In honor of Spielberg's 59th birthday, I elected to revisit perhaps the only Spielberg film I have seen only once. Not because the film is anything short of spectacular, but because it is so hard to watch. Spielberg is often criticized by erudite critics for his strict loyalty to emotive narratives. He knows how to tell a story well, and in effort to punctuate most narratives with hopeful sentiments, he often plucks the heart strings in an almost saccharine fashion (but, I have no problem with that). However, it is this skill that serves him so well in Schindler's List. To comprehend the true horror of the Holocaust, one can not speak solely in numbers, but of the stories and the uncompromising identification with others.
Spielberg, clearly a master storyteller, knows that the face is the locus of identification; Spielberg adroitly captures the tragedy, hope, and fear that haunts each face by keeping the medium and close-ups shots just a beat longer than normal to secure our emotional connection with each character. Spielberg's camera is more contemplative and unflinching than his previous works (this is his first collaboration with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski-his DP ever since). I was particularly struck by his choice of how to depict the indiscriminate shootings. Now matter where anyone was shot, the victim collapsed with little movement or cries of suffering. Normally, on screen shooting victims often demonstrate some sort of life after they are shot; even if it is an anonymous death, the actual dying is a bit belabored. As a result, death does not seem so immediate or senseless. Spielberg's inspired direction, however, captures the immediate brutality of each shooting, leaving the audience with little time to process the shooting beyond the initial shock.
The lines between good and evil are as black and white as the film stock (another inspired directorial choice). The transformation of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) from an Adam Smithian businessman to a tortured savior is one of the better performances of the 1990s. His efforts to do good follow the logic of business, the calculating language the Nazis know best, until he realizes that such a mentality informs nefarious deeds in equal measure. The film's moral compass is uncomplicated, nor should it be. Ralph Fiennes aptly plays the malevolent Goet, he captures the Mephistophelian characteristics that drove concentration camp commadants without sliding into one-dimensional caricatures. (It is worth noting that Spielberg has yet to direct an Academy Award winning performance)
Although Schindler's List is considered his crown jewel in an already sparkling opus, Spielberg reluctantly helmed this film. He wanted it made, but he had enough self-awareness that his reputation and skill set risks undercutting the seriousness of the subject matter. Spielberg originally propositioned Roman Polanski (a Holocaust survivor) and Martin Scorsese to direct the film. Both declined, encouraging Spielberg to pursue his passion. Glad they did.
Shortly after Schindler's List came out, Spielberg was asked if he could give the world only one of his films, which one would it be. His answer: ET. His reason: for the children. I agree. I am just glad we have them all. Marcus, I remember a rather lengthy debate over the five greatest directors of all-time. I still think I am right.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Spielberg. I have given you a lot of money over the years. I still think I got the better end of the deal.