By Helen Wang
Blog Content Contributor
Schindler’s List is a biopic film directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the novel by Thomas Keneally under the same title. The film received over 80 award wins and 20 nominations, making it one of Hollywood’s films to remember. The day that “Schindler’s List” premiered, New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin declared, “Mr. Spielberg has made sure that neither he nor the Holocaust will ever be thought of in the same way again.”
This film was based on the life of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson,) a German businessman who started out with tunnel vision for making money, yet ended up spending almost every penny he had trying to save the lives of his workers, mostly all Polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. Although Schindler’s List can be depicted in many different ways from all approaches, the film’s deep historical background, the feminization of the Jewish male and gender roles and director Steven Spielberg’s personal ties to the film is what makes Schindler’s List one of the most known and acclaimed movies in Hollywood.
Hollywood films are known for many things, but no matter how big the font that reads, “Based on a true story,” an accurate depiction of a historical film is not likely to happen. Film reviewer Greg Raven states, “We do not expect Spielberg to deal with questions such as whether or not Schindler was working as a Zionist agent…we do not expect Spielberg to introduce any ambiguities into his examination of Schindler’s postwar behavior…including the shabby way he treated his wife. Avoiding issues such as these make it easier to tell the story.”
Throughout the entire movie, Schindler is seen as a masculine womanizer who cheats on his wife, yet the movie is filmed so that the audience doesn’t mind it. Towards the end of the film, Schindler goes back to his wife as if he did nothing wrong and she doesn’t hesitate or question him one bit. The only access the audience had to an insight on their marriage was the caption at the end of the film stating they ended up in divorce.
There are also many scenes Raven brings up that would not fit the historical accuracy of this biopic, such as at the Plaszow camp when Spielberg shows a pile of burning corpses so large that a conveyor belt is required to add new bodies to the top, the false implication being that bodies burn like cord wood. Also such as the technical inaccuracy of depicting a crematory chimney at Auschwitz spewing smoke and flame, which crematories are specially constructed to not do.
Aside from the historical inaccuracy of certain scenes, Spielberg decided to film this 1993 movie in black and white to place a higher emphasis on the horrific realism of the matter, making it one of the most famous black and white films of modern times. Janusz Kaminski, the director of photography for Schindler’s List said, “The newsreel quality of the black and white seemed to fade the barriers of time.”
Spielberg began working on Schindler’s List soon after finishing “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” in 1983. He claims he has been, “preparing for this film my whole life,” because his grandparents constantly spoke of the Holocaust, although they were not personally affected by it. Ten years later, the film he prepared for his whole life has been gifted to the world.
In traditional Judaism, the woman of the house commences the Sabbath by lighting Sabbath candles and saying a blessing, but in the opening scene of Schindler’s List shows the ritual Sabbath candles without a woman. In Jewish folk culture, the Sabbath candles serve almost as an emblem for Jewish womanhood, yet in the film, the audience sees and hears a male voice reciting the Kiddush. The subsuming of the female voice and the constant portrayal of the Jewish man as puny and easy to push around shows the importance of gender characteristics in the film; the feminization of the Jewish male. All of the Jewish characters in the film play a more feminine role in order to create a definite contrast on the masculinity of the German males as they push and shove around the Jewish.
The film also links female sexuality with violence such as when Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) brutally attacks the Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz,) after he follows her into the cellar. Her clothing is completely wet, showing off her body, especially her breasts. According to Yosefa Loshitzky, Author of Spielberg’s Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler’s List, the audience is, “meant to desire Helen’s body…As Goeth’s desire resolves in physical beating, the audience participates in a voyeurism which encompasses both sex and brutality.”
The film puts Oskar Schindler under the spotlight as a big noble and heroic character, but that is subjective to many who knew things from his wife Emilie Schindler’s point of view. In 1957, Oskar Schindler went to West Germany for a visit and never came back, abandoning her after he mortgaged their farm. Emilie said Oskar was lazy and “had done nothing astounding before the war, and had been unexceptional since. He was fortunate to have people in that short fierce era who summoned forth his deeper talents.”
Emilie actually played a big role in their operation by feeding and taking care of the Jews, which was omitted in the film.
“What I did, I did for humanity. I don’t need publicity,” Emilie Schindler said.
There are two sides to every story and even though Schindler’s List only told Oskar Schindler’s side of the story, making the whole world see him as a hero, the Jewish community, who knows the real story, holds Emilie just as high in their eyes.
Growing up often being the only Jewish family in the neighborhood, director Steven Spielberg was often embarrassed and self-conscious of his background. He admitted to being bullied because of it and his family had direct ties to the Holocaust. Decades later, Spielberg has not only embraced who he is, he has “marked his own voyage as a Jew – And as a film maker with Schindler’s List,” Bernard Weinraub said for the New York Times.
At age 46, Spielberg finally decided he was ready to take on the movie even though he was offered the project a decade before. Cynics often say he directed the movie in hopes of trying to win an Oscar, which he completely denies.
“There’s nothing self-serving about what motivated me to bring Schindler’s List to the screen” Spielberg said.
You don’t get to be one of the most well known directors in Hollywood without meeting many cynics film reviewer Pauline Kael said.
“If there is such a thing as movie sense…Spielberg really has it,” said Kael. “But he may be so full of it he doesn’t have much else.”
Because of Spielberg’s struggle for artistic validation to such double negative comments such as Kael’s, he started to take on more serious films than what he was known for at the time, after E.T., the planning for Schindler’s List came into play. Spielberg is also known for his use of medium and long lenses in every film he directs, which he frequently shot in for Schindler’s List in order to gain emphasis on the huge number of the Jewish population fleeing and struggling for their lives.
Although Schindler’s List may not be an absolute accurate biopic of the events that occurred, it did shine light on the main point the movie was trying to get across; many Jewish lives were saved and many generations were allowed to be followed because of what Oskar Schindler did.