Spielberg: Schindler’s List part 5

Schindler’s List is a movie about a man who is powerfully motivated to succeed in business. His journey, from Act I to Act V, shows how he comes to define that success.

In Act I, Schindler sets up his business in the context of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to exploit history and human suffering. In Act II, history responds in the form of Goth, a purely evil man who takes Schindler’s business away from him. In Act III, Schindler exploits Goth’s character flaws to make a deal with the devil and re-build his business. In Act IV, Goth’s boss, Hitler, shuts down Goth’s business and, in the process, shuts down Schindler’s business again as well. As he moves through these acts, Schindler becomes aware that success in business comes with a price, and the price is paid in human lives. This, after a long process of changes, forces him to consider the balance of materialism vs life.

In Act V, Schindler rebuilds his business yet again, but this time with a completely different focus. Instead of creating a business that exploits human lives and makes him a fortune, he structures his new business to squander a fortune but preserve human lives. In this way, it becomes not a “Holocaust movie” or even necessarily a “WWII movie,” but a drama about the hidden costs of capitalism.

Again, my timecodes are keyed to the DVD’s format — so, starting with “side two” of the DVD…

13:00 -15:03: The final act of Schindler’s List, like the acts preceding it, begins with a roll call: another list of names, another recitation by Germans. The difference here is that where there was once a sea of faces, a panoply of “humanity,” now there are only a handful, and by this point we recognize almost everyone’s faces, and this roll call, instead of announcing the names of the doomed, is announcing the names of the saved (Act V of Schindler’s List is structured, in many ways, almost as a mirror of Act I, as we will see). There’s the kid in the cap, somehow alive after being rejected from the latrine during the last selektion, there’s the little girl in the glasses, now with her mother, there’s Helen Hirsch, and there’s even Goldberg, the “Bad Jew” from the ghetto who turned into a policeman when the going got rough. His inclusion on the list I find intriguing and hopeful: Spielberg seems to be saying that, in spite of his behavior, Goldberg, as a Jew in Cracow, is more sinned against than sinning, as it were, and thus deserves to be saved along with the people he betrayed. It’s a small moment but it keeps registering with me. The last boy named is a one we haven’t met before, a gawky, bespectacled kid named Edward Hillman, who bears a startling resemblance to a teenaged Spielberg: it seems he felt a need to include himself on the list of the saved.

15:03-17:00: Welcome to Brinnlitz! The trains out of Cracow arrive in Schindler’s home town — at least the trains carrying the men. The Nazi officer in charge of overseeing Schindler’s new factory is anxious to make a good impression with the millionaire industrialist, but let’s face it, he’s no Goth, he’s an ordertaker, and Schindler baffles him — another point where Act V reverses the actions of Act I, the Nazi officer tries to ingratiate himself with Schindler instead of the other way around.

17:00-30:13: The train carrying the women from Cracow arrives not in Brinnlitz but in Auschwitz. In a movie bristling with striking, powerful sequences of human suffering and evil, Spielberg here seeks to get to the kernel of the Holocaust, a look into the mouth of the beast. He puts the women of the story (the same ones who, an act or two earlier, were shown talking themselves out of the possibility of the existence of Auschwitz) through the most degrading and horrifying ordeal imaginable — and then, oddly, pulls his punch. Not that we want the women to all die, quite far from it. But the sequence, for all its power, and as unblinking as it is visually, for me somehow sits uncomfortably in the rest of the narrative. As we see the women stripped down, shaved and degraded, I can’t help but be reminded by Mamet’s comment that holocaust movies are a form of pornography, a fantasy of absolute power and absolute submission. If that notion is true, this sequence comes close to literalizing it, and, with its desire to show but not show, to take us to the edge of mass death and then back off, feels like a kind of a tease. Spielberg seems all too aware of the moral quandaries involved in making an entertainment about this kind of atrocity at all, and the viewer is implicated in that quandary several times in Schindler’s List: we want to see, we want to know, we want the experience, but at the same time the notion of consuming these kinds of images is, or should be, deeply troubling. Maybe that’s why Spielberg takes us all the way to the brink of the realityof the Holocaust but then spares us the ultimate truth — there are some places he simply can’t bring his camera to look. (Kubrick said that Schindler’s List isn’t a “holocaust movie”, because holocaust movies are about the six million Jews who died, and Schindler’s List is about the 1100 who lived, and the Auschwitz sequence boils that notion down to 13 minutes.)

(It’s my understanding that the Auschwitz sequence is not part of the historical record or the novel on which Schindler’s List is based. This does not affect my appreciation of the sequence, but it does raise questions about why it was included. It seems as though Spielberg, understanding that his would be considered some kind of “definitive” Holocaust movie, felt that it must include a glimpse of Auschwitz in order to feel comprehensive. This is also troubling, as it implies that a movie-going audience would walk out of the theater griping “What kind of a Holocaust movie was that? He didn’t even show us Auschwitz! What a rip!”)

In another inversion of a scene in Act I, Schindler, in his pursuit of getting the women freed from Auschwitz, goes to a Nazi officer and makes the same deal he made to Itzak Stern: in the coming months, “portable wealth” is the only kind that will mean anything. He bribes the officer with a pouch of diamonds, and officer dyspeptically admits that the trouble of clearing “his” Jews is largely one of troublesome paperwork.

30:13-31:36: The women and children, now rescued from Auschwitz, arrive in Brinnlitz. In a kind of echo to Goth’s Act II speech to his soldiers, Schindler lectures the Nazi guards as to what he considers proper behavior in his camp. The shoe is definitely on the other foot in Act V, and yet Schindler, still the good-time Charlie, follows his veiled threats with a welcome-basket of beer.

32:50-33:15: In yet another inversion, Schindler tracks down his wife and assures her of her place in his life. In his shedding of his identity as a businessman, he seems intent on acquring a new identity as a mensch.

33:15-34:40: Stern asks Schindler about the nature of this new business. Again, this is an inversion of Schindler’s Act I dealings with Stern: then, he was the grinning smoothie who understood nothing about running things and Stern was the man with all the secrets, now Stern is the confused accountant and Schindler is the man with the secret. Here, the secret is revealed: Schindler’s new business is designed not to make money but to shed it, and to shed it in great quantities. Stern worries that the plan might attract the attention of the authorities, which Schindler answers with yet more money — it seems like he won’t be happy until all his money is gone.

34:40-36:44: Schindler reminds Rabbi Levertov of his duties. The factory shuts down on a Friday sunset and sabbath is observed again. The candles used in the scene bloom into color, linking them to the candles of the title sequence, symbolizing the renewal of hope.

36:44-37:15: In a few brief minutes, and after an explanatory title card, Schindler’s impulse for Act V is fulfilled: he is broke, worse off than he was at the beginning of Act I.

37:15-38:00: Just in time, the war ends.

38:00-47:28: Schindler assembles the cast in his factory and delivers a speech, outlining the ironies of the current situation. Once a prosperous businessman, the end of the war has turned him into a war criminal. This is quite a bit worse than where he began his journey. A lot of people lose their patience with Schindler with this scene, with its grandstanding tone and sanctimony, and it bugged me for a while too, but now it’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie. At the end of a long movie filled with intense conflicts and extensive degradation, Schindler here brings the story to a place of universal truths (and, not coincidentally, a place where Spielbergis very comfortable): the family. Schindler has worked to bring families back together, and he enjoins the Germans in the room to go back to their families as well, while they still posess shreds of their humanity.

Out in the railyard, Stern, the “good Jew”, Schindler’s Jiminy Cricket, gives him a ring, forged from the gold tooth of one of his workers (an echo of an Act III scene). The ring’s enscription reads “He who saves one life saves the world entire.” For years I thought this beat was simply too much, all we need, dramatically, is for Stern to approve of Schindler, to say, essentially, “That’ll do, pig,” it seemed a little over the top that Stern would present Schindler with a ring like a high-school quarterback after winning the big game. Then I found out that this is, apparently, exaclty what happened. So go figure.

In any case, Stern’s climactic approval of Schindler gives Schindler the exact opposite of comfort. Instead, the man who was once obsessed with making a fortune in business is reduced to a quivering mass of sorrow and regret as he realizes how much more he could have achieved by giving more away. His suit, his car, and finally that Nazi pin, the pin we first saw him put on in his introdutory scene in Act I, all could have been traded in for more lives. The “things vs lives” motif, developed from the beginning of the movie, is here focused down to a literal pinpoint.

47:28-end: Schindler, whom we met as he was getting dressed up in his nice suit to go impress the Nazis, we now leave as he sheds his suit and puts on the clothes of a prisoner. “His” Jews are left behind in the rail yard: why they don’t wait inside the factory I’m not sure. In any case, they are greeted, one morning soon after I suppose, by a Russian soldier come to “liberate” them. Their liberation is short-lived, as the Russian soldier (who, I’ve learned, was also a Jew) informs them that there’s no place in the area they are welcome.

Then comes the curtain call, which, I’m not ashamed to say, just floors me every time. I know it’s manipulative, I know it pushes the boundaries of taste, but something about seeing the movie’s cast members standing next to the people they’re playing as they file past Schindler’s grave just gets to me every time, brings the narrative into the “real world” in a way that I’ve rarely seen replicated (until, of course, Saving Private Ryan).


13 Responses to “Spielberg: Schindler’s List part 5”
  1. swan_tower says:

    Then I found out that this is, apparently, exaclty what happened. So go figure.

    I’m running into this with the historical fantasies I’ve been writing lately. Details I would never make up, or if I did, would never include in a story, because they seem way too over-the-top . . . but that’s what really happened. (Who imprisons their political enemies in a place called Hell? Seriously!)

    Finding out details like that is, for my money, one function of a commentary track. And I love it when they’re included.

    • rennameeks says:

      Sometimes we get so caught up in analyzing the over-the-top antics of fiction that we forget that such things actually occur in reality as well for the same dramatic reasons as they do in fantasy.

  2. Anonymous says:

    When I asked about when this was coming, I didn’t expect it so soon! Thank you!

    -Ted H.

  3. stormwyvern says:

    Yay! Whining produces results! I hope I didn’t make too much of a pest of myself, but I’ve seen writers on the internet who start numerous multipart articles and never finish any of them, so I really wanted to see you finish out this.

    Is it this act where Schindler argues that he needs the children because their tiny hands allow them to perform certain essential tasks at the factory? It doesn’t really matter, but it’s a scene that has stuck with me for some reason.

    The women arriving at Auschwitz is kind of odd, especially in light of the fact that it isn’t drawn from real life or the book. But it does serve to ramp up the uncertainty level in a film where most of the audience probably already knows the basic plot and outcome. And it highlights the idea that something as mundane and simple as a shower producing water can seem like a miracle in the context of the Holocaust.

    Manipulative though it may be, the “curtain call” is also a particularly effective example of “show, don’t tell.” Speilberg could have just given us a shot of each of the actors with a text rundown of what happened to them later in life. A simple “a true story” credit would have also served. (Though it would probably have to be “based on a true story,” what with moments like the Auschwitz scene and the fact that I remember reading somewhere that not only was Schindler’s whole guilt-stricken breakdown fictionalized, he actually later had the real ring melted down and sold.) But what better way to really drive the point home than to show the real people who actually live through the events we’ve just seen paying tribute at the grave of the real man who was responsible for them still being alive today? It certainly sticks with people much more than the text explanation would.

    • Todd says:

      “something as mundane and simple as a shower producing water can seem like a miracle in the context of the Holocaust.”

      Now that I think of it, it’s also a good example of the Spielberg “stand the idea on its head” philosophy. The one time we expect the worst? Stand it on its head! It turns out it’s just a shower!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Don’t forget:

    Spielberg cuts away from the Schindler Jews marching to show Goeth’s humiliating and painful death. This always strikes me because it comes so close to both the curtain-call and the news that Schindler was a failure at every other business venture he risked. Spielberg has spent more than three hours showing Schindler learning and using his power for good and almost feels he has to show Goeth’s being crushed as a consequence of being a unrepentant bastard. Do you think it’s necessary to show Goeth again, after the heroes have *won* for all intents and purposes, or is it necessary for some sort of catharsis? You’re almost scared just to see him again but you’re hardly relieved when he’s choking to death, just grateful 1100 got away from him.

    Ralph Fiennes also totally sells by raising his arm in what you think is a Nazi salute only to comb his hair.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Don’t forget:

      Cutting to Goth’s death in the middle of the curtain call, I think, is partly to visually close a big part of the movie (it’s been 35 minutes or so since we’ve seen him, and it’s not like Spielberg to leave an antagonist hanging — er, so to speak) and partly just to rub Goth’s face in the smallness and poverty of his goals.

      The only weird thing about the shot of Goth dying is that, on the DVD anyway, there is a white title superimposed over the scene telling us what’s going on, but the image is so bright you can’t read most of it.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Not my favorite Spielberg film, but your commentary (as always) was edifying and illuminating. I’m writing MOSTLY to say don’t take to long to get to “Private Ryan,” which I consider to be his masterwork.

  6. curt_holman says:

    Spielberg ’93: Velociraptors attack Auschwitz

    I think you alluded to this earlier, but it’s fascinating the way Spielberg followed the terrific “popcorn movie” fright scenes from Jurassic Park with the real, this-really-happened horrors of Schindler’s List — in the same year.

    One of the shots I remember most from List comes at his factory speech at the end, when he’s standing on a platform that’s just above the level of the Jewish workers, but significantly below the other Germans, showing that he doesn’t really belong in either group, but he’s closer to the Jews. Sometimes I wonder whether shots like that are too “on the nose,” but I usually like them too much to want to complain.

    “For years I thought this beat was simply too much, all we need, dramatically, is for Stern to approve of Schindler, to say, essentially, “That’ll do, pig,””

    I had similar feelings about “The list is life” speech, particular that piece of dialogue.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Spielberg ’93: Velociraptors attack Auschwitz

      I think Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List is still the greatest one-two punch in movie history. Although I’m guessing, with a little research, I could find a year when John Ford put out three classics in a year, I’ll bet at least two of those were westerns.

      Not only is Schindler placed between the Germans and the Jews, they show him crossing himself during the “moment of silence,” his cross ending, of course, on his Nazi pin.

  7. teamwak says:

    The whole ending is one of the best pieces of cinema ever. The whole ring scene and saying ” I could have done more” “You did so much” make me cry everytime, as does the curtain call.

    And the scene in the showers was probably the most visceral movie experience I ever had. Waiting for the gas to come, then for it to be water was like a punch in the gut

  8. xiaohuang says:

    Cheap Jordans

    Your essay is good! Photograph good-looking! Obviously. Simple language, concise blog! Another kind of style! I like! Thank you for sharing! I wish you good luck!
    by Cheap Jordans