Oskar Schindler would have been an easier man to understand if he'd been a conventional hero, fighting for his beliefs. The fact that he was flawed - a drinker, a gambler, a womanizer, driven by greed and a lust for high living - makes his life an enigma.
Here is a man who saw his chance at the beginning of World War II and moved to Nazi-occupied Poland to open a factory and employ Jews at starvation wages. His goal was to become a millionaire. By the end of the war, he had risked his life and spent his fortune to save those Jews and had defrauded the Nazis for months with a munitions factory that never produced a single usable shell.
Why did he change? What happened to turn him from a victimizer into a humanitarian? It is to the great credit of Steven Spielberg that his film "Schindler's List" does not even attempt to answer that question. Any possible answer would be too simple, an insult to the mystery of Schindler's life. The Holocaust was a vast evil engine set whirling by racism and madness. Schindler outsmarted it, in his own little corner of the war, but he seems to have had no plan, to have improvised out of impulses that remained unclear even to himself. In this movie, the best he has ever made, Spielberg treats the fact of the Holocaust and the miracle of Schindler's feat without the easy formulas of fiction.
The movie is 184 minutes long, and like all great movies, it seems too short. It begins with Schindler (Liam Neeson), a tall, strong man with an intimidating physical presence. He dresses expensively and frequents nightclubs, buying caviar and champagne for Nazi officers and their girls, and he likes to get his picture taken with the top brass. He wears a Nazi party emblem proudly in his buttonhole. He has impeccable black market contacts, and he's able to find nylons, cigarettes, brandy: He is the right man to know. The authorities are happy to help him open a factory to build enameled cooking utensils that army kitchens can use. He is happy to hire Jews because their wages are lower, and Schindler will get richer that way.
Schindler's genius is in bribing, scheming, conning. He knows nothing about running a factory and finds Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), a Jewish accountant, to handle that side of things. Stern moves through the streets of Krakow, hiring Jews for Schindler.
Because the factory is a protected war industry, a job there may guarantee longer life.
The relationship between Schindler and Stern is developed by Spielberg with enormous subtlety. At the beginning of the war, Schindler wants only to make money, and at the end he wants only to save "his" Jews. We know that Stern understands this. But there is no moment when Schindler and Stern bluntly state what is happening, perhaps because to say certain things aloud could result in death.
This subtlety is Spielberg's strength all through the film. His screenplay, by Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Thomas Keneally, isn't based on contrived melodrama. Instead, Spielberg relies on a series of incidents, seen clearly and without artificial manipulation, and by witnessing those incidents we understand what little can be known about Schindler and his scheme.
We also see the Holocaust in a vivid and terrible way. Spielberg gives us a Nazi prison camp commandant named Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) who is a study in the stupidity of evil. From the veran da of his "villa," overlooking the prison yard, he shoots Jews for target practice. (Schindler is able to talk him out of this custom with an appeal to his vanity so obvious it is almost an insult.) Goeth is one of those weak hypocrites who upholds an ideal but makes himself an exception to it; he preaches the death of the Jews, and then chooses a pretty one named Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz) to be his maid and falls in love with her. He does not find it monstrous that her people are being exterminated, and she is spared on his affectionate whim. He sees his personal needs as more important than right or wrong, life or death. Studying him, we realize that Nazism depended on people able to think like Jeffrey Dahmer.
Shooting in black and white on many of the actual locations of the events in the story (including Schindler's original factory and even the gates of Auschwitz), Spielberg shows Schindler dealing with the madness of the Nazi system. He bribes, he wheedles, he bluffs, he escapes discovery by the skin of his teeth. In the movie's most audacious sequence, when a trainload of his employees is mistakenly routed to Auschwitz, he walks into the death camp himself and brazenly talks the authorities out of their victims, snatching them from death and putting them back on the train to his factory.
What is most amazing about this film is how completely Spielberg serves his story. The movie is brilliantly acted, written, directed and seen. Individual scenes are masterpieces of art direction, cinematography, special effects, crowd control. Yet Spielberg, the stylist whose films often have gloried in shots we are intended to notice and remember, disappears into his work. Neeson, Kingsley and the other actors are devoid of acting flourishes. There is a single-mindedness to the enterprise that is awesome.
At the end of the film, there is a sequence of overwhelming emotional impact, involving the actual people who were saved by Schindler. We learn that "Schindler's Jews" and their descendants today number about 6,000 and that the Jewish population of Poland is 4,000. The obvious lesson would seem to be that Schindler did more than a whole nation to spare its Jews. That would be too simple. The film's message is that one man did something, while in the face of the Holocaust others were paralyzed. Perhaps it took a Schindler, enigmatic and reckless, without a plan, heedless of risk, a con man, to do what he did. No rational man with a sensible plan would have gotten as far.
The French author Flaubert once wrote that he disliked Uncle Tom's Cabin because the author was constantly preaching against slavery. "Does one have to make observations about slavery?" he asked. "Depict it; that's enough." And then he added, "An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere." That would describe Spielberg, the author of this film. He depicts the evil of the Holocaust, and he tells an incredible story of how it was robbed of some of its intended victims. He does so without the tricks of his trade, the directorial and dramatic contrivances that would inspire the usual melodramatic payoffs. Spielberg is not visible in this film. But his restraint and passion are present in every shot.
"Schindler's List" is described as a film about the Holocaust, but the Holocaust supplies the field for the story, rather than the subject. The film is really two parallel character studies--one of a con man, the other of a psychopath. Oskar Schindler, who swindles the Third Reich, and Amon Goeth, who represents its pure evil, are men created by the opportunities of war.
Schindler had no success in business before or after the war, but used its cover to run factories that saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jews. (Technically, the factories were failures, too, but that was his plan: "If this factory ever produces a shell that can actually be fired, I'll be very unhappy.") Goeth was executed after the war, which he used as a cover for his homicidal pathology.
In telling their stories, Steven Spielberg found a way to approach the Holocaust, which is a subject too vast and tragic to be encompassed in any reasonable way by fiction. In the ruins of the saddest story of the century, he found, not a happy ending, but at least one affirming that resistance to evil is possible and can succeed. In the face of the Nazi charnel houses, it is a statement that has to be made, or we sink into despair.
The film has been an easy target for those who find Spielberg's approach too upbeat or "commercial," or condemn him for converting Holocaust sources into a well-told story. But every artist must work in his medium, and the medium of film does not exist unless there is an audience between the projector and the screen. Claude Lanzmann made a more profound film about the Holocaust in "Shoah," but few were willing to sit through its nine hours. Spielberg's unique ability in his serious films has been to join artistry with popularity--to say what he wants to say in a way that millions of people want to hear.
In ''Schindler's List,'' his brilliant achievement is the character of Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson as a man who never, until almost the end, admits to anyone what he is really doing. Schindler leaves it to ''his'' Jews, and particularly to his accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), to understand the unsayable: that Schindler is using his factory as a con game to cheat the Nazis of the lives of his workers. Schindler leaves it to Stern, and Spielberg leaves it to us; the movie is a rare case of a man doing the opposite of what he seems to be doing, and a director letting the audience figure it out itself.
The measure of Schindler's audacity is stupendous. His first factory makes pots and pans. His second makes shell casings. Both factories are so inefficient they make hardly any contribution to the Nazi war effort. A more cautious man might have insisted that the factories produced fine pots and usable casings, to make them invaluable to the Nazis. The full measure of Schindler's obsession is that he wanted to save Jewish lives and produce unusable goods--all the while wearing a Nazi party badge on the lapel of his expensive black-market suit.
The key to his character is found in his first big scene, in a nightclub frequented by Nazi officers. We gather that his resources consist of the money in his pocket and the clothes he stands up in. He walks into the club, sends the best champagne to a table of high-ranking Nazis, and soon has the Nazis and their girlfriends sitting at his table, which swells with late arrivals. Who is this man? Why, Oskar Schindler, of course. And who is that? The Reich never figures out the answer to that question.
Schindler's strategy as a con man is to always seem in charge, to seem well-connected, to lavish powerful Nazis with gifts and bribes, and to stride, tall and imperious, through situations that would break a lesser man. He also has the con man's knack of disguising the real object of the con. The Nazis accept his bribes and assume his purpose is to enrich himself through the war. They do not object, because he enriches them, too. It never occurs to them that he is actually saving Jews. There is that ancient story about how the guards search the thief's wheelbarrow every day, unable to figure out what he is stealing. He is stealing wheelbarrows. The Jews are Schindler's wheelbarrows.
Some of the most dramatic scenes in the movie show Schindler literally snatching his workers from the maw of death. He rescues Stern from a death train. Then he redirects a trainload of his male workers from Auschwitz to his hometown in Czechoslovakia. When the women's train is misrouted to Auschwitz in error, Schindler boldly strides into the death camp and bribes the commandant to ship them back out again. His insight here is that no one would walk into Auschwitz on such a mission if he were not the real thing. His very boldness is his shield.
Stern, of course, quickly figures out that Schindler's real game is not to get rich but to save lives. Yet this is not said aloud until Schindler has Stern make a list of some 1,100 workers who will be transported to Czechoslovakia. "The list is an absolute good," Stern tells him. "The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf."
Consider now Commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the Nazi who has power over the Krakow ghetto and later over the camp where the Jews are moved. He stands on the balcony of his ski chalet and shoots Jews as target practice, destroying any shred of hope they may have that the Nazi policies will follow some sane pattern. If they can die arbitrarily at his whim, then both protest and adherence are meaningless, and useless.
Goeth is clearly mad. War masks his underlying nature as a serial killer. His cruelty twists back on his victims: He spares a life only long enough to give his victim hope, and then shoots him. Seeing "Schindler's List" again recently, I wondered if it was a weakness to make Goeth insane. Would it have been better for Spielberg to focus instead on a Nazi functionary--an "ordinary" man who is simply following orders? The terror of the Holocaust comes not because a monster like Goeth could murder people, but because thousands of people snatched from their everyday lives became, in the chilling phrase, Hitler's willing executioners.
I don't know. The film as Spielberg made it is haunting and powerful; perhaps it was necessary to have a one-dimensional villain in a film whose hero has so many hidden dimensions. The ordinary man who was just "following orders" might have disturbed the focus of the film--although he would have been in contrast with Schindler, an ordinary man who did not follow orders.
"Schindler's List" gives us information about how parts of the Holocaust operated, but does not explain it, because it is inexplicable that men could practice genocide. Or so we want to believe. In fact, genocide is a commonplace in human history, and is happening right now in Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The United States was colonized through a policy of genocide against native peoples. Religion and race are markers that we use to hate one another, and unless we can get beyond them, we must concede we are potential executioners. The power of Spielberg's film is not that it explains evil, but that it insists that men can be good in the face of it, and that good can prevail.
The film's ending brings me to tears. At the end of the war, Schindler's Jews are in a strange land--stranded, but alive. A member of the liberating Russian forces asks them, "Isn't a town over there?" and they walk off toward the horizon. The next shot fades from black and white into color. At first we think it may be a continuation of the previous action, until we see that the men and women on the crest of the hill are dressed differently now. And then it strikes us, with the force of a blow: Those are Schindler's Jews. We are looking at the actual survivors and their children as they visit Oskar Schindler's grave. The movie began with a list of Jews being confined to the ghetto. It ends with a list of some who were saved. The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.