Personifying a Horrific Piece of History: “Schindler’s List” (1993)

As 1945 gets further and further away, new generations are left with secondary sources detailing the horrors of the Holocaust. Maybe they read about it in their history books, or take a trip to the famous Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., but the number of people still alive who actually saw the aftermath of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust dwindles with each passing day. Many people, regardless of age, struggle to fully comprehend an event of historical significance if they do not have a personal connection to it. This does not make them callous or unsympathetic, it is just easier for people move beyond the standard, “Oh, that’s horrible,” when they are emotionally invested in the event. This is why it is so important for us to have visual representations of history- living, breathing personifications of historical figures and the people affected by their decisions. Filmmaking is a very impactful medium with which to achieve this, and Stephen Spielberg does exactly that with his film, “Schindler’s List.”

Liam Neeson stars as Oskar Schindler, an ethnically German businessman who approaches the war with an entrepreneurial spirit. When Oskar arrives in Krakow, Poland and begins building his business, the city’s Jewish population is simultaneously being herded and confined to the Krakow Ghetto. While he is busy inserting himself into the top tier of the corrupt Nazi hierarchy, we are taken through the process of ethnic cleansing from the liquidation of the ghetto to the subjugation of Jews into either the forced labor camps or the extermination camps, such as Auschwitz.  Ralph Fiennes plays real-life Nazi captain Aemon Goth, who was notoriously violent and sadistic towards his prisoners at his forced labor camp.

Schindler is brilliantly charismatic, and he is able to conjure relationships with important leaders of the local Nazi faction out of nothing more than a stiff drink and an inappropriate photo op with a local newspaper. With the support of the Nazis, he is able to establish an enamelware factory and fill it with Jewish labor. He enlists the help of Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsly) who helps him plan out his finances for the factory and organize the labor force. As the Nazi anaconda tightens around the remaining lives of the Jews in Poland, Schindler finds the treatment of that ethnic population increasingly troubling.  The film is predominantly shot in black and white, a choice meant to remove any unintended bright feelings from surfacing on screen and give it a documentary-like feel. The desired effect is achieved, and the viewer is confined to a depressed and reflective state for the duration of the film.

The only blurp of color following the opening scene is a little girl in a red coat. She first appears at a pivotal moment for Schindler and audiences alike: the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto. The scene lasts for roughly six minutes and is underscored by a choir of young children singing in Hebrew. We see the full extent of Aemon Goth’s hatred-soaked fanaticism and his maniacal fervor as he addresses his company of soldiers who are about to eradicate the ghetto of its inhabitants. The speech he gives is obviously meant to inspire and carry his men off on a wave of nationalistic pride towards their grim assignment with the idea that they are restoring Germany to its former glory, absent of any Jewish people or influence. As Oskar Schindler watches the scene unfold from atop a horse on a hill overlooking the city, he spots the girl in the red dress walking among the blood and chaos, signifying the loss of Jewish hope and innocence.

Among one of the many troubling aspects of this story is the fact that people could not believe, at least in the beginning, that the Nazi’s were capable of doing something like this. Who could be? To work towards the extermination of an entire ethnic group during a progressive time in human history like the 1940’s seems completely unfathomable. In one scene, we watch a cabin of emaciated female workers discuss and ultimately agree that the Nazis would never do such a thing as annihilate their workforce. They cling to the theory that while that Nazi’s may not be concerned about the morality of that type of action, they could not possibly dismiss the massive contribution of their Jewish workforce towards the Nazi war effort. “They need us,” one woman says. But as we watch this overly optimistic person reassure herself and her barrack mates of their value to the Third Reich, and therefore their safety, we know very well what is happening around them, and what is most likely coming to them.

An important work and a film everyone should see, “Schindler’s List” is one of the most impactful films I have ever watched. The solemness I feel during and after each viewing never fades because the film’s message is timeless. “Schindler’s List” reminds us all of the power of film and how well it can honor people of the past and shed light on a story that needs to be told. An absolute triumph in filmmaking for Spielberg and all those who were attached to this film, it will continue to shock and awe future audiences for years to come. I’ll leave you with my favorite line from the film, spoken by Itzhak Stern: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”

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