Spielberg: Schindler’s List part 4

In Act I of Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler grabs the coat-tails of history to build an enamelware factory. In Act II, history turns to bite the hand clutching at its coat-tails and takes it away from him. (“Today is history” says Goth as he cheerleads his men into liquidating the Krakow ghetto.) In Act III, Schindler manages to get back onto those coat-tails — at a price. free web site hit counter

Guess what happens in Act IV? You’re right! History decides to take the factory away from him — again. In a way, you could say that Schindler’s List is a movieabout a man struggling against titanic forces of history, in the form of the Nazi movement, working with them when it benefits him, even though they are evil, then working with them while it still benefits him, while also trying to make them a teeny bit less evil, and finally working against them, through sacrifice and trickery, and giving up on the whole “trying to change them” idea.

(In the movie, Schindler says that war is the one thing that was always missing from his business endeavors. And while the movie doesn’t really get to it, it’s worth mentioning that the real-life Schindler couldn’t keep a business going to save his life [so to speak]. War, in the movie, makes him his fortune and gets him lots of good times and women, but it also gains him his posthumous reputation as a saint. In each regard, Schindler would have been an utter failure if not for war. Historical forces really did conspire to create and then destroy this man.)

1:55:45-1:58:35 — Act IV of Schindler’s List begins with two oddly-placed, quiet little scenes.

First, we see Schindler at a party, where a Jewish woman and girl present him with a cake, apparently baked by Jewish prisoners at Plaszow (although the script doesn’t specify). He kisses the girl on the cheek and the woman on the lips, as the Germans in the room glare and the woman herself freezes in horror. So here, at the top of Act IV, Schindler, we see, is still a little clueless and still addicted to his passions: he kisses the Jewish woman in spite of the fact that he’s endangering her life by doing so. The scene works well enough as a character beat, but it’s real significance doesn’t get answered for another fifteen minutes or so.

Second, we see a group of Jewish women in a Plaszow barracks, gossiping about “what they’ve heard” about Auschwitz. This scene is a rough parallel to a similar scene at the top of Act II, where we see Jews amongst themselves instead of as in relation to Schindler. The scene in Act II gives us a glimpse of life inside the ghetto before it is liquidated; here, of course, there is a dark foreboding at work.

(Throughout Act IV the question keeps arising, who knows what about Auschwitz when? Goth seems to know so much about it that he’s sloppy about who he tells, which indicates that everyone in his circle knows about it. Schindler seems to know about it, or enough to know it’s a bad thing, but needs to find out that all his workers will be moved there before he is moved to act on their behalf.)

1:58:35 – 2:06: 44 — Act IV proper begins with the excruciating “Selektion” sequence. There is a “new shipment” of workers coming in to the camp, and Goth needs to winnow out the deadwood from Plaszow. He could be a manager at any large factory, faced with redundancy and needing to cut staff. The only difference is that instead of laying off redundant workers, he’s sending them off to Auschwitz to be murdered.

As with the previous three acts, this one begins with another roll call, another row of folding tables, another list of names. The “list of names” motif becomes a kind of incantation, each name a life. As we begin to associate names with faces the enormity of the tragedy begins to form in our minds.

As Nazi doctors inspect the teeth and muscles of the naked Jews on the camp assembly ground, another doctor examines Goth up on the back porch of his house. It’s as though Goth is saying “See? I have to undergo this process too, I’m no better than you.” Goth’s girlfriend, who was so appalled to see him shooting Jews from this same porch back in Act III, here comes out in her silk pajamas to adore Goth and his bloated, doughy physique. Later, Goth puts on a shirt (but not the rest of his uniform) to go oversee his workers work. At first it looks like he’s merely a stickler for details, but as his activities come into focus we realize that he’s separating the Schindler Jews from the ones doomed to Auschwitz. In his mind, he’s just upholding his end of his corrupt kickback scheme with Schindler — he doesn’t think any of these people are going to survive the war.

On the list of redundant workers are, apparently, all the children in the camp, and surely one of the most arresting sequences in this movie of arresting sequences is a kind of “liquidation in miniature” as we follow a boy in a cap, who we’ve only glimpsed before in Act I, as he tries to find a hiding place somewhere in the camp. As Spielberg indulges in a dependable emotional sucker-punch, mothers separated from their children, the boy tries to hide in a half-dozen places before finally ending up under a barracks latrine, chest-deep in human waste — only to find the space already occupied by a half-dozen other children, the “girl in glasses” among them. Like the scene with Levertov in the previous act, the “boy in the cap” sequence is so unbelievable that I’m inclined to believe it. The movie is asking us to believe that these escaped children ran from guards, hid, and then somehow escaped detection until they were able to get out of the camp? And yet, they do.

2:06:44-2:10:19 — Schindler stops by the camp, for reasons unrevealed, apparently to hang out with his Nazi pals while the redundant workers are loaded onto train cars bound for Auschwitz. He asks Goth to hose down the train cars, so that the Jews inside might have some water to drink on their way. Goth laughs at the suggestion but goes along with it, saying that Schindler is showing true cruelty by giving the doomed hope. In any case, we see here an incremental shift in Schindler’s attitude, and a desire to do something that will not directly benefit himself. (On the “Holocaust awareness” front, this scene indicates to me that Goth certainly knows at this point that the workers are doomed, and it almost indicates that Schindler knows.)

2:10:19-2:15:00 — The Gestapo arrest Schindler for kissing the Jewish girl at the top of the act. Goth, trying to protect Schindler in order to protect his kickbacks, defends Schindler as a free-range womanizer to the unsmiling Nazi officers in charge of the case. When that fails, he falls back on his standard argument: Jewish women are she-devils who lure good Germans with their evil magic. In the previous act, Schindler made the almost-fatal mistake of confusing his morality with Goth’s. Here, Goth returns the favor, presenting his own feelings about Jews as a defense for Schindler’s actions. This gets him into even more trouble, which he tries to get out of by bribing the official — again, bringing the whole narrative back to the level of “business.”

My DVD of Schindler’s List breaks the movie in two at this point, just as the Nazi official in charge of Schindler’s case informs him, in his euphemistic way, that exterminating Jews “is policy now.” Which is, I’m guessing, the first time Schindler has this eventuality made clear to him. In any case, my timecode, of necessity, starts over here.

0:00-2:30 — Next thing we know, Schindler is walking down the street and is disturbed to find ash falling down out of the sky. The war is pressing on, and the Nazis, feeling the pressure, have ordered Goth to exhume the bodies of the people he had killed during Act II and burned in a gigantic pyre. Goth handles this task the way a harried middle-manager would handle any cockamamie scheme dictated from above: he sighs and cavils and gets on with it as best he can.

The spectacle of the exhumation, and the emotional sucker-punch of Schindler noticing the dead body of the “girl in the red coat”, are both so strong that it’s easy to miss the expository point to the scene: the Nazis are shutting down Plaszow and shipping all the Jews to Auschwitz. To Schindler this means that his factory is shutting down again, to Goth it means that the gravy train he shares with Schindler is pulling out of the station without him. “The party’s over, Oskar,” sighs Goth, “They’re shutting us down.”

2:30-4:40 — Schindler goes to Stern, in another parallel to their Act I meeting, to dissolve the business and discuss further plans. Schindler has decided to quit while he’s ahead and take his money back to Germany. Stern asks him about the business, and Schindler, paraphrasing Scrooge, tells him “You were my business.” If that’s the case, it seems to only be occurring to Schindler now — it was only an act ago that Schindler was outraged that Stern was smuggling invalids into the factory. This admission seems to be enough for Stern, who finally acquiesces to his offer of a drink. Stern approves of Schindler now, so we do too.

4:40-5:54 — Schindler, at this point, could take his war-profiteering millions and head for the hills, but the next thing we see is him in his luxury apartment (the one commandeered from the Jewish family on the day of the liquidation) with his naked mistress-of-the-day asleep in his bed, packed and ready to go, his trunks full of Reichmarks filling the dining room. Looking around at all this (and with Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” playing on the radio) Schindler comes to a decision.

5:54-7:20 — Schindler goes to Goth, in a parallel to a scene from Act III, to set up another business venture. He’s going to open a munitions factory in Czechoslovakia, and he’s going to buy “his” workers from Goth to staff it. Goth can’t wrap his head around the idea: he can’t see the profit in the situation.

7:20-11:30 — In the movie’s signature scene, Schindler and Stern compose “the list” of names of the Jews who will be removed from Plaszow and taken to Czechoslovakia (intercut with scenes of Schindler trying, and failing, to persuade other industrialists to do likewise). The weight of all those earlier roll-call scenes is brought to bear upon this one. It is both a clever “reversal” of those scenes (roll is called in the earlier scenes to find who will die, here it is called to find who will live) and a distillation of the movie’s theme: business vs. lives. Schindler is taking all the money he made through his business and exchanging it for lives, just as, in Act III, he exchanged things for lives. Stern focuses the theme down to a pinpoint at the end of the sequence: holding up the papers like Moses holding the tablets, he says “The list is life.”

(And again, there is a meta-quality to this sequence as well. For, just as Schindler is, late in his career, forfeiting his wealth, in a crisis of conscience, to “save Jews,” Spielberg could be seen as doing the same. He could go on making Jaws and Jurassic Park for the rest of his career, but he has chosen, after 20 years in movies, to risk it all on a desperately un-commercial project, shot in a hugely un-commercial manner. To “save Jews”? Perhaps, but more likely to save his own soul as an artist. The fact that Schindler’s List went on to become a huge moneymaker obviously gnawed at Spielberg: it’s one thing to create a searing vision of the Holocaust, it’s another thing entirely to have that vision make a ton of money.)

11:30-13:00 — Schindler takes a suitcase full of money to bribe Goth to transport his workers to Czechoslovakia, and plays him a hand of 21 to get Helen away from him as well. (Goth, in what surely must be his weakest moment, anemically protests against Schindler taking Helen, and spins a fantasy of taking her “back home to Vienna” to grow old with him, a fantasy so absurd that he seems to recognize it for what it is the moment it leaves his lips.)


11 Responses to “Spielberg: Schindler’s List part 4”
  1. teamwak says:

    I am always amazed by the extras Spielberg got for this. In the scenes in the camp he has a mass of people, many obviously quite old, strip naked and run through the mud. They look like local village people, not the usual extras you see in movies.

    I suppose that the seriousness of the subject matter, and that it was filmed on location probably made the local people have a strong connection to the story. The reality of the scene, followed by the heartbreaking scene with the children makes the movie shift forward into some nightmare documertary. It feels that the story is taking a backseat to the events. Its like Schindler, Goth, and the Jews are all now pawns in a much bigger story – powerless to control their own destinies anymore

    • Todd says:

      Spielberg famously advertised for Jews in Krakow to use for extras, only to learn that, fifty years after the liquidation of the ghetto, there were still no Jews there to put in the movie. I can’t remember now where the extras for the selektion sequence came from, but it’s another terrific scene from a master of crowd scenes.

  2. stormwyvern says:

    It’s a rare movie where one of the main iconic images that gets used repeatedly in the advertising campaign is a young boy standing up to his chest in human waste. (Though since the movie is in black and white, viewers who hadn’t seen the film yet may not have recognized it as such, but still.)

    I have an easier time believing that this scene is based on something slightly less incredible, such as one child hiding in a latrine and escaping possible death, at least for a time. As with the Levertov scene, this incident could be suggesting that a person could survive simply because it became to much of a hassle for the Nazis present to kill him or her at that particular moment.

    Since we probably won’t be saying much more about the Girl in the Red Dress, do you have any further thoughts on her role in the film? I should probably watch the movie again, but my personal feelings about her significance have stuck with me since last I saw it. Schindler’s look as he sees her body among those being incinerated strikes me as one of shock and recognition, but not so much at the idea that a child has been killed. It hadn’t occurred to me before that Schindler could be unaware at this point of just how much killing is going on and that not even children are being spared. I’m still not convinced that he doesn’t already know this. To me, it’s much more powerful if this is the moment when he realizes that just trying to go on with your normal daily life, walking by the atrocities and acting as if you don’t see them, will not save you.

    Does the DVD include any of the scenes cut from the film? I’m looking on Amazon and I can’t figure it out. I know of two: a scene of a train car opening up and dead bodies falling out, and one of the actual game of 21 where Schindler wins Helen from Goth. If the doe exist, I’d be curious to hear if you think the omissions of the scenes were sound choices or if their presence could have added to the film.

    • Scenes like the one with the boy in the latrine and the previously mentioned empty shotgun are described repeatedly in survivors’ accounts. Also, the girl in the red coat is based on a real person; before shooting Spielberg made a point of talking to the survivors and the witnesses of the liquidation of the ghetto. He was intrigued about how many mentioned the girl in the red coat and decided to put her in the film. Her name is Roma Ligocka and she’s Polanski cousin. I met her at a book signing (she wrote a memoir titled The Girl In The Red Coat).

      • And while you may wonder why I’m flooding you with Schindler’s List trivia- my step dad played one of the Nazis and was happy to provide all sorts of tasty tidbits.. All the Polish actors were pretty hyped about working on the film, and you know how it is with actors and anecdotes.

      • And to be entirely exhaustive, the boy who tried to hide in the latrine is Ryszard Horowitz, a photographer, the youngest child to have survived the liquidation of the ghetto and also a cousin of Polanski’s. Whew.

        • Todd says:

          No wonder Polanski was such good friends with Jerzy Kozinski. It’s impossible for us to imagine at this point a childhood made up of these kinds of experiences.

    • Todd says:

      For a long time I defended the Girl in the Red Coat as a pivotal dramatic moment, saying that Spielberg could not have propelled the action into the fifth act, with Schindler renouncing everything he stood for, if he had not included the scene. Now I’m not so sure. As I say, the image of the dead girl is so effective that it’s easy to miss that the purpose of the scene is to inform us that Plaszow is shutting down. The scene would still work, dramatically, without the Girl in the Red Coat.

      And so we are back to Spielberg making a choice. Emotionally, what the image of GitRC does is bring an abstraction inarguably into reality — “the liquidation” being an abstraction, “the GitRC” being an inarguable reality. Schindler was there, he saw the GitRC, and now, years later, he’s presented, in an inarguable dramatic way, the summation of his actions from then to now. He did not act then, and this innocent girl is dead now. Since seeing her, he’s been thinking “well, they’re not so bad, well, it could be worse, well, at least I’m a nice guy, well, at least I don’t murder my workers”, etc. Seeing the GitRC says, without any words, “All that is bullshit — this is not a time for moral equivocation, I could have acted and I didn’t.”

      The choice Spielberg made to get across this idea is one typical for him — a fluid, purely cinematic device that is read so easily and so clearly that its impact seems beyond calculation.

      The DVD doesn’t contain any deleted scenes that I know of. It has a short documentary on “the real Schindler” and a longer one about the Shoah Foundation.

      • Anonymous says:

        Spielberg says as much on his appearance on Inside The Actor’s Studio:

        “I wanted the little girl to wear red, because I wanted her to wave a flag that could not be denied; that the holocaust was happening, it was happening to a girl that stood out so clearly…at that time, to every civilized country that the holocaust was occuring. And yet England and Russia and America turned their backs on this, and didn’t do anything to impede the industrialized flow of souls and bodies to ashes.”