Spielberg: Schindler’s List part 1

Schindler’s List, in case the reader is unaware, represents a quantum leap forward for Spielberg. It’s hard to connect this movie to the director of Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark, and almost impossible to connect it to the director of Always or 1941. The directing style is almost completely different from anything in the Spielberg canon up to this point, and the stance is shockingly “adult” in a way that no other Spielberg movie is in his first two decades in features. The idea that Spielberg directed this movie and Jurassic Park in the same year and got them both into theaters within six months of each other is still astonishing. Add to that Schindler‘s absurdly low budget ($25 million, as I recall, for a three-hour period drama featuring dozens of locations and thousands of extras) and it becomes a cinematic miracle.hitcounter

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Oskar Schindler, like many Spielberg protagonists, has an obsession that endangers his family life. Schindler’s obsession, like Peter Banning’s in Hook, is business, or more baldly stated, money. And while Schindler’s pursuit of money certainly puts a strain on his marriage, his real “family” in Schindler’s List is the 1100 Jews he “rescued” from almost certain death. The narrative of Schindler’s List, like the narratives of Always, Hook and Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, concerns the protagonist’s struggle to give up his obsession for the sake of his family. Schindler is also as thematically strong as anything in Spielberg, the themes here being “money” and “life.”

The first act of Schindler’s List goes from 0:00 – 33:00 and could be described as “How Oskar Schindler opened a successful enamelware factory in Krakow at the dawn of WWII” :

0:00-1:37 — An unidentified Jewish family in an unidentified kitchen sings as sabbath candles burn on the table. As the candles burn down, the color drains from the picture until the candle flames are the only color left. The impression is that the sequence begins in the present and then, as the candles die, we head further back into the past. When the flames die, the color is removed completely.

1:37-3:25 — The smoke from the extinguished candles cuts to the smoke billowing out of a locomotive’s smokestack as a train pulls into the station in Krakow. Obviously, smoke and trains will figure significantly in narrative to follow. The action of the scene is that Jews, forced by the Germans after the fall of Poland to re-locate to cities, are arriving in Krakow by the thousands to register with the German officials. The dramatization of the moment is a series of shots of Jews, liningup at folding tables, to recite their names for the German clerks, who type them up into lists. Smoke, trains, lines of Jews at folding tables in open spaces, Germans keeping careful track of the Jews’ names (“Name?” is actually the first line of dialog in the movie), and the list of names itself — all these motifs will be repeated in evolving contexts throughout the movie and they’re all here in the first scene.

The narrative of Schindler’s List is told mostly from Schindler’s point of view. It’s his gradual change from businessman to samaritan that the movie is concerned with. Therefore, the “plight of the Jews” in these early scenes is given relatively little importance. It is, dramatically speaking, “the weather,” the situation the protagonist is entering into. That is, Spielberg pares the information back to all we absolutely need to know to understand the protagonist’s pursuit. We don’t need to see Claudius plotting to kill Hamlet’s father, we only need to know that Hamlet is pissed off that his father is dead.

3:25-4:28 — A man gets ready for a night on the town. We see him select his tie, loot his wardrobe for spare cash, and pin his Nazi Party pin to his lapel.

4:28-5:17 — The man enters a nightclub. He heavily tips the maitre-d for a good table. The man, like Spielberg, is a manipulator of image — he wants to frame himself a certain way, present a certain impression.

5:17- 10:15 — The man scans the nightclub, looking resplendent and predatory. What is his prey? Well, here comes a comely blond lass. The man takes a drag on his cigarette (smoke again) and stares lustfully at the woman as she passes. And while we will soon find out that the man is a notorious womanizer, Spielberg here pulls a typically Spielbergian stunt — he “stands the idea on its head” and makes it that the man is not staring at the woman at all, he’s staring at the Nazi she walked in with. He didn’t come to this nightclub to seduce women but to seduce Nazis.

(Spielberg’s friend Brian DePalma put it thus in Scarface: “First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women.”)

And so the man, who is eventually identified as Oskar Schindler, pursues his agenda of “buying the friendship of local Nazis.” He watches each influential officer, notes his predilections, and caters to them, providing women, wine and song and receiving their patronage in return.

But of course we don’t know that yet.

Now think about this sequence for a moment. Here’s what is not shown: Oskar Schindler at home in Germany, bursts in the door and says to his wife “Honey, I’ve got a great idea! You know that old enamelware factory in Krakow? Well, now that the Nazis have conquered Poland, I have a unique opportunity to buy that factory and make mess kits for the German army. We’ll be rich! Rich, I tell you!” And Mrs. Schindler says “But Oskar, however will you do it? We don’t have that kind of money.” And Schindler says “It’s wartime, babe, all the rules go out the window in wartime.” And Mrs. Schindler says “I don’t know, Oskar, it sounds mighty risky.” And Schindler says “Aw babe, don’t you get it, this is my big chance, I can finally make something of myself and impress your father.” And Mrs. Schindler says “Oh Oskar, you know I can’t resist you when you have some crazy, pie-in-the-sky moneymaking scheme. Just promise me that when you’re in Krakow, no running around with the local ladies, okay?” And Schindler saying “I love you, Mrs. Schindler. Kiss me.”

That scene would be in any other bio-pic, mostly because for most movies, there’s always someone at the beginning of the movie-making process who says “But we don’t know what the protagonist wants, we need his big ‘I want’ scene so we can root for him.” But as we’ve seen with No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, the fact that the characters simply pursue their goals without explaining themselves is always much more dramatically interesting.

(That, and, of course, Spielberg doesn’t want us to “root” for Schindler exactly, not at this point of the narrative anyway.)

As Schindler discusses wine with the nightclub’s sommelier, we hear a couple of Nazis griping about the matter of governing Poland. This subtle, background exchange is the thin edge of a wedge that will become more prominent later: that for the Nazis of Schindler’s List, their activities are, essentially, “just business.” The Nazi officers in Schindler’s List talk about their occupation of Krakow and their treatment of the Jews primarily in terms of paperwork and bureaucracy, rarely in terms of hatred. (The hatred gets revealed in other ways, as we will see.)

10:15-14:45 — Spielberg cuts from Schindler leading the Nazis in a cabaret sing-along to German soldiers in the city singing a martial song. We get a little more “weather” as we see Germans harassing Jews as Schindler walks through the streets.

(There are those who complain that Schindler’s List does Jews a disservice by making them minor characters in the movie. And it’s true that the movie largely centers on Schindler’s story and tends to tell the story of “the Jews” as just that — a relatively undifferentiated mass of humanity, and helpless without a powerful, sympathetic friend to “save” them. What I see is Spielberg approaching the Holocaust the same way he approaches any other subject: by asking “how do we stand the idea on its head?” In this case, he’s decided to make a “Holocaust movie” about a German businessman who’s just trying to make a little money off the war. His impulse is the same for Schindler’s List as it is for Close Encounters or Hook: “how do I make people see this story in a way they’ve never seen it before?” And in that regard, the commercial returns of Schindler’s List speak for themselves.)

We still don’t yet know what Schindler’s game is. He enters the Judenrat, a kind of Jewish community center, where relocated Jews can air their grievances and sort out legal problems. Hundreds of Jews are lined up to get into the Judenrat, in a line that stretches down the block, but Schindler, a German and a badge-wearing member of the Nazi Party, strides to the front of the line and heads inside.

The small glimpses of life on the streets of Krakow and inside the Judenrat give real weight and perspective to the scene that follows. It’s hard for us to imagine an entire population uprooted at the whim of an invading army and forced to relocate, and Spielberg imagines the practical scenes of daily life of this situation with a detail and precision he hasn’t reached since the community scenes of Jaws and Close Encounters.

Schindler has come to the Judenrat to find an accountant named Itzak Stern. Why Stern we are not told, apparently Schindler got his name from someone as someone who can get things done in the Krakow Jewish community.

Stern is presented as a, well, stern, solemn, “pure” man. (His first line of dialog is “I am.”) He functions as a kind of Jiminy Cricket to Schindler’s Pinocchio. As Schindler outlines his business scheme to Stern, Stern can barely contain his disapproval of Schindler and everything he represents. The drama of Schindler’s List largely hinges on Stern’s gradual approval of, friendship with, and eventual lionization of Schindler. This drama is characterized chiefly by Sterns unwillingness to share a drink with Schindler, and this scene is the first to bring up this motif.

In what I consider a pretty incredible scene, Schindler presents his scheme, which comes down to: I have the contacts, you know how to run a business and you know investors, lets all get rich off this crazy war thing. If Schindler is aware of the implications of the Nazi occupation of Krakow, he doesn’t show it. His attitude seems to be, this is the situation, we can suffer from it or we can profit from it — I, being a German member of the Nazi party, stand to profit from it much more greatly than you, but that’s the way things are, you want in or not?

The capitalist imperative is presented as purely amoral in the least perjorative sense of the word — what does it matter what the situation is, as long as we can make some money off it? Schindler will get his money, the Germans will get field kits, the Jewish investors will be able to trade pots and pans on the black market, “everybody’s happy,” it’s a win-win situation. Schindler, at this point in the narrative, is not a “bad” man, not an anti-semite, merely an opportunist. It’s his opportunism that suggested he join the Nazi party, it’s his opportunism that allows him to pursue his scheme of opening an enamelware factory in Krakow when he has virtually no capital, later it will be the same opportunism that will allow him to hire Jews instead of Poles to work at the factory.

14:55-17:32 — Jewish black-marketeers gather in the local Catholic church to conduct their business. We meet Pfefferberg and Goldberg, who will enter into the narrative later on as a kind of “Good Jew/Bad Jew” team — Pfefferberg will prefer to retain his honor and live as a prisoner, whereas Goldberg will gladly turn policeman for its opportunities for graft and kickbacks.

For a moment, it looks like the narrative is branching off into a new direction, but we’re with Pfefferberg and Goldberg for only a couple of minutes before Schindler enters the scene. He’s been at the church the whole time, apparently, scoping out the joint, looking for Jews exactly like Pfefferberg to acquire luxury goods on the black market — he needs “good things” to present to his Nazi contacts, to grease the wheels of the bureaucracy and get him his enamelware factory.

17:32-21:53 — The Jews enter the Krakow ghetto. As the mass of humanity flows through the streets, Spielberg takes care to show us a few faces that will become important later. He casts a boy with a winsome face and a little girl with round, horn-rim spectacles, knowing that we’ll remember those details and follow along with their stories. There is another scene of Jews standing in line to talk to Germans with clipboards sitting at folding tables in an open-air space, and another recital of names. Goldberg is now a policeman, Pfefferberg and his fiancee sneer and make fun of him.

We pay close attention to a wealthy Jewish family being uprooted from their luxury digs and herded into the street by Nazi soldiers. Why this family? Spielberg keeps us waiting for the answer. The father of the family, a framed picture under one arm, pries the mezzuzza off his front door and heads out to join the parade of Jews headed for the ghetto. No sooner are the family led away and pelted with mud by Polish onlookers then Schindler pulls up in his car and is squired about the apartment by a Nazi officer. So Spielberg does take moments to tell us of what’s happening to “the Jews” but he doesn’t want the story to get away from him — he makes sure that everyone he shows has a direct relation to his protagonist. He cuts between the wealthy Jewish family entering the deplorable conditions of the ghetto and Schindler relaxing, pleased as punch with his swanky new digs. Again, if Schindler understands that he’s taking over an apartment which was, only moments earlier, the property of someone else, he doesn’t show it — it’s all just more good stuff for the opportunist.

21:53-23:37 — The Jews have all moved into the ghetto. Stern introduces Schindler to the investors he knows. Again, it’s a scene about business — the investors try to negotiate with Schindler, but Schindler knows he’s got the upper hand and refuses to cave. Again, he’s not an anti-semite, he’s just pursuing his goal of making a ton of money and the local situation puts his business partners at a disadvantage. This scene also features Schindler’s second attempt to get Stern to share a drink with him.

23:37-24:30 — The capital secured, the enamelware factory starts production. Schindler hires Jews from the ghetto not because he intends to “save” them, but because they cost him less money (and he pays them through the Nazi bureaucracy, which benefits his business). They are, literally, “worth less.” Money and life present themselves in stark terms when one can literally say that one kind of person is worth less than another kind, and Schindler, the opportunist, is happy to go along with the prevailing wisdom.

24:30-29:00 — Stern, now in place to run Schindler’s enamelware factory, canvases the ghetto looking for likely prospects. As the Jews are being sorted into categories by the Nazis (so many scenes of sorting people out in this movie) Stern sees that everyone who isn’t working at the factory is in danger of being put on the wrong list and pulls a number of ruses and schemes to get teachers and historians and musicians jobs at the factory. This is one of the few times we leave Schindler to see what Stern is doing behind his back, and we see that Stern is something of a canny opportunist himself — he’s hiring friends and aesthetes for jobs in a metalworking plant.

29:00-30:45 — We get a moment of character development and comic relief as Schindler auditions women to be his secretary. He plays close attention to the pretty young things who hunt and peck their way through the typing test and sits bored as a middle-aged batte-axe efficiently chugs along, easily besting them. So we also learn that Schindler has an eye for the ladies and is, in fact, a thoroughly shallow man, his knowledge of French wines and cognac notwithstanding. At the end of the brief sequence, Stern tells Schindler “you have to choose.” He’s talking about picking a secretary, but, as with many things Stern says to Schindler, the line carries a double meaning. You can’t, he implies, sit on the fence through this war, making your money and chuckling at your cleverness, you have to pick a side. Schindler, however, is still an opportunist and decides to hire all the auditioners — except, of course, the battle-axe.

30:45-33:00 — Schindler promotes his newly-opened enamelware factory. He’s almost to his goal — he’s made the contacts, raised the capital and staffed his factory, now he just needs to close the deal and get his lucrative army contracts. This he accomplishes by throwing banquets for his Nazi friends and sending baskets of luxury food items to all the officers we saw earlier in the nightclub sequence. The sequence ends with a series of shots of Nazi hands placing their official stamps on Schindler’s contracts — the bureaucracy again, the “business” of the Nazis showing its hand.

His goal achieved, there is a brief scene where Schindler calls Stern to his office and makes a third attempt to get him to drink with him. This time, Stern lifts the glass (on command) but still refuses to drink. Schindler’s moment of self-congratulation is soured and Schindler brusquely throws Stern out of his office. You can see that Stern is gettng to Schindler, you can see Schindler thinking “Christ, what is it with this guy? I give him a job, I give all his friends jobs, I make his rich friends’ lives easier, what does he want from me?” This question ends the act and points the way forward for the narrative.


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

    “We see him select his tie, loot his wardrobe for spare cash, and pin his Nazi Party pin to his lapel.”

    The attention to seemingly mundane objects and things — the “thinginess” — of Schindler’s List, is one of the things I found particularly engrossing about it when I saw it. Schindler’s personal possessions, the enamelware, the scene with huge piles of belongings being sorted from dispossessed Jews — all those details make the film feel more real to me than the usual Oscar-bait period piece.

    If memory serves me right, Spielberg several times shoots Schindler in silhouette (especially in profile, I think), as if there’s something mysterious about him, despite his shallow, materialistic qualities. It’s like we’re supposed to look at him more deeply (which we are).

    • Todd says:

      The attention to detail in Schindler is staggering on just about every level. The sixth or so time watching the movie it suddenly hit me, “oh, you know, I bet they didn’t just happen to have a WWII-era enamelware factory sitting around — they had to build that.” So that we could watch the process of how a soup tureen is created and how a handle is cleaned of burrs and so forth.

      • “oh, you know, I bet they didn’t just happen to have a WWII-era enamelware factory sitting around”

        Actually, the Schindler’s factory still exists and they shot there, I used to live a couple blocks from the place. They did have to build replicas of Plaszow and Auschwitz, though.

    • greyaenigma says:

      For some reason, I even remembered the scene of his dressing and collecting things from the dresser as the first scene of the movie.