A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, March 28, 2016

Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Amid the nearly universal acclaim for Schindler's List, two major criticisms are often heard. One is that Spielberg tends toward the sentimental, especially at the end of the film: He lets Schindler's remorse at having not been able to save more Jews from the Holocaust go on too long, and the appearance of the surviving Schindlerjuden with the actors who played them is an unnecessary extension of the film's already clear moral statement, blurring the distinction between documentary and fictionalized narrative. The other objection is that the appearance of the girl in the red coat during the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto is a too-showy use of film technique in what should be a gripping, realistic scene. The former objection is a highly subjective one: For many, the film needs something to soften the harshness of the story's catharsis. For others, the answer is simply, "Let Spielberg be Spielberg," a gifted but traditional storyteller whose vision of the material he chooses is invariably personal. It's the second objection that gets to the heart of what film criticism is all about. I think David Thomson, in his brief essay on Schindler's List in Have You Seen ... ?,  puts the objection most provocatively when he observes, "With that one arty nudge Spielberg assigned his sense of his own past to the collected memories of all the films he had seen. All of a sudden, the drab Krakow vista became a set, with assistant directors urging the extras into line.... It was an organization of art and craft designed to re-create a terrible reality done nearly to perfection. But in that one small tarting up ..., there lay exposed the comprehensive vulgarity of the venture." I can't be as harsh as Thomson, for one thing because when I saw the film in the theater shortly after its release in 1993, I didn't notice the red coat -- the one note of color in the middle of the black-and-white film -- because I am mildly red-green colorblind. (It's difficult to explain to the non-colorblind, but those of us with the color deficiency usually see the color in question, but it's not quite the same color that the normally sighted see.) I did, however, notice the little girl: The framing by Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski puts her in the center of the action and makes her search for a hiding place evident even in a long shot. What I did miss that time was the reappearance of the girl's body in a stack of corpses later in the film, something that would be evident to anyone who had earlier seen the red of the coat. Later, when I saw the film on video, after having read about the controversy over the red highlight, I was able to perceive the color -- not so intense for me as perhaps for you, but once brought to my attention inescapable -- and to be shocked by its reappearance in the later scene. But only when I watched the film again last night did I realize the function of the "arty nudge": When we first see the girl in the red coat, we see her from the point of view of Schindler (Liam Neeson) himself, on a hillside above the ghetto. And when we see her body, we are seeing it again from the point of view of Schindler, visiting the cremation site where Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) has been ordered to burn the bodies of those killed in the liquidation of the ghetto. It is a subtle but effective move because it coincides with (or perhaps precipitates) Schindler's decision to try to save as many of his Jewish workers as he can. Is it "arty" or "tarting up" or "vulgar"? Perhaps it is, but it's also effective filmmaking. And only the fact that the Holocaust remains so large and sacrosanct an event in the moral history of the West raises the question of whether "effective filmmaking" is inappropriate to such a subject.

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