I’ve made it to 25 years of age without seeing Schindler’s List. I’m not sure how. Maybe, in the back of mind, the idea of sitting down for three hours to watch a film that I knew would depress me was off-putting. However, my desire to watch it and remove another ‘must-see’ movie off of my ‘not-seen’ movies list finally lead me to watch Steven Spielberg’s classic film about Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson). In Poland during World War II, Schindler is an industrialist concerned with making money. As he witness the persecution of his Jewish workforce over the course of the war, he becomes more and more concerned for their welfare.
In 1939, the Germans moved Polish Jews to a ghetto in Kraków. Spotting a chance to make some money for himself, Nazi party member Schindler gets himself a factory and a deal to make supplies for the German army. In a ruthless business decision, he opts to employ Polish Jews rather than Catholics as their labour comes cheaper. He employs Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to help him, owing to his contacts in the Jewish community, and Stern sets about having as many Jews as possible deemed ‘essential’ for the war effort.
Both Neeson and Kingsley give excellent performances. As Schindler, Neeson is able to take advantage of the best character arc in the film. Starting off as a business man hoping to profit from the war, and slowly becoming a sympathetic man determined to help his workforce and save them from the horrors of the concentration camps, he more than does justice to the man at the heart of this remarkable story. As Schindler’s closest ally, Kingsley imbues Stern with heart and dignity. As a pair they work incredibly well, their scenes together regularly wrought with emotion.
Despite the great performances of those two though, it is probably Ralph Fiennes who gives the stand out performance as crazed SS-Lieutenant Amon Goeth. Goeth oversees the construction of the Plaszów concentration camp, before ordering the liquidation of the ghetto. The scenes that follow are amongst the most distressing of the film, and rank as some of the most difficult to endure that I’ve ever seen. Members of the German army set about removing the Jews from their unpleasant living areas, mocking them as they panic and killing many of them completely at random.
The depressing element comes not from watching the scenes as such, but in the knowledge that you are watching a depiction of reality. Obviously, I am aware of the events of World War II and the persecution of the Jews, but knowing what is coming doesn’t make these scenes any easier to watch. On the contrary, it only adds to the horror. Men, women and children are callously murdered for no reason, shot dead in front of their families. Spielberg’s decision to present all of this in unflinching detail is the right one. It would be easy to let some of the horror be implied, which is often as bad as seeing it in a film, but the grave reality of history meant that shying away from showing it like this would have been the wrong thing to do.
As Goeth presides over the horror, Fiennes produces a frighteningly psychotic performance. He is almost indescribable in his portrayal of evil in it’s purest form. One particularly brilliant scene see’s Goeth order the death of an elderly man that he deems to be working too slowly in a factory making hinges. He decides to carry out the execution himself, but becomes frustrated as the two guns he attempts to use fail to fire. The scene is chilling, not least because Fiennes fills Goeth with disinterest. The only emotion he presents is frustration that his guns not firing have caused him an inconvenience. It is that segment of the story alone that arguably best sums up Fiennes performance and the man that Goeth was, acting as a microcosm of his whole existence.
The acting and casting, then, can be deemed as perfect. This is prevalent throughout the film, and not just the lead roles. There are many, many extras used who, despite appearing for only a matter of seconds, manage to fill the screen with inescapable horror and fear.
The cinematography is immaculate. The decision to shoot in black and white only enhances the dark nature of the film, and some of the use of lighting and shadows is absolutely stunning. Aided by an absolutely magnificent John Williams musical score, there is absolutely no area in which this movie can be faulted.
I am acutely aware that it is impossible for me to do justice to the brilliance and significance of this movie, which is why I am keeping my review relatively brief. All I can do is now add my name to those who believe this to be one of the finest movies ever made. Documenting one of the most unbelievable and shameful periods in human history, it’s difficult to prepare yourself for the atrocities that Schindler’s List presents to you in unflinching detail. This is a harrowing masterpiece, at no point an easy watch, but a movie that is impossible to take your eyes off. To give it a score is almost an arbitrary process unworthy of the film; reducing it to any kind of points system does the movie an incredible injustice. So, I’ve scored it because how all of my reviews end, but I’d encourage you to see this movie not because it is perfect, but because of everything it stands for.