A drinking game for this is messed up, but it’s what we do…
Take a Drink: whenever Schindler is a philanderer or general scamp
Take a Drink: for any form of list
Take a Drink: for fucking trains
Take a Drink: for candles
Don’t Take a Drink: in the camps. Face them sober.
Do a Shot: for small bits of heartbreaking color
By: Henry J. Fromage (A Toast) –
Last month I took a trip through Eastern Europe, full of fairytale castles, beer gardens, grand plazas, and soaring cathedrals. There’s only one place in the entire trip that I know I’ll never forget, though: Auschwitz.
No jokes here.
The notorious, dreaded concentration camp has been preserved as a warning of the depravity human beings are capable of, and it’s impossible to walk out of its gates, having heard the horrors that took place within, and witnessed the ruins of its ovens, or the remnants of 40,000 shorn locks of hair, without imprinting itself on your psyche. Not everyone can fly to Poland, however, and not everyone will sit through Shoah‘s nine and a half heart-wrenching hours, or even most documentaries’ more manageable two. This is why a Schindler’s List must exist.
Schindler’s List tells the story of amoral German industrialist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who at first sees the onset of World War II and the beginning of the Nazi’s persecution of European Jews as an opportunity to make some money. When faced with the ever-escalating atrocities of the Nazis like Plasnow concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) and the whispers of even more unspeakable horrors coming from the nearby Auschwitz, and helped along by the pleas of his managers and workers, he realizes the only way to preserve his own humanity is to use his factory and influence to make a list of lives he can save, and to put as many names on it as he possibly can.
It only takes thirty seconds for this film to give me goosebumps- that little red candle flame winking out into grey smoke, reminiscent of that unforgettable little red-coated girl. It’s a sentimental, symbolic moment in a film chock full of them. Some, like Claude Lanzmann, the director of monumental Holocaust documentary Shoah, have criticized director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Steve Zaillian for the film’s more “Hollywood” moments, but besides the fact many are based on true survivor’s stories, that’s ignoring the power of the language of cinema, how it reaches and affects audiences that lectures and documentaries could never hope to.
Spielberg aimed for and hit a bigger target, though, striving for the utmost unbearable realism in the film. He and DP Janusz Kaminski approached filming like a documentary, so no cinematic zooms, dolly shots, or steadicam, no elevated shots or grandiose affects; just the facts, or as near as they could be recreated. The predominantly handheld camerawork and black and white cinematography make the events onscreen seem both immediate and timeless.
Black and white can even do that for the Cornhusker State.
These techniques, coupled with the incredibly immersive world of everyone from production designers to costumers, provide us with nightmarish, all-to-real scenes that will stick with you long after the credits roll; the liquidation of the ghetto, the sorting at Plaszow, the showers, the exhumation and cremation, the gates of Auschwitz opening for the train like the maw of Hell itself. John Williams and Itzak Perlman’s infinitely haunting, funereal wail of a score and theme envelop them with undeniable power.
For all its technical and dramatic accomplishment, Schindler’s List would not work without authentic performances, and there isn’t a single false note from the hundreds of supporting actors and extras in the film. The central four of Ben Kingsley, Embeth Davidtz, Ralph Fiennes, and Liam Neeson, however, are titanic. Kingsley is a composite character, based on Schindler’s namesake accountant Itzhak Stern and his factory manager and personal secretary, but creates a fully-formed, resourceful survivor, calm in the face of adversity, wholly empathetic, and driven to save all he can. Davidtz is another type of survivor, forced into, but compliant with self-effacing requests of Goeth, slowly losing herself even as she ensures her own survival.
Fiennes’ Goeth, on the other hand, is a pure beast, a twisted, broken shell of a human being covering up his emptiness with sadism and nihilism. He should have won an Oscar for his efforts, but his performance is so chilling and unmitigated in its portrait of evil that it is no surprise he didn’t. He’s so convincing as Goeth that when a survivor met him on set she began to tremble with fear. It’s his scenes with Schindler, when he’s trying to maintain a cheery, almost friendly facade, that most reveal his menace- even with those he viewed as friends and equals, the predatory potential to rend them to pieces dances behind his eyes. Neeson also went home empty-handed on Oscar night, and almost missed being cast at all, with the studios wanting a bigger name for the role, like Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, or…
Thankfully Neeson was chosen, as he delivers one of the great character arcs of cinema, and it’s nearly impossible to see anyone else in the role. He begins the film as a libertine, a philanderer only interested in shiny baubles and beautiful women, something a highly profitable wartime factory promised to finance in spades. He’s a selfish man, but still a man, and the layers of hedonistic fat covering his basic humanity melt away as he’s faced with the undeniable facts of what’s occurring around him, finally giving himself, his persuasive talents, and his fortune over to the cause of saving whoever he can from the deathly efficient machine of Nazi genocide. His final scene, dismissed as melodrama by some, is a tour de force of acting, and a moment that never fails to reduce me to tears. His anguished sobs at how few he saved, and how he should have sacrificed more, even all, to try and save even one more life show how far he’s come. This, and the final sequence of the survivors laying stones upon his grave in the present day, may seem like “Hollywood touches” to some, but they are a cathartic necessity after witnessing so much depravity in the preceding three hours, and an essential glimmer of hope for the human race.
Schindler’s List is a truly great film, and a truly important one. This story, and too similar depictions of the depths humanity can sink to, from Rwanda to the Killing Fields, must reach every audience possible, if we’re to have any hope of preventing this adage, prominently displayed at Auschwitz itself, from proving itself true once more.