the better truth

the better truth

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Schindler's List (1993)

Steven Spielberg is the undisputed leader of popular cinema. He has been responsible for a number of the highest grossing pictures ever made (E.T., Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Although his work has been accepted by the public, critics and peers have been less approving. They have labeled his films saccharine, pandering and derivative.(An Andrew Lloyd Weber of the silver screen). Mr. Spielberg tried to heighten his standing by turning to adaptations of recognized books (i.e. The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun). The jury was still unimpressed. Their continued disapproval did not escape Mr. Spielberg. A few years back he even made a public allusion to his feeling slighted by the Academy. (Ironically it was while he received the Irving Thalburg Award). To this day (1/24/94) he has not received an Academy Award but all that could change on March 21 starting at 6PM (West Coast Time). Mr. Spielberg's two current releases show him maintaining his ability to produce mindless box office blockbusters, Jurassic Park, while still pursuing the artistic recognition he feels he deserves, Schindler's List. Mr. Spielberg has, once again, turned to an award winning book for his material. This film, however, stands apart from his other "serious" works. Empire of the Sun was forgettable except for the marvelous recreation of pre-Communist China. The Color Purple was simply forgettable. Schindler's List demonstrates that Mr. Spielberg is capable of producing work with staying power.

Technically Schindler's List is flawless. The attention to detail in costuming and scene-design made the setting altogether convincing. Re-creating the factory where the Jewish slave laborers produced pots, pans, hinges… must have been a particularly daunting task. It was as if one had been transported into a European version of a Lewis Hine photograph. The ghetto and the concentration camps were also tour de forces in terms of realistically re-creating a time and place. This goes beyond the mere act of choosing to shoot on location. It is the magical task of making those places live as they did in the past. One need not be an expert on mid-twentieth century European fashion and architecture to be utterly convinced. The genuineness supersedes academic or professional accreditation. The artisans who helped reconstruct this reality are truly deserving of the title of master craftsman.

Spielberg's use of color raises many issues although the cinematographer exhibits the same unsurpassed professionalism as the set designers. The bulk of the film is black & white with the exception of the closing sequence and two colorized objects. Mixing black & white and color has been a device used in many films for varied ends with mixed results. Spielberg colors the two objects (Hanukkah candles and a little girl's red coat) in order to highlight their innocence. They are beacons of hope in the dreary black and white hell. The device was used Coppola's Rumble Fish; Mickey Rouke staring into the tank watching the brightly colored fish. The problem in both films is that the black and white images, although gritty and mean, possessed a strength and beauty which made the colorization appear hokey. The little girl with the red coat is especially irksome. Instead of looking on her as a innocent amongst the carnage she becomes an annoying red splotch in a beautifully rendered image. This is the opposite of what Spielberg intends. His choice of contrasting the past and the present was also troubling. Modern film audiences associate black and white with "old movies". (Proceeds from television sales make black and white commercially prohibitive). Given this frame of reference the events depicted in the film become distant and removed. The color in the closing "present day" sequence only reinforced the remoteness of the atrocities. Perhaps intercutting black & white and color works best when illustrating fantasy sequences (e.g. The Wizard of Oz) but even in this context it can become a self-conscious distraction (e.g. She's Gotta Have It). In other respects the camerawork is exquisite. The characters are framed beautifully and the textures vary with the action. The storming of the ghetto sequence is brilliant. The frenetic camera movement intertwined with the flashes from the machine guns makes for a riveting crescendo of horror.

Schindler's List possesses a stupendous cast. All the leading players are virtuosos and the secondary cast is equally convincing. One performance should be singled out. Ralph Fiennes steals the show. His portrayal of the Nazi death camp Commandant Goethe brilliantly plays on the banality of evil. The myriad of W.W. II movies have cast SS leaders as die-hard true believers. Mr. Fiennes shatters this stereotype with the first words uttered from his mouth. He is being given a driving tour of the ghetto by two junior officers who ask what he thinks. Instead of responding with a contrived speech about the glories of Hitler… he blows his nose and yells "put up the roof of this car; it's fucking cold". Nazism becomes a job not a religion. It is a means by which school-yard bullies with mediocre minds can create hellish fiefdoms and rule with impunity. There is no sport in killing Jews; it's just a pastime; an ugly stop on the climb up the ranks. The most disconcerting aspect about Com. Goethe is how recognizable a character he is: his whimsical abuse of power, his lack of introspection, his knee jerk uttering of the party line, his greed, his narcissism, his lust…. Here is the overlooked, insecure nobody that exists in every social institution: school, camp, neighborhood, army, work force…. Nazism affords a means of acceptance and success. It's not about believing in anything; it's about pleasing the boss. His final cry of "Heil Hitler" is given as a parting nod to his own role as a dictator not the dictator himself. This single character embodies the spirit of that dreaded political philosophy.

The fact that Mr. Fiennes stands-out points to a fundamental flaw in Schinlder's List. The film is uneven and ambiguous. Mr. Fiennes is wrought in stone but the rest of the cast is underdeveloped or obscure. The epitome of the former can be seen in Embeth Davidtz magnificent rendering of the domestic. It has been said that the greater part of screen acting is reaction; not action. Ms. Davidtz mastery of gesture and expression can be witnessed from her initial selection on line to her confrontation with Fiennes in the basement. The problem lies in what is missing; not from her but in the editorial development of her character. The audience is presented with this captivating figure only to have her whisked away in the behemoth of Schindler's story. She is not alone. There are others, especially amongst the secondary characters, who seem well delineated but ignored. There can be little doubt that in the interest of brevity things must be sacrificed. Given the films length, almost three hours, one wonders if the proper decisions were made. Does it really require all that time to establish Mr. Shindler as a wheeler-dealer? Should the emphasis of the story shift to make the Jewish prisoners the central focus rather than Mr. Shindler himself?

What are we to make of Shindler? Liam Neeson's portrayal, although technically superb, is unsympathetic. His breakdown at the close of the story was especially troubling. He is a war profiteer turned saintly savior. In order for his final speech to be convincing one must see the grand metamorphosis and, despite the three hour build-up, Mr. Spielberg fails. At some point Schindler realizes that the Nazis are evil. The story lacks a moment of epiphany. There are hints of a gradual change of heart but his decision to actively fight the Nazis is rooted in obscurity. Schindler is a man who has no compunction about living in a dispossessed Jewish family's house or using slave-laborers. After witnessing the massacre in the ghetto he still finds room in his heart to defend Com. Goethe. He tells Ben Kingsley that Goethe is a busy man just trying to do his job. Kingsley then recounts a grisly tale in which he tells of the Commandant's personally executing a few dozen prisoners with his revolver. In the end Schindler sees the light. He becomes born-again gallant savior who personally rescues hundreds of prisoners from the gas chambers while risking everything to build a munitions plant which supplies defective artillery shells. His new-found virtuosity extends to his personal life as well. Schindler abandons his philandering and re-unites with his wife. Is Spielberg's Schindler believable?

There can be no argument that the protagonist in this drama performed heroic deeds; but does that necessarily make him a hero? At the heart of the matter lies a question of motive. Judging by the obtrusive text, which would appear to delineate the exact time and place events were occurring, Mr. Schindler's change of heart occurred after the Nazi's war effort was on the wane (circa 1944). Might it be possible that Schindler decided to switch sides sensing a German defeat? The suitcases of money which he possessed seemed to be issued by the German central bank; what would this currency be worth if the Allied forces triumphed? These troubling thoughts spring from an unsettling ambiguity surrounding the movie's Schindler. Mr. Spielberg seems to feel it is enough to deify and forget the past. Unfortunately not even Mr. Neeson's technical virtuosity could mask this film's structural flaw. He delivers the "could have saved more" speech with heartfelt gusto. The problem lies in the fact that the Schindler of the first two and a half hours undercuts every word he utters. This is a story about a man who undergoes a fundamental spiritual re-assessment. Spielberg showed us the before and after but forgot the most essential "during". Despite the marvelous array of ingredients and wonderful presentation; the pudding lacks a theme.

There is an odd parallel between Mr. Spielberg and his protagonist. It is interesting to weigh the what might driven a director of box office sensations and unappreciated "serious" films to tackle the Holocaust. Could it be the sacredness of the subject matter forces a modicum of respectability and likewise shields him from criticism? Is there anything ethically wrong with evoking those millions of victims in order to secure artistic acceptance? Perhaps these thoughts are as blasphemous questioning the morality of Spielberg's hero. Once again there can be no argument that the Spielberg's Schindler, whatever his design, saved hundreds of people from certain death. Likewise Schindler's List, whatever Mr. Spielberg's motives, has generated important awareness about the nadir of modern civilization. In the end the tangible goodness outweighs any negative speculations. There is a wonderful moment in the film when Ben Kingsley holds up a crudely typed sheet containing all the names of those that Schindler will save. He says "This list is all good". Hopefully Mr. Spielberg will be able to do the same with his Academy Award trophy.

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