver, and tries to make Goeth a little more human than conventional history of the real man would have us believe. In the scene where Goeth makes an advance towards Helen Hirsch down in a wine cellar, Spielberg allows Gentile males in his audience to empathize with Goeth's erotic desires for Helen—before Spielberg screeches this fantasy to a halt as Goeth strikes her and throws a bottle rack on top of her, very nearly ending her life.

In another scene, Schindler and his Jewish business partner, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), are privately trying to psychoanalyze Goeth, debating over whether or not the war is turning him into a serial killer. Schindler defends Goeth: “He’s got this whole place to run. He’s responsible for everything here, all these people. He’s got a lot of things to worry about. And, he’s got the war, which brings out the worst in people… never the good, always the bad. Always the bad. But in normal circumstances he wouldn’t be like this. He’d be alright.” Stern, who has seen far more of Goeth’s killings in person than Schindler has, doesn’t buy this excuse in the least. Justifiably, he can only judge Goeth as a murderous tyrant who kills not only because he’s ordered to, but because he enjoys it.

“What do you want me to do about it?” Schindler complains to his accountant. Stern mutters, “Nothing... we’re just talking.” Later, Schindler borrows this catchphrase from Stern and applies it during a drunken conversation between him and Goeth in which they are discussing the secret to power. Goeth is envious of Schindler always being in control of his wealth, his women and his sobriety: to Goeth, “control is power.” Schindler offers another opinion: “Power... is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.” It is obvious to the audience that Schindler is trying to influence Goeth into becoming less of a killer, and sure enough, Goeth tries hard to apply this to his daily routine—a dogma of tolerance. But Goeth is torn between Schindler’s words of wisdom and the dogma of the Third Reich, and ultimately cannot quite fathom exactly what abandoning the latter approach would mean. As he practices saying, “I pardon you” to himself in the mirror, we can tell, right away, that the words don’t make a lick of sense to him.

Spielberg tries, whenever possible, to present Goeth during times when he isn’t so cowardly and despicable. He does, after all, bargain hard to get Schindler out of jail, and succeeds. When he and Schindler decide to determine Helen Hirsch’s fate over a game of cards, it is clear that Goeth doesn’t want her to die a horrible death; he would sooner deliver her a mercy killing before letting her be whisked off to the gas chambers, and he would even sooner wish for her to go back to Vienna with him when the war ends. Goeth’s heart is, yes, filled with hate and ugliness, but Spielberg refuses to stereotype him as a wholly evil, wholly stupid monster. This man became the product of an establishment that has conditioned him to murder.

Schindler’s List is often criticized as a film that gives supposedly too much voice to its two principal Nazi characters. But the more I have seen the film, the more I have come to appreciate, even love, the Jewish characters who accompany Schindler and Goeth through their weaknesses and survive their monstrosities. Kingsley, tremendously good as Itzhak Stern, conveys him in two shades: one, as a timid accountant working in the Judenrat who is cautious of high-powered Nazi Party members (“By law, I have to tell you, sir, I’m a Jew,” Stern reminds Schindler, to which he is answered, “Well, I’m a German. So there we are”); two, as a business accountant who eventually becomes just as obsessed with the operation as Schindler is. “Herr Direktor, don’t let things fall apart," he begs Schindler, after he's thrown into Plaszow with the rest of Schindler's employees. "I’ve worked too hard."

The other Jewish characters have considerably less screentime, but they each have a presence that steadily grow prominent with repeated viewings. Embeth Davidtz, remarkable as Helen Hirsch, encompasses the fear, the tormented sexuality and the harrowing survival of her character, finally emerging as strong as anyone else who has survived by the time of the film’s end. Another one of the survivors, Poldek Pfefferberg, was the survivor who told Schindler’s story to novelist Thomas Keneally and, later, relentlessly pressured Spielberg into making the film. As portrayed onscreen by Israeli actor Jonathan Sagall, Pfefferberg first encounters Schindler while black marketing in a Catholic church (admittedly, one of the movie’s fictions), before being reduced to fighting for his life in the ghettos. At one point he’s amorously kissing his wife Mila (Adi Nitzan) as if fearing he may never see her again, and at another point he’s evading certain death at Goeth’s hands by clicking his feet, saluting the officers and clearing bundles from the road “so there will be no obstructions to the thoroughfare.”

And there are others, too. Chaja Dresner (Anna Mucha) and her daughter Danka (Anna Mucha) are also followed throughout the course of the film, often separated from each other but eventually finding each other again. They are shielded during the ghetto liquidation by a little boy working for the Jewish Police named Adam (Adam Siemion); when Adam himself ends up in the Plaszow camp, he courageously finds a way to prevent Goeth from killing a whole line of suspected chicken thieves.

There is also the Rabbi Levartov (Ezra Dagan), who is almost executed by Goeth, but miraculously survives when both of Goeth’s guns fail to fire; in Spielberg's own words, Levartov is "meant to survive, because he went through the most indignant, indecent humiliation of all." And as Keneally writes of this incident in his book:

Levartov blinked and watched the other prisoners hurry by, wheeling and toting the raw materials of the Plaszow camp, eager to be out of range, the Cracovians among them thinking, My God, it's Levartov's turn. Privately, he murmured the Shema Yisroel and heard the mechanics of the pistol. But the small internal stirrings of metal ended not in a roar but in a click like that of a cigarette lighter which won't give a flame. And like a dissatisfied smoker, with just such a trivial level of annoyance, Amon Goeth extracted and replaced the magazine of bullets from the butt of the pistol, again took his aim, and fired. As the rabbi's head swayed to the normal human suspicion that the impact of the bullet could be absorbed as could a punch, all that emerged from Goeth's pistol was another click.

Goeth began cursing prosaically. "Donnerwetter! Zum Teufel!" It seemed to Levartov that at any second Amon would begin to run down faulty modern workmanship, as if they were two tradesmen trying to bring off some simple effect - the threading of a pipe, a drill hole in the wall. Amon put the faulty pistol away in its black holster and withdrew from a jacket pocket a pearl-handed revolver, of a type Rabbi Levartov had only read of in the Westerns of his boyhood. Clearly, he thought, there are going to be no remissions due to technical failure. He'll keep on. I'll die by cowboy revolver, and even if all the firing pins are filed down, Hauptsturmfuhrer Goeth will fall back on more primitive weapons.

...he could already hear the small murderous hammers and springs of the barroom pistol acting on each other. And again the click of a defective cigarette lighter. Amon, raging, seemed to be attempting to tear the barrel of the thing from its socket.

...It seemed to Levartov that he had violated the rules of the game they had been playing together, the game that was to be closed by Levartov's reasonable death just as surely as Snakes and Ladders ends with the throwing of a six. It was as if the rabbi had hidden the dice and now there could be no conclusion. Amon hit him on the face with a free hand, and Levartov tasted blood in his mouth, lying on the tongue like a guarantee.

Hauptsturmfuhrer Goeth then simply abandoned Levartov against the wall. The contest, however, as both Levartov and Stern could tell, had merely been suspended.

It goes without saying that Schindler’s List is, like every Spielberg film, an impeccable demonstration of cinematic technical detail. There’s little about the John Williams score, the Michael Kahn editing, the art direction by Ewa Sckoczkowska, the production design by Allan Starski (list-making tables are a prominent image throughout the film) and, especially, the gorgeous black-and-white Janusz Kaminski cinematography, that hasn’t already been raved about in other reviews.

And then there's Steven Zaillian's screenplay. It is faithful to Thomas Keneally's novel, and it won a richly-deserved Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. It is angry, wrenching, powerful and emotional. It's even funny at times. Consider Schindler’s search for a female typist and his inability to “choose” among them. Or Jewish Policeman Marcel Goldberg (Mark Ivanir) being mocked by the Pfefferbergs as looking “funny in that hat… you look like a clown, you know?” Or Schinder being dumbfounded by two cranky Jewish investors in the back of his car demanding a percentage of his company’s profits. Or when “Mr. Jareth” is thanked by each of his beaming peers for allowing his gold tooth to be yanked out and melted down into a ring to be presented to Schindler on the day of his departure. Not only do these scenes help to make Schindler’s List a great entertainment (which, make no mistake, it is—as all great films must be), they also help lessen the enormous unease the audience may feel during the film's harsher sequences. If the film didn't have any instances of comedy in it, we'd be tempted to laugh at the scenes that aren't meant to be funny. In a film so full of tragedy, there are times when we need to catch our breath.

Critics of the film have objected to two scenes that occur in the final half hour, accusing Spielberg of being overly manipulative. In one of these scenes, after Schindler buys his Jews back from Goeth, puts them on trains and sends them to his shell factory in Zwittau-Brinnlitz, the women are accidentally sent to the death camp at Auschwitz. In the sequence that follows, they are sent, undressed, into the showers, expecting to be gassed. Instead, the showers spout water. A slew of outraged critics have thrown a lot of very odd criticisms at this scene, from accusing Spielberg of perversely emulating Hitchcock to, even more strangely, accusing Spielberg of looking at the scene from the point of view of an SS officer peeping at naked Jewish women showering.

I have three things to say, in defense of the sequence. For one thing, Spielberg’s camera goes into the shower with the women, thereby putting us in their position and not, therefore, in the position of the Nazis outside. In addition to that, I find the sequence absolutely terrifying; it makes the fear of gas chambers extraordinarily palatable. Finally, in the real incident, the conditions were even worse. Spielberg’s film presents the women’s isolation as Auschwitz as happening in a day, when, in reality, the women were stuck at Auschwitz for three whole weeks. This, of course, means they took several showers during that time—meaning that every time they went in, they could only fear the worst.

The other scene that the film’s detractors object to is Schindler’s farewell to his Jews. Popularly known as the “I could have done more” speech, it is often dismissed because the real Schindler never gave such a speech. It’s not even in Keneally’s novel; it’s one of maybe a handful of fictional scenes in Zaillian’s screenplay. But what I love about the scene is not only that it allows the audience to leave the film without feeling cold, but, even more hauntingly, it acknowledges the Jews who died in the Holocaust—the ones Schindler didn’t save. For what is more disturbing than the realization that if he had only sold off more of his belongings, Schindler could have rescued more people?

Joseph McBride writes, “Schindler’s mournful litany reminds the audience that, however many persons he and others managed to save, there were millions more who perished. Any celebration of survival in the context of the Holocaust, Spielberg acknowledges, must be seen in the shadow of overwhelming loss.” And Spielberg’s acknowledgment of this tragedy doesn’t stop with the “I could have done more” scene, either. Earlier in the film, when Schindler rescues Stern from a train heading off for the death camp, Spielberg pans over to reveal Nazis stealing the boxes of luggage of the Jews who are already on the train and then taking them to a backroom to be emptied. And after the scene in the Auschwitz showers, when Schindler’s female Jews emerge unscathed, Spielberg pans over to reveal a long line of other, separate Jews descending into the barracks—into the gas chambers. The chimney up on the roof blowing up a horrendous volume of smoke says it all.

I try to watch Schindler’s List at least once every year. I don’t think there was a better film made in the 1990’s, and I think few films have equaled it as an incomparable dramatic account of the Holocaust filmed in the English language. It follows the lives of the extraordinary Jews who survived the Holocaust while pausing, in silence and in memory, of those who did not. It never fails any of them for a minute—right down to that wonderful last scene of Schindler’s Jews revisiting his grave in Israel, ending with that immortal final shot of a rose being laid upon Oskar Schindler’s grave by a sillouhetted image of the actor who has played him in the film. It’s a film that obliterates cinematic WWII German stereotypes, too, by humanizing two members ruined by the evils of the Third Reich: Amon Goeth, who lets it corrupt his soul, overreaches himself and, as a consequence of the war, is hanged; and Schindler, who dies broke and wifeless as a consequence of his lost fortunes, but leaves behind his own acts of bravery that will be kept alive as long as history can still gasp for air.

One has to go back to the earlier scene in which Schindler tries to convince Goeth that there’s power in tolerance. Tolerance could have done more than simply prevented Goeth from turning into a war criminal: it could have prevented all of the terrible discrimination that went into the atrocity of the Holocaust. The will to pardon enemies is the kind of power that can inspire those of our generation to do their duty, take a stand and prevent another Holocaust from ever happening again. Power... is when we may have every justification to let it happen again, and we don't.


  1. Extremely well written and dedicated analysis of one of cinemas finest creations.

  2. It's a terrific piece, Adam, and one that has inspired me to write my own take on the film next year. I am curious, though... how do you defend your own viewpoint against the interesting arguments of the hyperstillharry(IMDB)'s, tieman64(IMDB)'s and Slavoj Zizek's of this world, who have ripped this film (and most of Spielberg's) to threads with astonishing zeal?

  3. Hi Simon,

    I'm well aware of what Tieman64 and hyperstillharry have said about Spielberg and Schindler's List, and my best advice is to try not to convince to see your point of view because, well... believe me, they won't. I will say that Tieman is a great scholar of Kubrick and that I had many illuminating conversations with him during my high school years (2005-2009), so I totally give him credit for making me a Kubrick fan at a young age. That being said, his Spielberg biases are painful; I guess he has this impenetrable perception of Spielberg as a villainous Hollywood pop entertainer that blocks him from seeing the beauty of a Saving Private Ryan, a Munich or even an A.I.

    Ironically, I remember that in Tieman's original IMDB review of Schindler's List, he awarded the film a 9/10 and praised it as "a great horror film." Unfortunately, I can't find a link to it because Tieman wrote it a long time ago (maybe he deleted it?), but I would suppose his more negative feelings about Schindler's List lately have been influenced by that hyperstillharry guy -- who doesn't like *anything* by Spielberg.

    Anyway, to answer your question, I don't find their arguments against Schindler's List very interesting. They subscribe to the age-old arguments: the shower sequence is offensive, the theme of a Gentile saving Jews is offensive, the "I could have done more" speech is offensive, etcetera etcetera etcetera. All of those arguments are silly and easy to debunk (I think I even address some of them in my piece), and if you can think of any good arguments they have, I'm open to listen, but to me their anti-Spielberg ravings aren't all that fruitful.

    I'm not familiar with Slavoj Žižek, but Googling him right now, I see he's another one of those pseudointellectuals who believes Spielberg's ideas about family, suburbia and God knows what else those of a sick pervert. Again... not somebody whose theories I think are worth a whole lot of attention.

    Thanks for your compliments on my piece. Let me know when yours is up. Would love to read it.

  4. Hi again Adam.

    I think I E-Mailed a preview of my Schindler piece to you yesterday, though I'm not sure if you received it or not. Nevertheless, it's online now, so here's the link, for everyone to see:



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