LITTLE ROCK Schindler’s List was released in December 1993, but the 20th anniversary Blu-ray has already arrived. That is the way of these things, and no doubt there is a method to the marketing.One of the things anniversary editions do is remind us of the passage of time; it seems remarkable that nearly two decades have passed since I first saw what is probably Steven Spielberg’s most important movie.
It has been pointed out that I sometimes seem unenthusiastic about Spielberg’s movies and this is somewhat true: I liked Lincoln, but I didn’t love it. I’m often mildly put off by the whiff of self-important didacticism that attaches to some Spielberg movies. He is a great director and a serious man who cares very much about making good movies, but it’s always a little too easy to see the lesson embedded in the work. I wish he’d ended Lincoln when it ended the first time instead of going on and on; I dislike the framing device of Saving Private Ryan and even the solemn coda of Schindler’s List seems a little unnecessary. Those are matters of taste I guess, but I sometimes wish that Spielberg wasn’t so blunt and earnest, that he didn’t have need to make sure the slowest child in his class grasps the material before moving on. What would be a wonderful virtue in a civics teacher is a drag in a filmmaker.
Anyway, I have no particular beef with Schindler’s List, only that it’s one of those movie movies I can’t really imagine wanting to own on DVD. It is something of a masterpiece, but it is also grueling. It is 185 minutes long and it is not improved by repeated viewings. The first time I saw it, I thought it was monumental - a film for the ages: a flash of a red coat in a sea of documentary gray, Ralph Fiennes’ cruel belly; the sharp, quick and desultory executions performed by bureaucrats emboldened by uniforms and something as vague and insubstantial as a cause. Spielberg marshaled his crews and made something that stabbed us in the heart.
But the second time I saw it I thought there were some unfortunate directorial decisions. I did not like the way Spielberg spotlighted the girl in the red coat, it seems unnecessarily melodramatic and a bit condescending, in that it implied that the audience needed to latch on to an individual tragedy beyond the larger crime of the Holocaust. I balked at the emotional manipulation of the script, at the coolness of the professional realizer.
The third time I saw it I was dismayed by the scene in which Liam Neeson, playing the inscrutable Oskar Schindler, the war profiteer who saved the lives of more than 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust, breaks down before Sir Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern, weeping that he “could have saved more.” I wasn’t moved by the scene the third time I saw it - I found it risible - which only means that the best way to see a movie is with fresh eyes.
On the other hand, I know there are people who know nothing of the Holocaust who might stand to be educated by Spielberg’s work. He has made a couple of movies that I think ought to be shown in every high school history class, though I might edit Saving Private Ryan down to that first half-hour, the horrific real-time sequence on Omaha Beach. His craftsmanship is impeccable. I agree with a friend of mine who says that Spielberg ought to be given an Academy Award every 10 years or so simply because he does so much for the movie industry.
But 20 years on, I don’t know that Schindler’s List is anything more than a well made movie. I wish it were what Spielberg wanted it to be, the sort of transcendent art that makes us better people. But I’m not sure most people don’t take it as a kind of horror movie.
For some, depicting the Holocaust is like uttering the name of God, an act of blasphemy. Claude Lanzmann, the French director who made the nearly nine-hour Shoah, the 1985 film comprised of interviews with survivors of the Holocaust and their Nazi oppressors, has often said he considers any fictional re-creation of the Holocaust obscene and “tantamount to fabricating archives.” I don’t hold with that sentiment; I wouldn’t forbid any artist from working with whatever material he might find, in whatever medium he might deem appropriate.
Writers like Bruno Schulz and Primo Levi dealt with the Holocaust as black comedy, but there is a moral difference between a book written by a survivor and a movie made for popular consumption by a well-intentioned Hollywood millionaire.
While Schindler’s List is perhaps the best that we can do given the commercial realities that attend the making of a Hollywood movie, I wonder if good intentions and great skill are enough to defeat some of the problems inherent in trying to make these movies. It is a tricky business to make an entertainment about the slaughter of innocents - to light it right, to give the murderer a human face. Spielberg was respectful, he understood the line he was walking. Still Schindler’s List is ultimately just a movie, and we all know that in a black-and-white film, chocolate syrup can be read as blood.
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 03/08/2013
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