It took Steven Spielberg ten years and $23 million to get the 1983 book by Thomas Keneally – about a Nazi who saved 1100 Jews from the gas chambers and furnaces of the Holocaust – onto the screen.
In the interim, he gave us aliens, dinosaurs and Peter Pan – but there is nothing whimsical or entertaining about Schindler’s List.
It chronicles the blackest chapter in the recorded history of the human race with haunting and horrifying accuracy, in Cinéma vérité black and white, on actual locations at the sites of the ghettos and death camps of Poland.
From the interior of Schindler’s apartment in Krakow to the actual railroad depot outside Auschwitz, the on-site locations are eerie.
The story of Oskar Schindler is an ironic footnote to World War II. He wasn’t a particularly noble or compassionate man.
Unreligious and apolitical, he had no humane interest in the suffering of Jews persecuted by the Nazis. A gambler, womaniser and crafty profiteer, he seized the opportunity to amass a personal fortune through the misfortunes of others.
Scheming, ambitious and resourceful, Schindler confiscated businesses owned by Jews and repaid them with merchandise. When the winds of war began to shift and the Jews were forced out of the Kraków ghetto into work camps, Schindler’s employees became candidates for extermination and he suffered an economic reversal.
Through graft and brazen charm, Schindler managed to beat the SS at their own game, presenting Nazi authorities with a list of “essential” workers, an effort orchestrated by his own Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), who used Schindler’s factory as a haven for children, rabbis, women and the elderly and sick, none of whom possessed any real labour skills.
Getting on Schindler’s coveted list became a ticket to survival, and Schindler, who lived until 1974, became an accidental German hero who is today the only Nazi buried in sacred ground in Jerusalem.
This is the basic story. But Mr Spielberg has a broader canvas in his camera lens and paints it with methodical brush strokes until you are overwhelmed by unforgettable imagery:
A desperate man falls into a sewer clutching his last silver spoon in his hand; Hospital staff poison patients before they’re machine-gunned; Children build roads with their own ancestors’ tombstones; German SS guards grab a suntan outside the forced labour camps while boxcars of people gasp for breath; Innocent children drop into excrement up to their eyeballs to hide from the bullets of marauding Nazi patrols . . .
Spielberg shows it all, blasting us with the most awesome Holocaust footage that it’s hard to believe it really happened this way – Harder still to think it could ever happen again.
With a cast populated by many real people, many of them actual survivors of the camps themselves, contributing memories, props and details, it’s difficult to focus on the professional actors, but everyone in Schindler’s List is magnificent.
Liam Neeson tackles the monumental task of playing the many moods and contradictions of the complex leading character with enormous skill. Schindler’s ultimate conversion from self-gain to humanitarianism is never totally convincing, but it must have been gradual and confusing even to the people around him.
Probably no one but the real Oskar Schindler could explain how and why it happened.
Ben Kingsley plays the bookkeeper, Itzhak Stern, with the fear and hope of a man who is doing his best to ease suffering and make a difference.
The most galvanising presence in the whole film, though, is that of Ralph Fiennes as Amon Göth, the monstrous commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp (pictured).
Gambling for human lives in card games, brutally beating the hell out of his Jewish maid one minute and sentimentally sobbing because he loves her the next, it’s a raw, rampaging performance that hides nothing and clues us in to the abused child inside the towering bully.
You hate the character, but Fiennes is so multidimensional in his acting that he makes you understand the character’s insanity.
The final scenes depict Göth’s execution and summarise Schindler’s remaining years after the war.
The ending is in colour and shows the last living survivors of the group that proudly call themselves the Schindlerjuden (“Schindler’s Jews”) walking through a meadow of flowers in modern Israel – arm in arm with the actors who played them in the film – to place stones of respect on Oskar Schindler’s grave.
Friedrich von Thun
Dr Josef Mengele
Daniel Del Ponte
SS Sergeant Kunder
Gestapo Clerk Klaus Tauber
Joachim Paul Assböck