Spielberg: Schindler’s List part 2

Act I of Schindler’s List is a direct, step-by-step procedural showing how a German businessman goes about opening a profitable enamelware factory in wartime Krakow. In a way, Act II shows how other forces conspire to make him lose that factory.hitcounter

34:22 – 39:17: Act II begins with a five-minute sequence delineating Schindler’s love life. Schindler’s Polish mistress stumbles out of bed, puts on a robe and answers the front door, only to find a woman who turns out to be Mrs. Schindler. This canny staging, putting the audience in the shoes (so to speak) of Schindler’s mistress, lets Schindler’s marital status be as much of a surprise to us as it is to her — this is the first we’ve heard about it.

Mrs. Schindler seems to be well-acquainted with Schindler’s womanizing. Her reaction to his mistress is not anger that he betrayed her but annoyance at his manners.

Schindler takes his wife out to a nightclub (where, even when dancing with Mrs. Schindler, he can’t stop looking at other women) and delivers a lovely speech that outlines his character’s motivations — he wants to impress the folks back home and he wants to out-do his father. These motivations are so strong that he sees war as the chance of a lifetime — at no other time could he have pulled this unique business venture together. This explains why he seems so cheerfully amoral on the subject of his workers and the ghetto they live in: history has handed him this golden opportunity, he’s going to make hay while the sun shines and all other considerations are secondary.

Back at home, Mrs. Schindler says that she’ll stay in Krakow as long as she’ll never be misidentified as one of Schindler’s girlfriends. Then, presto, in a cut, she’s on a train back to Germany, apparently without rancor or regret.

39:17-41:43 – Back at the factory, things are going very well. Stern is just as brusque with Schindler and the feeling seems to be mutual. (Schindler has no interest in the actual business part of running a business, just the “good life” that goes along with the profits of business.) Stern, with some reluctance, brings an elderly, one-armed machinist to see Schindler. The one-armed machinist thanks Schindler profusely for “saving his life,” which makes Schindler deeply embarrassed. Suspicious that Stern is playing him for a sap by hiring cripples, he harshly questions Stern about the one-armed machinist’s qualifications.

So, what is Schindler thinking now? Why is he angry about the one-armed machinist? On some level he must suspect that Stern is hiring friends and freeloaders, trying to put one past capital, that he’s being made a fool of. Is he worried about profits? Or is it more that he’s worried what might happen if his clients (that is, the Nazis) find out that his “essential workers” aren’t essential at all? The question then becomes “What does Schindler know, and when does he know it?” He certainly knows that his workers have been designated second-class citizens, almost slaves — he’s been in their ghetto and made deals with the Nazis to use them as labor. What does he think is the ultimate goal of this activity?

42:00-44:15 – The very next thing, it snows one day in Krakow and Schindler’s workers are pressed into service clearing the road. The one-armed machinist is taken aside and summarily shot by some grinning young Nazis. Spielberg gives the scene a thrust of the inevitable by having the action of the arrest and shooting play out as we hear the audio of Schindler seeking reparations for the machinist’s death.

Schindler’s scene with the Nazi officer where he’s complaining about the machinist’s death adds yet another question about where Schindler is at this point in the narrative. Is he really sorry that the one-armed machinist is gone? After all, this is the same man he was mortified to have to encounter in the previous scene. Is he merely acting aggrieved, trying to squeeze some money out of the Nazi bureaucracy? Schindler is in a difficult position here: he’s starting to feel some sense of responsibility for his workers, but he can’t push his case with the Nazis without looking like he’s “soft on Jews.”

(The Nazi officer in this scene warns Schindler about the Jews: “You shouldn’t think of them as ‘yours’.” This is good dialogue. The line works on two levels — it warns Schindler that his work-force’s days are numbered, and also serves as an ironic counterpoint to Schindler’s destiny: he does come to think of his workers as “his,” and, in fact, the workers identified themselves as “Schindler’s Jews” for the rest of their lives.)

(There is an odd technical question I have about language in Schindler’s List: everyone, Germans and Poles alike, speaks English, except when they don’t. That is, every now and then, the German soldiers speak German. Spielberg will even mix it up in the midst of a scene: one soldier will bark German at a crowd, then another will speak English to someone else. Is everyone in Schindler’s List speaking Polish to one another, until they’re speaking German? Did Schindler, a German, go to Krakow and speak German to Stern? Did the Nazis assigned to occupy Krakow speak Polish to the Poles? My guess is that Spielberg uses German as a way to make the Nazis less human — at times. He seems to reserve German for moments of extreme inhumanity — usually when the Germans are shooting someone, or about to shoot someone.)

44:15-44:54 – How bad does Schindler feel about the dead machinist? Well, Spielberg cuts from the machinist lying in the snow, blood from his head pooling black into the snow, to — what’s this? — a bona fide sex scene, of Schindler romping in bed with his new mistress. The juxtaposition of the two shots is striking enough, but to see an adult sex scene, two naked grownups unapologetically going at it, enjoying themselves, with no slapstick and no discreet pans over to tinkling windchimes, in a movie by Steven Spielberg, is a revelation.

The coupling couple is interrupted by Pfefferberg, who has come to tell Schindler that Stern has been arrested and is being put on a train to a concentration camp.

44:54-49:30 – Schindler goes down to the train depot to fetch Stern out of his boxcar. (Another line of Jews, another list, another train.) He’s pissed — he’s been pulled out of bed during sex, after all — and he throws his weight around with the local Nazi officials. Spielberg indulges in a rare moment of comedy as Schindler pulls a scene that would not have been out of place in an episode of Hogan’s Heroes: the Nazis tell Schindler there’s nothing they can do, Stern’s name is “on the list”, and Schindler makes the threat of sending the officials to the Russian front, whereupon we cut to the two officials falling over themselves to find Stern.

(There’s the primacy of “the list” again, and the dependence of bureaucracy on the Nazi mind — they’re not obeying their consciences, they’re simply processing the orders on “the list” — the list, in this case, being an excuse to indulge in genocide. It’s not my fault, his name was on the list! The young official even confides in Schindler that his primary goal is to keep his paperwork straight, human lives be damned.)

Schindler, at this point, apparently still does not know what the ultimate goal is for the Nazis. He chides Stern about his carelessness in getting arrested and asks “If I had gotten here five minutes later, where would I be then?” He’s either monumentally self-involved or else ignorant of where the train was taking Stern.

Spielberg, however, doesn’t keep us in the dark. As Schindler and Stern leave the depot, he lets his camera stay behind and show the Nazis going through the belongings of the Jews that were just sent away on the train. Items both valuable and sentimental are sorted, categorized, labeled and inventoried — again, for the Nazis the murder of the Jews seems to be primarily a business venture.

49:30-50:55 – We now have a brief scene of the Jews in the ghetto, gathered around a fire in an oil-drum and talking about their daily lives. This is one of the very few scenes in the movie where we see “the Jews” apart from how they relate to Schindler.

50:55 – 51:47 – And here we meet the bad guy, Amon Goth. Goth is the newly-promoted commandant of the Plaszow forced labor camp. He will, of necessity, dominate the remainder of the act, so Spielberg is careful to present him as, essentially, a darker version of his protagonist. Like Schindler, Goth is shown to be a man on the make, delighting in his new promotion and anxious to make a name for himself. Like Schindler, he is brusque with his inferiors and picky about aesthetic details. In a mirror scene to Schindler picking out his secretary, Goth is shown picking out his housekeeper. He picks a woman named Helen Hirsch, based on the same criteria as Schindler used to select a secretary. That is, he forgets all about qualifications and hires the one he’s most attracted to.

51:47-55:08 – Lest we think Goth is too human, the very next thing he does is, without skipping a beat, order a female engineer to be shot for arguing with her Nazi superiors. This both establishes Goth as a heavy and introduces a rather sick sexual element to Goth’s behavior. Attracted to Helen but unable to pursue his attraction, he then, literally, turns around and has another woman shot in the head.

55:08-1:13:15 – One of the most remarkable sequences in any Spielberg movie, and to my mind in all movie history, begins with a cross-cutting of Goth and Schindler shaving in the morning. Schindler, we learn, is preparing to go out horseback-riding with his mistress, while Goth is preparing for the biggest day in his career, the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto.

This rather incredible set-piece is assembled and shot in a manner not dissimilar to other landmark Spielberg set-pieces: a list (there’s that word again) of visual “beats” is presented, with each moment informed by the physical parameters of the situation. Whether it’s a mine-car chase, a tank battle or the invasion of Normandy, Spielberg excels at this kind of orchestration. The “beat of the sequence is simple: The ghetto is liquidated, the Jews are rounded up and put in more lines and sent on more trains (folding tables become foreboding symbols of tyranny in this movie).

Schindler watches the liquidation unfold from a hilltop overlooking the ghetto. He picks out the “little girl in the red dress” and follows her through her tour of hell. He seems appalled at what he sees, but what is he really thinking? Is he thinking “Oh my God, those poor people?” or “Oh no, who’s going to staff my enamelware factory tomorrow?” The scene is a turning point for Schindler, but where exactly is the pivot?

The sequence ends not with showing the Jews’ arrival at the labor camp, but with Schindler in his office, brooding over the stacks of empty pots and pans that won’t be delivered in the morning. Schindler, up to this point, has been more or less okay with the Nazis in Krakow, but now their actions are endangering his factory and his dreams of fortune and glory.

David Mamet disdains “Holocaust movies” in general, and Schindler’s List in particular, as being nothing more than what he calls pornographic fantasies of power and submission. This strikes me as being rather too harsh, but it is true that “the Jews” in Schindler’s List are shown primarily as powerless victims that need to be rescued, while the Nazis are shown as all-powerful and ruthless. This is done, I would argue, for dramatic reasons — to make “the movie” better. This, of course, raises some unpleasant questions, such as, is it a worthwhile thing to reduce the events of the Holocaust to the demands of “the movie?”

Spielberg here is making a drama out of an important historical event, and a highly charged event at that, one that affected the lives of millions of people, and when a filmmaker does that, everyone is always going to have an opinion regarding what should have been included, what should have been excluded and what should have emphasized or de-emphasized. I don’t have an answer for Mr. Mamet’s complaint, but I feel certain that Spielberg grasps the difficulty of making an “entertainment” out of the greatest horror of the 20th century. (He has spoken of not being able to watch some of the scenes he was shooting, and of leaving out some of the more barbaric events of the liquidation.) And yet, what is the alternative? Leave the story untold? I, for one, can count myself as someone who went in to see Schindler’s List in early December 1993 and came out, three and a half hours later, not quite the same person as I was when I went in.


17 Responses to “Spielberg: Schindler’s List part 2”
  1. curt_holman says:


    What do we think about the use of the red-tinted dress in the black and white movie, anyway? I’ve only seen the film once (but I’m not unwilling to watch it again, because I think it’s great, too), but the red dress struck me as an unnecessary nudge to the audience. I know that it comes up again when presumably the same girl is dead, which I recall is another catalyst for Schindler’s action, but I’m still ambivalent about it.

    I seem to recall a scene in the liquidization of the Ghetto with a family hiding in a compartment in a kitchen floor, and when they lower the trapdoor and smartly pull a rug up over the door, the audience laughed a little — probably clinging to the slightest humorous bit of business like a life-line.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Colorization

      I have my suspicions about the girl in the red dress, but I cannot doubt the emotional impact that scene had on me the first time I saw the movie. By focusing our attention on one individual, Spielberg makes the liquidation of the ghetto much more emotionally resonant — which is, I think, part of what bugs Mamet so much about the movie; the reduction of history to heart-tugging anecdote, and how it affects, you know, the German businessman watching from the hilltop.

      I remember people laughing at the trick rug too, and every time I watch the movie I wait for that beat, not because it’s “funny” per se but because it’s such a striking detail — which is saying a lot for a movie filled to the brim with striking details.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Colorization

        The girl in the red dress was the moment that Spielberg lost me. Up until that moment, I was enthralled. But here came a gratuitous gesture that betrayed a lack of trust in his audience or perhaps just a moment of visual exuberance that he couldn’t contain. This wouldn’t have made me so angry if the rest of the film weren’t as powerful as it was. Instead of adding emotional impact, it immediately distanced me — I became less engaged and more critical. For me, it broke the spell, rather than cast one.

        Then there’s Goth’s (really! that name!) psycho-sexual dynamic, which threatens to reduce Nazism to perversity (or reduce perversity to Nazism). But you’ll get to that, no doubt, when it plays a bigger part in the narrative.

        By the way, I think the rug bit elicits laughs not because it’s funny but because of the audience’s relief from the tension of that scene and grasping at any potential happy outcome.

        As for Mamet’s objection, I think it’s off the mark (though your explanation of it makes total sense). Spielberg wasn’t trying to make a documentary. He was trying to (and succeeded in) creating a complex but necessarily limited drama. He’s a storyteller, and individual stories — I grew up among a lot of survivors and have heard many of them — ultimately boil down to heart-tugging anecdote. Besides, most of us in the audience are closer to the businessman watching from the hilltop than to the people in the ghetto.


        • Re: Colorization

          To be fair, Goth (or rather, Göth) really was the guy’s name.

          “This grim portrayal showed only a subset of Göth’s crimes. When Mila Pfefferberg, a surviving Schindler Jew, was introduced to Fiennes while on the set of the film, she began to shake uncontrollably in terror…”

          • Anonymous says:

            Re: Colorization

            It figures. That red dress made me unduly cynical.

            • Todd says:

              Re: Colorization

              I think the “girl in the red coat” problem is that it focuses our attention on one individual, for dramatic purposes, and that one individual is a helpless, innocent little girl. And so that helpless, innocent little girl then symbolizes “the Jews” for the sake of this narrative which, even in the best way of looking at it, is an oversimplification, and in the worst way of looking at it lends a lot of credence to Mamet’s interpretation.

              • Re: Colorization

                I’ve had mixed feelings about the “red coat” problem – it feels gimmicky, but if you look at the shots where the tint is used there’s a clear reason Spielberg is doing it: as you note, yes, to focus our attention on one individual, for dramatic purposes, but at the same time, in all of those shots, the mass is presented with that individual in the same frame at the same time, pointing up that the mass is made up of these individuals. For the most part, when the tint is used, she is not, framing-wise, the focal point of the shot, the crowd that is being cleansed from the ghetto is, but she’s there, and would be lost in the mass without the tint.

                Once SS moves in on her and focuses on her specifically, the tint fades away and is gone by the time she’s hiding under a bed. If he had moved in on her closer to point her up in the wide shots, then she would have been indeed “the one little Jewish girl who represents ALL the Jews” (and I actually have some problems with the camera following her once she leaves the crowds for that reason) but as wide as the shot is, the balance between individual and mass is held.

                I’ve always related this to the climatic statement of the film – “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire” – that we get the “one life” and the “world entire” balanced in one shot.

                A friend of mine, pissed off by the technique, still said, “Are you telling me that with all his technical skill, Spielberg couldn’t pull that effect off without that?” but for the life of me, I’ve never figured out how he could have done the wide shots of giant crowds of people in which one person still stuck out like that (maybe in this black-and-white movie if she were the purest, most glowy-white thing in frame? of course, that brings up other, maybe-not-right associations).

                Side quote and story you may not of heard – Kubrick, who liked Schindler’s List, was still annoyed with it being described as a “Holocaust movie” – he himself had been trying to make his own “Holocaust movie” for years and hadn’t licked it to a point he was happy with. He once asked writer Frederic Raphael to name a good (non-documentary) movie in this genre, and after Raphael named a couple of obscure European films Kubrick hadn’t heard of, which he dismissed because he hadn’t heard of them, Raphael, knowing what Kubrick wanted him to say, mentioned the Spielberg film.

                Kubrick’s comment – “You think Schindler’s List is a Holocaust film? The Holocaust is the story of six million people who died. Schindler’s List is the story of 500 people who lived.”

                • Todd says:

                  Re: Colorization

                  Or, as my wife likes to say, “Leave it to Spielberg to find the one ‘feel-good’ story of the Holocaust.”

                • planettom says:

                  Re: Colorization

                  RE: Kubrick in search of a good Holocaust movie:

                  How about LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL?

    • Re: Colorization

      I can’t stand the red coat thing. For me it’s just so gimmicky it detracts from the entire sequence.

      I think my reaction to it is related to the Mamet-style reaction to the film as a whole (which I don’t share, I should add). I feel that the liquidisation sequence is not the time the director should be making obvious flashy insertions going “Look, it’s me, the director!”

    • stormwyvern says:

      Re: Colorization

      My interpretation of this scene when I first saw the film was as follows, though keep in mind that I was in high school at the time and I haven’t seen the film since, so my feelings on the scene if I saw it now may be completely different:

      Schindler views the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto from afar. As he watches the numerous scenes of chaos and suffering, something catches his eye. There’s a little girl in a red coat walking through the ghetto. She doesn’t stop, she doesn’t look at anything that’s going on around her, and (as I recall) she’s not even moving particularly fast. She seems almost completely unaware of the horrible things that are going on around her. Change the surroundings to a pleasant street in peacetime Poland where no one is being hauled off to almost certain death or killed on the spot and the girl’s action would be just the same. So in my mind, what Schindler is thinking is “How can this little girl be surrounded by all this and just walk down the street like today is no different from any other day?” This is more of the start of a turning point for Schindler. The conclusion will when he sees what ultimately happens to this little girl and realizes that trying to ignore the horrors going on around you cannot protect you from falling victim to them.

      As to the use of color in this scene and the later one, I have two theories. One is that it’s a blatant visual representation of how out of place this girl’s actions are in the scene she’s in. The other is more practical: both time’s Schindler sees her, he is at a distance by necessity, so Speilberg can’t give her the easily identifiable feature he bestows on the two kids form Act I to make sure the audience will know her when they see her again. I’m not saying this was necessarily the best solution, but I figure one or the other of these concerns (or a little of both) is why we get a splash of color in a seas of black and white.

  2. serizawa3000 says:

    Amon Goth was my introduction to Ralph Fiennes, but what kinda stuck with me in Goth’s introduction was that the first line he utters in the film features, if memory serves, the film’s first F-bomb… like the adult sex scene beforehand, it’s something heretofore unpredecedented in a Spielberg film (Well, I think in Jurassic Park Ellie spat out an F-bomb at an attacking velociraptor…)…

    • Todd says:

      “what kinda stuck with me in Goth’s introduction was that the first line he utters in the film features, if memory serves, the film’s first F-bomb…”

      That rotten Goth — not only does he murder people, he curses like a sailor.

  3. teamwak says:

    Wonderful stuff, Todd

    SL was my favourite film of all time for quite a while, until LOTR put it in number 2. It was one of very few movies that had a physical effect on me. As devestating the liquidation of the ghetto scene was, the shower scene had me physically out of my chair (watched at home) and kneeling in front of the TV shouting “No!” at the screen. Only 2 other movies ever did that – Shawshank with the roll call at the end scene, and The Matrix (I know, sorry!)at the end “He is the one!”.

    But for a piece of film choreography, and for the effect it produces I am quite happy for the liquidation scene to be considered the best scene ever put on film.

    As for the ending. Its still one film that makes me proper cry everytime I watch it “I could have done more”, “You did so much”. I’m bloody welling up now typing this!

    If I hadnt loved Lord of the Rings my entire life, this really should be the greatest film ever made in my opinion. And coming from any cinephile – that’s always saying something! And I was never really the same after watching it too.

    Cant wait for part 3.

  4. ndgmtlcd says:

    “the dependence of bureaucracy on the Nazi mind”. It’s nothing else than the dependence of bureaucracy on the German mind. It’s called “Deutsche ordnung”.

    By the way, Polish jews often knew German, and Germans who lived in Poland (there were a lot, caught up in there with the creation of Poland after WWI) didn’t know Polish. So, Spielberg’s use of German might have been to single out the demons but it also reflected an historical reality.

  5. “Today is history. Today will be remembered. Years from now the young will ask with wonder about this day. Today is history and you are part of it. Six hundred years ago when elsewhere they were footing the blame for the Black Death, Casimir the Great – so called – told the Jews they could come to Krakow. They came. They trundled their belongings into the city. They settled. They took hold. They prospered in business, science, education, the arts. With nothing they came and with nothing they flourished. For six centuries there has been a Jewish Krakow. By this evening those six centuries will be a rumor. They never happened. Today is history.”

    A terrifying evocative speech.

  6. “Today is history. Today will be remembered. Years from now the young will ask with wonder about this day. Today is history and you are part of it. Six hundred years ago when elsewhere they were footing the blame for the Black Death, Casimir the Great – so called – told the Jews they could come to Krakow. They came. They trundled their belongings into the city. They settled. They took hold. They prospered in business, science, education, the arts. With nothing they came and with nothing they flourished. For six centuries there has been a Jewish Krakow. By this evening those six centuries will be a rumor. They never happened. Today is history.”

    A terrifying evocative speech.