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story.lead_photo.caption Three-year-old Oliwia Dabrowska plays the iconic “girl in the red coat” in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List. Dabrowska promised Spielberg she’d wait until she was 18 to see the film but she broke that promise and saw it when she was 11. While she’s now proud of her role in the film she says seeing it at such a young age scarred her for years.

Rewatching pays dividends for some movies and some watchers, but there are films you might be better off seeing once. I'm not sure movies need to be built to withstand repeated viewing but that's the way it is. The best way to see any movie is with fresh eyes. And Schindler's List is a movie that feels diminished by repeated viewings.

The first time I saw the movie, which follows enigmatic Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who saved the lives of more than 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust, I thought it was monumental, a film for the ages: a flash of a red coat in a sea of gun metal, 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. Steven Spielberg marshaled his crews and made something that stabbed us in the heart.

It won seven Academy Awards, including best picture and best director for Spielberg. It also won Oscars for composer John Williams, screenwriter Steven Zaillian, director of photography Janusz Kaminski, art directors Allan Starski and Ewa Braun, editor Michael Kahn, and producers Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen, and Branko Lustig. It was a strong box office performer with $320 million worldwide.

The Library of Congress selected Schindler's List for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2004. In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked the film eighth on its list of the 100 best American films of all time.

It deserved all that.

But the second time I saw it, there appeared unfortunate directorial decisions. I did not like the way Spielberg spotlighted the girl in the red coat; it seems unnecessarily melodramatic and 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 behind the camera.

The third time I saw it I was dismayed by the scene in which Schindler breaks down before Stern, weeping that he "could have saved more." I found it risible.

Spielberg shot the film in black and white over 72 days in Poland with the goal of giving it the look and feel of a documentary. Schindler was a German businessman and a member of the Nazi Party who saved the lives of mostly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust by employing them in his factories. Fiennes starred as SS officer Amon Goth and Ben Kingsley as Schindler's Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern.

In Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Ralph Fiennes plays SS officer Amon Goeth who — according to testimony of several witnesses as recorded in his 1946 indictment for war crimes — personally murdered between 30 and 90 women and children during the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto.
In Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Ralph Fiennes plays SS officer Amon Goeth who — according to testimony of several witnesses as recorded in his 1946 indictment for war crimes — personally murdered between 30 and 90 women and children during the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto.

Over the years some readers have pointed out that I sometimes seem unenthusiastic about Spielberg's movies. Guilty. I tend to enjoy his work, but with reservations. The Post was a nostalgic valentine to newspapering that wasn't shy about its politics: old-fashioned and rousing, but not in a class with the very best movies of last year. I liked Lincoln, but didn't love it.

I'm often mildly put off by the whiff of self-important didacticism that attaches to some of Spielberg's work. 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 there. 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.

It might be heresy to suggest that solemn coda of Schindler's List seems unnecessary.

These quibbles are matters of taste, but I sometimes wish that Spielberg wasn't so blunt and earnest, that he didn't have a 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.

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 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 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 25 years on, I don't know that Schindler's List is anything more than well-made. 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.

Liam Neeson as the enigmatic factory owner Oskar Schindler.
Liam Neeson as the enigmatic factory owner Oskar Schindler.

For some, depicting the Holocaust is like uttering the name of God, an act of blasphemy. Claude Lanzmann, the French director who made 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, it's unclear if good intentions and great skill are enough to defeat some of the problems inherent in trying to make such movies. It is a tricky business to create an entertainment about the slaughter of innocents -- to light it right, to give the murderer a human face. Spielberg is respectful, he understands the line he is walking.

Still, it is just a movie, and we all know that in a black-and-white film, chocolate syrup can be read as blood.

MovieStyle on 12/07/2018

Print Headline: Schindler's List in retrospect: After 25 years and a fresh look, the Steven Spielberg film is historically important but not flawless


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  • mrcharles
    December 7, 2018 at 10:35 a.m.

    Ralph Fiennes portrayal of the monster was eerie- old satan himself could not have portrayed pure evil as well. The terror those who had to live and die around this monster must have been akin to the, elderly, the women and the children of the amalakites felt as being rounded up and systematically slaughtered by the chosen people.

    There is the tale of mothers seeing smoke come from chimneys, seeing the face of their children who were killed and burned in the ovens. The horror, the horror.

    Phillip, you left out the cart of the dead with a noticeable red coat in the pile of the dead. Like monsters who fly into buildings, the vision is necessary to give us perspective of not being silent as we know the consequence of silence to evil by those who call it a duty to a higher duty/cause.

    Do not set there with arms crossed [ the one who could do something about the evil ] while evil is being allowed to happen. Be like Ivan and Return the ticket, do not accept the way it is.