Schindler's List is an historical drama that tells the true story of Oskar Schindler, an entrepreneur who used his connections within the Nazi Party to keep his Jewish workers safe during the Holocaust. Shot entirely in black and white for a documentary feel, the film evokes the time period and portrays survivors' stories in a compelling way.
The other contenders for Best Picture that year were The Fugitive, In the Name of the Father, The Piano, and The Remains of the Day. In addition to Best Picture, Schindler's List won Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music (Original Score), and Best Writing-Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Thomas Keneally's book).
Widely regarded as Spielberg's masterpiece, the film tells the story about how one man made a difference during World War II. The film focuses on the story of Schindler (Neeson), who is a businessman, born in Czechoslovakia, living in Poland at the beginning of World War II. From his position of privilege (as a light-haired Christian), it doesn't take him long to see that the Germans are targeting Jews, initially those who are deemed to have no valuable work skills. He opens a factory and hires Jews to work there. With the help of an accountant and business manager, Itzhak Stern (Kingsley) (who is a composite of several real-life accountants), he hires hundreds of workers, including those deemed "worthless" to the war effort, such as musicians, the elderly, and scholars.
As the persecution grows worse, with the Jews kicked out of the ghetto in which they were moved and transported to concentration camps, he opens a barracks at his factory where they can live, unmolested. His efforts to protect them extend to the end of the war, as Schindler strives to keep his workers safe through his high-profile Nazi contacts as well as through cleverness and bribery.
Throughout the movie, in addition to following Schindler and Stern's efforts to keep the factory operating, the stories of the workers are portrayed as well, many of them based on actual stories. Some of them are amazing, such as one worker's miraculous escape from summary execution. Others are incredibly sad, such as the fate of those discovered in their hiding places in the ghetto. The film also follows the actions and probes the motivations of war criminal Amon Goeth (Fiennes), a brutal Nazi commander. The film avoids melodrama, telling these stories as naturally as possible, and evoking sympathy, laughter, and tears.
Some of these same stories are retold by the survivors helped by Schindler, in an accompanying documentary called "Voices of the List." The stories come from the video recorded and archived by the Shoah Foundation Institute, which Spielberg founded after making Schindler's List. The project captured the testimonies of thousands of Holocaust survivors, testimonies which were then digitized and archived for future research and educational purposes. Watching this documentary revealed just how painstaking Spielberg had been to faithfully portray these stories.
While the film captures the brutality of those days, it also has moments of lightness or even humor. As the survivors said in their testimonies, despite the darkest experiences, they found ways to carry on their religion, to give each other comfort and hope.
Schindler, who was later honored for his heroic work, did not consider himself a hero. He was a man who saw a situation and did what he could to make an impact. Though it might seem small to save a factory full of workers, compared to the millions exterminated, his efforts had a much larger impact than he could have imagined. Those 1,100 Jews lived on to give life to more than 6,000 descendants as of the time the film was made.
Inspired by his story, Spielberg founded the Shoah Foundatin Institute, now a part of USC, which documents the stories of survivors from humanitarian disasters around the globe. Spielberg declined a salary for the film, and all of his royalties and residuals for the movie go to the foundation.
I first saw this film about 15 years ago, and I probably wouldn't have rented it again if I hadn't been doing this project. Still, I'm glad I did. While it can be emotionally heart-wrenching, it is also inspiring. An extremely well-made film, it will live on as a classic, an archive of survivors' stories.
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)
Even one person can make a huge difference.