Oskar Schindler uses Jews to start a factory in Poland during the war. He witnesses the horrors endured by the Jews, and starts to save them.
Box-office supremo. Hollywood's baby boomer wunderkind. The finest architect of audience thrill since Hitchcock. All of these things were true of Steven Spielberg in 1993, yet there was the nagging sense that the Oscar-deprived director remained a pretender, a popcorn-maker of unrivalled talent but not the real thing. In an astonishing double-whammy, 1993 upheld all the suspicion, then undid it utterly. This was the year he remade dinosaurs and then on an unparalleled template envisioned the Holocaust. By 1994 Spielberg was presiding over the most successful picture of all time and, finally, his treasured Oscar.
Fourteen years previously, a well-regarded Australian writer strolled into a luggage shop to escape the LA heat. Thomas Keneally immediately struck up conversation with the shop owner, one Leopald Page, formerly Poldek Pfefferberg, a Schindlerjuden. There Page told him the story of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who had saved him and 1200 others from certain death in occupied Poland. Here was a Nazi who had not stood back. Keneally was so inspired he turned it into the Booker Prize winning novel Schindler's Ark. Spielberg, in turn, was transfixed by the story which awakened feelings of his own Jewish heritage and picked up the movie rights in 1982. Then he dallied, he wasn't ready, he hadn't matured enough. It took him ten years, as he put it, "to develop his own consciousness about the Holocaust."
Made without his trademark storyboarding, the whizz kid bravado put away, Schindler's List was shot from the gut, where all of his God-given skills as a filmmaker were distilled into something instinctual and fiercely emotional. Working Kaminski, the film was daringly — although it is hard, now, to consider it otherwise — shot in black and white, alternating between a documentarian-vibe of jarring hand-held confusion for the Jews and a sumptuous German Expressionism for the Nazis (we first meet Schindler in a nightclub shot with the back-lit beauty of a 30s' movie star). Constructed around a brilliant script by Steve Zallian, the film meticulously threads the historical facts of Schindler saving the Jews by employing them in his enamel (and later armaments) factory with the story of a man discovering his conscience despite everything he is. On a more subtle, thematic level Zallian pits a battle for Schindler's soul between camp commandant Amon Goeth (Fiennes) and Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Kingsley).
History has been massaged. Aspects were contracted for more direct storytelling (it actually took Schindler three weeks to retrieve his female Jewish workers from Auschwitz) but impressively Neeson's philandering entrepreneur is presented with an ambiguous lustre. He was a womanising profiteer, whose actions constantly contradict his instincts, not a cleancut hero. War transforms men, it made Schindler far more than he appeared. It did the same for the director.
Through its wrenching three hours, Spielberg takes an unblinking eye and steely humanity. In its most extraordinary moments, the film presents the Holocaust as a reality that defies understanding: nothing in Spielberg's career could prepare us (or him) for the numbing brutality of the 16 minute liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. The film charts a barrage of the unthinkable, summed up in the stunning image of the Nazis unearthing the mass graves and burning the corpses on a vast, hellish funeral pyre. Ash rains down on Krakow in a perverse mockery of snowfall and a German officer laughs with the unsettling intensity of the insane.
It is hard to explain the first reaction to watching Schindler's List, it is one of emotional exhaustion, of elation at artistic triumph, of eyes stung by tears of outrage and a strange sense of loss. The director you once knew like a favourite uncle had become something else. He had become important. And he was asking us to grow up with him.
The reviews were ecstatic. Exultant notices from critics whose expectations and doubts had been confounded. Twelve nominations and seven Oscars were the result from the fusty Academy. There was, inevitably, a backlash. The Zealot community decried the fact the Holocaust must remain beyond artistic interpretation, Claude Lanzmann — who made the nine hour documentary Shoah — criticised him for shifting the focus away from the six million who perished. There was a wave of reactionism citing Spielberg's motivation as suspect: his sudden rediscovery of his Judaic roots, his yearnings to be taken seriously as a filmmaker. Yet, in the face of the movie, such judgements are hard to swallow.
The fact remains that regardless of what Spielberg was personally hoping to achieve, Schindler's List brought the history of the Holocaust back to public consciousness like nothing else (it is enormously telling that it was a smash hit in Germany). It was (and remains) irreducibly his masterpiece. The apprenticeship was over. The dreamer was born-again as a supreme artist.
Heartbreaking retelling of one man's affront to the Nazis.