20 years ago today: Schindlers List – Spielberg gets emotionally serious. (Film Review)

If there is a single word to describe Schindler’s List it would have to be ‘thorny” given the already always revolving conversations about Steven Spielberg and the complex subject of the ‘Holocaust’. Can I get personal?  How does a white Anglo female with a rejected christian upbringing who claims to have a love of avant guard and art house cinema even being to talk about Schindler’s List? As an Australian writer, I don’t even like Thomas Keneally, so I confess to being daunted by the prospect of a discussion of Schindler’s List, a film that surely has been exhausted in borderline useless commentary, much applauded and much derided, a film that is beyond question opportunistic and important at the same time, a film that is hated and loved with reactionary passion in equal measure, although I hasten to add, twenty years on, the haters are diminishing. In many ways Schindler’s List represents the quintessential point and problem with cinema – persuasion and influence, and yet it is rescued by its subject matter in the most appalling display of life-raftery (can I invent that word?) given authenticity by genuine moments of cinematic brilliance. At the very least Schindler’s List is an enormously frustrating film exemplified by examples such as  the clearing of the ghetto scene being one of the most profoundly affecting moments in cinema, and the overt colonization of sympathies via melodrama the worst example of cynical exploitation.

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It is in this dichotomy, and I suggest this is a happy accident from Spielberg, that cements Schindler’s List as one of the most interesting, important, facinating and noteworthy films of all time. Within its framed borders it carries the most important questions, problems and issues of cinema, something I doubt it ever intended to provoke. It is astounding that in the same year, Steven Spielberg directed and produced Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List and ghastly at the same time, because there is a giant Jurassic influence on Schindler’s List that gives the intelligent cinema viewer an uneasy feeling because a dinosaur comeback film and a Holocaust film really shouldn’t be in the same breath, let alone the same annual agenda; there is something morally objectionable to coming out of both films with the experience of being teased in the same manner. Spielberg can’t be held responsible for whatever this means, because he didn’t want to make Schindler’s List and tried to pass it off to other directors, but for some unfathomable reason decided it had to be made even if it were to be made by him, so the film falls into that strange territory where it becomes normal that you can make Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the same year. Examining what all of this means, if anything, is left to the film commentator and analyst, because Schindler’s List is ‘already out there’ and deeply loved even though it can’t hold a candle to films such as The Pianist, Sophie’s Choice, Europa Europa, Downfall, Kapo, Shaoah or Conspiracy. In fact the only film that comes close to Schindler’s List in unapologetic manipulation is Life is Beautiful – another film deeply loved.

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In this way, Schindler’s List represents what Spielberg represented before it, a modern form of film making devoid of the integrity of a new wave ethic. Despite the subject matter, Schindler’s List is entirely a-political.  It is a superficially safe film, taking no risks and making no challenging demands on its audience.  It’s respect for its subject matter comes from technique, a modern kind of psudo-intelligence, that leaves the audience as passive receptor rather than acute observer – but this is not dismissive, it is a deep acknowledgement of the (for want of a better word) ‘darker’ side of film making, the influential impact of sensory overload on a passive consciousness. In Schindler’s List there is no moral ambiguity. All the Jews are good beyond what is humanly possible, the enemy is bad beyond association, and the transformation of Oscar Schindler is a manipulated inevitability that shamelessly evokes capitalism as a strong potential for salvation. If you don’t come out of Schindler’s List loving it, then you are morally suspect. A cleverly executed example of this is the 1994 episode of Seinfeld where Jerry, frustrated sexually because his parents are in his home, makes out with his girlfriend at the movies, while watching Schindler’s List, evoking the wrath of his Jewish family in the process. I cynically contend this manipulation is behind much of Schindler’s Lists comentative praise, and at the same time turn, shamefaced away from my own contention. The problem with Spielberg is that he means well, and all criticism occurs as stemming from a nasty spirit, even if that isn’t the case.

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I will slip in here, out of context and admittedly reactionary, a particular dislike for the (in)famous female shower scene that is so almost directly spliced from one of Spielberg’s adventure films; that it feels like a complete disrespect but (I callously suggest) is saved by an anti-female aesthetic that refuses to take women seriously, even when they are Jewish and face to face with, as Viktor Frankl states (excuse the cliché) challenging the meaning of life as the truest expression of the state of a human being.

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In the end, Schindler’s List evokes a new form of cinematic experience and in its own way is the almost perfect emblem of an era, being one of the pinnacles of Spielberg’s career. Its forgiveness of the capitalistic ugliness of Schindler is disgusting, its attempts to claim a ‘German perspective’ grotesque in its awkwardness,  its glorification of the survival of one thousand two hundred in the face of the murder of six million Jews is dismissive and the epilogue horribly manipulative and graceless; but it’s ability to evoke mass sympathy on a truly unprecedented level is almost divine, it’s a lovely morality play about an entrepreneur who can only make money through a perverse sort of generous impulse, and its cinematic brilliance – the snow that turns out to be human ashes, the shadows over Schindler’s face when we first meet him, the blurred ‘rouge’ of the childs coat, and the unapologetic manipulation of taking time to expand (something that makes him superior to a film maker like James Cameron) are truly beautiful cinematic moments and the key to understanding Spielberg and his contribution to film making. That this contribution has to come at a cost is a peculiar trope of capitalism, and if Spielberg is anything, he is the ultimate, supreme example, of the capitalist era director.

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