Righteous Among Nations

Humanity recovered in the face of tragedy

Published: Jun 07 2014, 01:01:am

Thursday, December 23, 1993.
SCHINDLER'S LIST. Written by Steven Zaillian. Based on the 1980 book by Thomas Keneally. Music by John Williams. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Running time: 195 minutes. Rated 14 Years Limited Admission with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some violence, nudity, occasional suggestive scenes.

FOR NEARLY 20 years we've known Steven Spielberg as an entertainer. His skilfully crafted fantasies have made us laugh, cry, gasp with amazement and cry out in fear.
    A commercial movie-maker, his name is synonymous with major amusements. His tales of scary fish, friendly aliens, archeological adventurers and prehistoric reptiles are among the most popular and profitable pictures ever made.
    Schindler's List is different.
    No theme park ride, it is a painful, painstaking recreation of a moment in recent history that few among us want to recall, let alone revisit during the Christmas season.
    There is neither comfort nor joy in Spielberg's stark, heartfelt Holocaust epic. An addition to the cinema of conscience, it is the story of a man who was, by his own admission, a member of the Nazi party, a war profiteer, a munitions manufacturer and an exploiter of slave labour. In short, a criminal.
    As played by Liam Neeson, Oskar Schindler is a man who finds his own humanity in the midst of one of humanity's greatest tragedies. To know him, we must face it.
    The Holocaust happened.
    In Germany's Third Reich, mass murder was state policy, publicly funded and administered. Spielberg's film, based on the non-fiction novel by Australian-born Irish Catholic Thomas Keneally, is for remembrance.
    It is not fun.
    These are difficult, terrible memories. It was 32 years ago, in his downbeat courtroom drama Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), that Stanley Kramer made it clear why we must remember.
    In his speech rendering the judgement of the war crimes tribunal, Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) points out "the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial." It is, he says, "that under the stress of a national crisis, ordinary men — even able and extraordinary men — can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination."
    Now, in Schindler's List, Spielberg shows what we must remember.
    His film's value, indeed its genius, is its insistence that in the midst of mind-numbing tragedy, a single human life has inestimable value, and that one man can make a difference.
    The record shows that Oskar Schindler arrived in German-occupied Krackow in 1939, an opportunist expecting to benefit from the expropriations of Jewish properties and Nazi military contracts. Setting himself up as an enamelware manufacturer, he filled his factory with Jewish slave labourers and made millions.
    A womanizing rogue and a convincing liar, Schindler enjoyed his role as Herr Direktor. He counted among his "friends" SS Untersturmfuhrer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the psychopathic commandant of the Plaszow Forced Labour Camp.
    He insisted that he was a businessman, only in it for the money. He lied to everyone, including himself.
    The day the war ended, Schindler was broke. His fortune had been spent on payoffs, gifts and bribes. In the process, he saved more than 1,000 men, women and children from Auschwitz.
    Thematically, Schindler's List is consistent with Spielberg's previous film work. Since his feature debut in 1974, he has focused on stories of people under stress who find goodness within themselves.
    It is innate goodness that gives E.T.'s Elliot, or an Indiana Jones, the strength to defy overwhelming forces and established authority. The flawed, complex Schindler is a real life example of the Spielbergian hero.
    Stylistically, his film is Eastern European. To underscore his seriousness, Speilberg shot his film on location in black and white, producing a picture with the raw, brutal look of postwar Polish cinema.
    Film buffs will recall Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds trilogy, and the recent Korczak, the harrowing story of Warsaw ghetto martyr Hendryk Goldszmit, a feature designed to match footage shot by Nazi documentarists.
    Filmgoers will find Schindler's List Spielberg's least sentimental work. A unsparing recollection of the injustice, violence and cruelty of Hitler's "final solution," it is chillingly dispassionate, neither exploiting nor dwelling upon its own nightmare images.
    Within it burns the light from a tiny flame of righteousness.
    Merry Christmas.
*   *   *
ADVANCE PRESS MATERIALS indicated that Schindler's List would open everywhere on Wednesday, December 15. Steven Spielberg' sombre Holocaust drama would be Universal Pictures' prestige release for the year-end.
    Sometime in November, the strategy shifted. With its Vancouver opening changed to Friday, January 14, the epic-length, black-and-white feature would be the first big movie of 1994.
    On Monday, December 6, we were advised that the local premiere will be Saturday, December 25. Filmgoers are cordially invited to spend Christmas at Auschwitz.
    Clearly an act of conscience, Schindler's List is also one spectacular example of the art of the deal. Commercial prospects for a 195-minute, $22-million death-camp drama have to be virtually nil. The studio's accounting department knows that it won't make a dime.
    Nor does it have to. Like a PBS-TV special, Schindler's List has a corporate underwriter — that noted philanthropist, T-rex.
    The popular success of Spielberg's artistically negligible summer blockbuster Jurassic Park made it possible for Universal president Sidney Sheinberg and his No. 1 hit-making director to indulge themselves in some cinematic good works. In doing so, they add to the small but heartfelt body of Holocaust cinema.
    In the half century since Nazi Germany's great crime was revealed to the world, only the most committed film artists have attempted to deal with its horror. Six of the best currently available on video are:
*    The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Embarrassingly "Hollywood" by today's standards of realism, director George Stevens's adaptation of the 1956 Broadway drama recalls the tragedy of a Jewish family in hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland.
*    Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Yes, that's William "Capt. Kirk" Shatner playing the prosecuting colonel's aide in this intense, damning recreation of the war crimes trial of Nazi jurists. Spencer Tracy's great speech assigning moral responsibly is as stunningly relevant today as it was at the height of the Cold War.
*    The Pawnbroker (1965). Under Sidney Lumet's direction, Rod Steiger gives his greatest performance in a film examining the soul-corroding guilt experienced by a death camp survivor.
*    Playing for Time (1980). Vanessa Redgrave heads a superb, all-female performing ensemble in the harrowing, heartbreaking true story of musicians trading their talent for survival in Auschwitz.
*    The Wannsee Conference (1984). The chilling banality of evil was never more evident than at this gathering of top Nazis held January 20, 1942. A docu-drama based on the secretarial record, it recreates the executive meeting that finalized the "final solution."
*    Charlie Grant's War (1985). Our Canadian content comes in the form of director Martin Lavut's tele-drama about a Toronto  businessman who smuggled Jews out of Nazi-occupied Austria. R.H. Thomson brings feeling to the title role.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1993. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: My assessment of the film's commercial prospects was a touch off. It turned out that the mass audience was more than willing to turn out for a death-camp drama, if it was directed by Steven Spielberg. The $22-million Schindler's List returned $321 million to its producers. (By comparison, his $63-million popcorn picture Jurassic Park earned approximately $900 million during its initial release.) Spielberg's next film-of-conscience, the 1997 historical drama Amistad, would not do so well (earning about $44 million on production cost of $36 million). In this instance, T-rex (in the form of the $73-million The Lost World: Jurassic Park II) really did compensate for the box-office shortfall, with about $230 million in earnings.