Few films have grown on me as much as Schindler’s List. Like everyone, I acknowledged its power. It is considered one of the hardest films to watch and most people say they will only watch it once. I just watched it for the fourth time in two years and in that time I went from thinking it inferior to Saving Private Ryan to considering it Spielberg’s magnum opus and one of my five favorite films of all time.
(image from IndieWire)
Spielberg has said that Lawrence of Arabia is his favorite film (a fact I share with him, as well as having both grown up in Phoenix and sharing interests in sharks, dinosaurs, and WWII) and I suspect he set out to become David Lean’s heir and intended Schindler’s List, which portrayed the most important topic of his life, to be his Lawrence. He succeeded. Schindler lacks Lawrence’s character depth (though that’s also true of all other films). Instead, its portrayal of the Holocaust is its defining quality. Schindler’s remarkable story is its vessel.
Schindler’s List contains perhaps the greatest thematic message in all of historical fiction (rivaled only by War and Peace). Kubrick supposedly said that the film wasn’t about the Holocaust because it was about Jews who survived, but Spielberg subverts the Holocaust by telling the true story of a German who sacrificed everything to save 1200 Jews. Spielberg thereby proved that morality survived the Holocaust and the Nazis lost the battle for humanity’s soul. What message could be more important?
I paid greater attention to the film’s pacing during my most recent viewing. It is made up of shorter and faster-moving scenes than most films and with a greater number of them, allowing it to cover more ground. This is needed given the large number of characters the film follows, most of them Krakow Jews trying to survive. Perhaps a future post will discuss the range of pacing styles within the biographical fiction genre. I’d put Schindler’s List closer to Oppenheimer’s three hour trailer pacing than Lawrence’s slow burn.
One final thought about this masterpiece: the girl in the red coat (who was real and survived the war, contrary to the film’s portrayal) is the most famous image, but the entire Liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto sequence is every bit the equal of the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan in both its violence and power. Spielberg shall remain a lifelong inspiration to me, both for these epics and for many others.