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Remembering Twenty Years of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”

November 11, 2013

By John Corrado

Schindler's List PosterIt’s hard to believe that Schindler’s List is turning twenty this year, because in some ways Steven Spielberg’s masterful 1993 opus on the Holocaust holds up so well that the film feels like it could be a part of this year’s awards season conversation.  But the haunting black and white cinematography gives the 195 minute film the feel of a timeless classic that could have been made anytime in the decades after the second World War.

In honour of Remembrance Day, I would like to take the time to remember the impact that Schindler’s List has had over the past twenty years, a milestone that the film will officially reach on December 15th.  This remains a heartbreakingly realistic look at the horrors of the Holocaust and one of the finest films ever made about the events behind WWII.

The first time we see Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), he is pinning a swastika to his shirt, a symbol of hate that he uses to gain trust with the Nazis, so that he can employ and ultimately save the lives of more than a thousand Jewish employees at his metalworks factory.  At the beginning, he is taking advantage of cheap labour, making himself rich by paying his workers in goods instead of money.  But as the Jews are increasingly segregated, his factory moves to a concentration camp and becomes known as a safe haven, protecting the lives of those who are on the list of workers.

At first, Oskar Schindler refuses to admit the true purpose of his factory, but his cause is understood by the kind accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), who knows the full power that these jobs have to keep his people out of Auschwitz.  This transformation of the title character from a conman to a human rights leader is one of the most fascinating aspects of Schindler’s List, as the film becomes a study of how people respond to tragedy.  Although Adolf Hitler was the perpetrator of these crimes against humanity, he is wisely never seen in the film and his pure evil is represented through Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), a hateful Nazi officer who receives as much pleasure from good wine as he does from killing people.

There are unforgettable moments in the film where hope arrives but is quickly dashed, like when we see people hiding beneath floorboards and behind cabinets during a terrifying nighttime raid of the ghetto, only to be found in the aftermath.  People are brutally murdered, for no reason but their ethnicity.  These moments are heartbreaking to watch unfold, but unbearable to witness because we know that there was a time and place in history when they actually happened.  We remember many things about Schindler’s List, including the masterful performances from Liam Neeson, Ben Kinglsey and Ralph Fiennes, who collectively represent the inner conflict, true goodness and pure evil that make up the numerous different aspects of humanity.

How could we forget the deeply felt and intimately personal direction of Steven Spielberg, or the beautiful music by John Williams?  What about the screenplay by Steven Zaillian that paints a layered portrait of the title character, or the haunting cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and the involving editing by Michael Kahn that effortlessly ties everything together?  These are all aspects that were deservingly honoured with Academy Awards, as the film went on to win Best Picture, an honour that continues to represent why 1993 was such a banner year for Steven Spielberg in more ways than one.

Six months before the release of Schindler’s List, the director delivered what remains the second biggest financial success of his career with Jurassic Park, a personal favourite of mine that I wrote about earlier in the year and also holds up beautifully after twenty years.  The fact that these two wildly different films were both released so close together serves as an interesting allegory for Steven Spielberg’s career, a master of popular cinema who is able to deliver deeper messages in a way that continues to capture the attention of audiences.  Just like Jurassic Park, in many ways the twenty years that have culminated behind Schindler’s List have just made the film even more unforgettable.

Because who could forget the little girl in the red coat, a haunting splash of colour in this chilling black and white world?  What about the scene where soldiers attempt to shoot an honest factory worker, only to have their pistols jam, as he cowers into submission on the ground?  Then there’s the final scene, when the actors join their real life counterparts to place stones on the grave of Oskar Schindler, as the film turns back into colour to show us these elderly people paying tribute to the man who saved their lives so many years earlier.  What we are witnessing is a feeling of closure, a sense of colour finally returning to a dark world.

We are once again reminded that the characters in the film are real people, and the events are a part of our history.  It’s images like these that guide Schindler’s List, a masterful work that forces us to remember the horrors of the past, by placing a camera before them and allowing us to feel every emotion that is experienced by these people.  And that is one of the most unforgettable aspects of the film, which remains one of the greatest achievements of Steven Spielberg’s career.

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