Spielberg: Schindler’s List part 3

Act I of Schindler’s List delineates how Oskar Schindler uses his contacts with the Nazi regime in Poland to build a successful enamelware factory in Krakow in World War II. Act II shows how Amon Goth’s liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto undoes Schindler’s dream — by denying him his factory workers. Act III shows how Schindler goes to Goth to, essentially, re-close the deal. “Re-closing the deal” is something Spielberg is, no doubt, exhaustively familiar with — it’s something movie directors have to do all the time when dealing with studio executives who have the power to green-light your movie. Nazis, studio executives — what’s the difference?hitcounter

Act III of Schindler’s List, I find, is a little more difficult to define than the first two acts. It’s a transitional act and has a lot more on its mind. The main thrust of the act is to show how, in this new war-time economy, “things” can be used to barter in exchange for “lives”. Spielberg takes a substantial amount of screen-time to get this idea across visually instead of just having someone tell us about it. In addition, the act burrows deep into the mind of Goth, to see if perhaps there is any humanity there. One could even say that Schindler’s List spends more time trying to save Goth than it does trying to save any other individual — a salvation Goth considers and then refuses.

1:13:41-1:17:14 — Act III opens with Goth on his balcony on a fine sunny morning, shirtless, watching over his labor camp. Schindler’s business may have just failed, but Goth’s is off to a swell start and he’s feeling his oats. Everyone we “know” is lined up for roll call — another roll call, another list of names. Spielberg begins each act of Schindler’s List with a scene like this, as though re-introducing us to the cast, catching us up on who’s alive and who is not, reciting their names over and over.

Goth, anxious to make his authority clear, decides to shoot a few workers from his balcony. This wakes up the blond in his bed, who is appalled at his behavior. It becomes clear that, for Goth, the gun is a penis substitute — when he’s finished shooting Jews, he goes into the bedroom and “discharges his shell” onto the blond’s naked breasts, then goes to urinate in the bathroom.

1:17:14-1:21:30 — Schindler comes to Plaszow to re-close the deal. He meets with some of his Nazi friends. Helen Hirsch, who will figure significantly in the act, is there serving. Schindler, livid about his business closing, nevertheless plays politics and jokes with the Nazis — they are his clients, after all, there’s no point in making them angry.

Once he gets alone with Goth, however, Schindler’s true feelings come out. In a parallel scene to one in Act I with Stern, Schindler cuts a deal with Goth to re-start his business. Instead of cajoling Stern, however, here he schools Goth, insisting that his business concerns trump whatever Goth’s objectives are in Krakow.

(Which raises the question: what are Goth’s objectives in Krakow? Yes, he’s a Nazi, we know that — but what does Goth want? Because Goth has the burden of standing in for “all Nazis”, the temptation is to say that Goth wants “to kill all the Jews.” Which is an over-simplification. Which is not to say that Goth does not want “to kill all the Jews,” but only to say that that is not his stated objective in Krakow. Goth’s stated objective is to run his work camp efficiently and thus gain favor from his superiors. His murder of random workers is, in his mind anyway, subservient to his goal of running his work camp efficiently. Plaszow was certainly a horrible place, but it was not a death camp — extermination was someone else’s job.)

(Of course, in practice Goth’s objective is to use his position of power, as camp commander, to terrify and kill — a psychological goal unrelated to gaining promotion.  One of Schindler’s blunders is to confuse Goth’s stated objective with his real objective, to confuse a monster with a human being.)

Schindler demands his workers back from Goth. Is he concerned for them personally, or is he primarily concerned about profit? I would say that profit is still his primary goal here. Polish workers, we have learned, cost more than Jewish workers (probably more so, now that Jewish workers don’t exist in Krakow anymore). Plus, if he re-staffed his factory he’d have to re-train everyone and incur all the start-up costs associated with that. The first half of Schindler’s List takes great care to show that Schindler isn’t some kind of Jew-lover — if anything, it repeatedly shows him to be a dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist who treats everyone equally — that is, in terms of how they can benefit his agenda. He goes to the Krakow ghetto looking for investors in Act I because he knows that these people are in a bind and will be looking to turn their currency into things, not because he loves Jews or hates them. (And, as we shall see, he will soon be the one turning things into lives.)

Goth agrees to let Schindler have his workers back — at a price, the price being regular kickbacks and gratuities. Goth, we see, is not just a black-hearted Jew-hating Nazi: he’s also a corrupt businessman. Goth’s corruption slid right by me in my first few viewings of Schindler’s List, but it makes perfect sense when you view the character as a reflection of Schindler — they’re both pragmatic businessmen who owe their very careers to wartime excess, running factories, only with different attitudes toward their workers.

1:21:30-1:23:04 – The workers come back to work at Schindler’s enamelware factory and he is back in business. The difference is, Stern now cooks the books for Goth instead of for Schindler — Schindler is, if I understand the situation correctly, re-defining his position as a contractor by sub-contracting under Goth’s command. The enamelware factory is now Goth’s, and Goth is letting Schindler keep some (most, actually) of the profits.

1:23:04-1:26:10 – There’s a big party at Goth’s house — to celebrate Goth’s new deal with Schindler? Schindler is there, drinking and womanizing right alongside Goth. He takes time to go talk to Stern, as Stern will not be allowed back to the enamelware factory. Stern tries to tell Schindler all the things he needs to attend to in order to keep the business running smoothly, but Schindler can’t keep it all straight. “It gives me a headache!” he whines — Schindler’s unwillingness to master a few business concepts (like “bookkeeping”) take precedence over Stern’s predicament — if the business goes poorly, Schindler may have to go back to Germany but Stern will most likely be executed. Nevertheless, Schindler is developing a soft spot for Stern in his situation and gives him some delicacies from the party — delicacies Stern most likely created the capital to Schindler to buy them with. Stern, noting the change in Schindler’s attitude, almost thanks him for the gesture.

(Don’t forget, Stern is our “moral compass” for the movie — until Stern approves of Schindler, we cannot approve of him either.)

1:26:10-1:38:30 — This middle chunk of the act is all about setting up the notion of trading things for lives. It’s a series of short stories, really, telling us an anecdote about one worker, then another, then another, and then showing how that worker gained a position, through Stern, at Schindler’s factory.

The first story we see is about Levertov. Levertov works in the metalworks at Plaszow, and Goth, looking to make some labor cuts, picks a gripe with Levertov’s output. He drags him out back (with a trainyard looming ominously in the background) and tries to shoot him in the head. His gun will not fire, and the guns of his underlings refuse to fire as well. (Goth, of course, has no legitimate complaint against Levertov — he’s addicted to murdering people and he’s been put in a position where he may do so freely, and so he will find any excuse he can in order to do so. Ifan excuse does not exist, he will make one up. If one cannot be made up, he’ll do it anyway.) The sudden dysfunctional-gun epidemic is played as a kind of dark comedy, and plays up Goth’s impotence. It’s one thing if Goth must use a gun to take the place of his penis, but how doubly frustrating it must be for him to not be able to shoot a gun as well. The scene is so patently absurd that I have to assume that it actually happened.

The next thing we know, Schindler delivers a plush new saddle to Goth as a kickback and gives a valuable lighter to Stern. Stern gives the lighter to Goldberg (the “bad Jew” from Act I), Goldberg puts Levertov’s name on “the good list” and Levertov is transferred to Schindler’s factory.

The next story is about the boy we saw in Act II, protecting the girl in glasses during the liquidation sequence (the boy who knows how to put them in “the good line”). A chicken has been stolen, and Goth shoots a man at random, threatening to keep shooting until someone confesses. The boy steps forward and tearfully confesses that the dead man is, in fact, the one who stole the chicken. For this act of bravery/chutzpah, Schindler gives Stern a cigarette case, the cigarette case goes to Goldberg, and Goldberg puts the boy on the rolls of Schindler’s factory.

The third story, which is a little more complicated, involves a woman who got out of the ghetto before liquidation and has been hiding in the suburbs of Krakow. Her parents are in Plaszow and she wants them to be transferred to Schindler’s factory. She comes to see Schindler at his factory, and Schindler refuses to see her. She comes back again done up as a slut, and gains admittance. She pleads her case to Schindler, telling him that she’s heard that no one dies in his factory. Schindler is appalled by this news — while it’s true that he doesn’t murder workers at random, he apparently has no idea that he’s being played by Stern as a Jew-lover. Either that, or he’s aware he’s being played to some extent but he’s concerned that the woman is a German spy being sent to entrap him.

In either case, Schindler goes to Stern and explodes. He’s livid that Stern has put him in such an uncomfortable position, and even tells him that he needs to look at the situation from Goth’s point of view. Schindler, apparently, at this mid-way point of the movie, still sees Goth as a not-that-bad variation on himself — he doesn’t see that Goth is a sociopath who’s been let off the leash by a fiat of history, he sees him as an essentially good man who’s been put into a difficult situation. In any case, he gives his watch to Stern, who gives it to Goldberg, and the woman’s parents are sent to Schindler’s factory.

Schindler, in this trio of sequences, has made an incremental change in his outlook. He seems to think now that, at some level, he is responsible for the lives of his workers. Those lives, he sees, can be exchanged for things, if one is willing to work within the corrupt system that controls the whole situation.

1:38:30-1:55:45 – This final chunk of the act has two objectives — to tell the story of Helen Hirsch, the woman Goth has selected to be his housekeeper, and to give Goth a “last chance” to redeem himself. It begins and ends in Goth’s basement, with mirrored scenes of Schindler and his nemesis Goth interrogating Helen, and has a little mini-movie in the middle concerning Schindler’s attempt to rehabilitate Goth.

During yet another party at Goth’s, Schindler comes down to the basement to chat up Helen. At first we think he’s merely trying to get a leg over, but it seems that Schindler is turning over a new leaf — he’s become interested in people as people and he asks Helen to tell him her story. Once she does so, Schindler gives her a kind of benediction. This, to me, looks like Schindler’s on his own little power trip; he’s discovered that he, like Goth, has acquired the power of life and death, but he has decided to use his power for good and not evil.

His conversation with Helen leads him to go talk to Goth about the nature of the power they both share. He tries, in his best Qui-gon style, to bring Goth over to the light side and Goth, in a totally wasted state, seems willing to give it a try. He doesn’t kill his houseboy when he leaves the expensive saddle lying on the ground, he shrugs off the offense of a shirking worker, and he almost lets his houseboy off the hook when he uses the wrong cleaner in his bathtub. Then, upon reflection (literally — Goth makes the decision while looking in a mirror), Goth decides that mercy doesn’t really suit him and murders the houseboy.

Then, as though Goth has suspected all along that this narrative digression began with Helen, he storms down to the basement and confronts her. Goth’s problem with Helen, of course, is that he wants to screw her — for all we know, he’s in love with her, whatever that means to him. He can’t screw her because it goes against everything he stands for as a Nazi. Instead, he interrogates her, supplying all her answers for her, in a bizarre, self-serving monologue that reveals nothing of Helen but tunnels deep into his own brain, showing the tortured mental convolutions he must undergo in order to justify his true objective, the murder of innocent people.

This dark, psycho-sexual nightmare is intercut against a wholesome wedding scene in one of the Jewish barracks, and also a scene of Schindler enjoying “the good life” out in a nightclub. Schindler, it seems, even past the half-way point of the narrative, is trying to maintain a sense of order. While his workers run the risk of a bullet to the head on their way to work, Schindler has no trouble treating himself to a night of wine and song.


6 Responses to “Spielberg: Schindler’s List part 3”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Brilliant, particularly in your parenthetical paragraphs on Goth’s motivation and your analysis of the Helen Hirsch sequence (which has always struck me as the heart of the movie).

    • Todd says:

      The Helen Hirsch sequence is not only the heart of the movie, it is, I think a first for Spielberg, a long sequence where he concentrates almost entirely on character and hardly at all on plot, where the narrative stands still for an extended period and we get to know a little about the people on screen.

  2. slavezombie says:

    Anatomy of a film script

    What I like most about your indepth review of this feature film is how you explore the set up of conflicts and how they seem to be ambivalent for the moment, only to create relevance to the film as a whole. An example would be Oskar not being revealed too early on as the sympathizer and the similarities between him and Goeth. I never liked this film, personally. I think it will be exposed for what it is with time, a cheap ploy to raise funds the Hollywood way with the least amount of backlash to the Jewish sector.

    My opinion of it may be a result of having read the book first, as most people know, the book is always better, but when I read Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List, I became totally anti-Spielberg/(Universal).

    • Todd says:

      Re: Anatomy of a film script

      Raise funds for who?

      If Schindler’s List was designed to be a crass moneymaker for Spielberg/Universal, they went about pursuing their goal in a really weird way — shooting a three-hour period drama in black-and-white, on a shoestring budget, with no stars, in a restless, almost completely experimental style, about the ultimate of “downer” subjects. And then, to make their plans even more inscrutable, they gave away all the profits to set up a foundation. Unless you’re saying that was the plan all along. In which case, making a movie is still a really bad plan for setting up a foundation.

      I think Schindler’s List was a risk for everyone involved. Spielberg was going way out on a limb, way outside his comfort zone in almost every regard. The movie’s direction is so far beyond anything else he had done up to that point that, to me, it only disappoints in those occasional moments when it becomes recognizably Spielbergian — clever, glib and sentimental.

      I haven’t read Schindler’s List or the book you cite and I am sure that there is much more to the story. And I’m sure that Spielberg and Steve Zaillian committed all the typical sins of compression and omission inherent in the process of adaptation. I’ve been trying to avoid the “what really happened” aspects of the narrative and concentrate purely on how the script achieves its effects.

      • mimitabu says:

        Re: Anatomy of a film script

        the idea that steven spielberg would need to create some kind of front (say, a holocaust movie) to raise money (for…?) is so outrageous i can barely fathom it. the man is as wealthy as he is famous, and could (quite obviously) continually generate money simply through self-imitation if he felt like it. even assuming the most ridiculous scenarios possible (say, spielberg was trying to make enough money to buy all the drugs in the world) one wouldn’t be able to tell a sensible story that includes schindler’s list as nothing but “a cheap ploy to raise funds the Hollywood way with the least amount of backlash to the Jewish sector.” i’m stunned by the total rejection of rational thought that it would take to hold such an opinion.

  3. Todd says:

    I haven’t read the book, and reading the book may or may not illuminate — it was heavily fictionalized to begin with, and garnered a significant amount of controversy in that regard; people didn’t know whether to call it non-fiction or fiction.