I’m sort of torn about where Schindler’s List ended up in my rankings. On the one hand, it’s easily among the two best films Spielberg has ever done, a startling blast of maturity and restraint that we hadn’t seen from him up to that point. On the other, the experience is so exhausting, so emotionally and mentally draining, that it’s a film I don’t find myself going back to as often as the films that rank above it. So I guess in a sense I’m putting entertainment over artistry here, and that bothers me just a bit. It’s a film I feel I’m supposed to rank higher than sixth, rather than actually wanting to. But lists like these are funny things: putting numbers next to films is a pretty subjective exercise. Two films (Sugarland Express and Amistad) changed positions from my original rankings once I watched them again, and as I progressed I read what I was writing on some films and thought, “Why is this film here given what I’m saying about it?” I could do this again next year and probably have none of these films in the same spot they are now. Except Hook, of course. So maybe it’s a testament to how great Schindler’s List is that I’m conflicted about ranking it sixth out of twenty-five films.
Okay, enough with the hand-wringing, on to the film. A lot’s been said about the almost documentary-like way in which Spielberg shot the film, and it’s one of the film’s greatest strengths. None of the horrific things we see in the film are really lingered upon, or sometimes even focused upon; sometimes they happen in the periphery, like the camera is ashamed to even be recording them. It’s as if we’re meant to see how these acts piled one on top of the other until it reached a point where even the victims looked on them as commonplace, an accepted part of life, numb to their horror. It’s a macabre extension of the attitude of the Jews when they were first moved into the ghetto: “It can’t possibly get any worse.” At first, it’s a statement about keeping their chins up, that nothing can shake them as long as they have their families and their identities, that this too will pass. But as time goes on, that acceptance becomes acquiescence becomes obedience becomes slavery. It does not pass.
Shooting in black and white was such a smart choice here. Not only does it add to the documentary feel, not only does it add to the sense of lifeless, plodding oppression, but it also plays on our collective memories of World War II. For most of us, our perception of that war comes from old newsreel footage and photographs, scenes that we know happened in a real world full of color but that in our minds are forever etched in black and white. So I think we subconsciously tend to associate black and white with history and lend it bit more unintentional validity in our minds than we would if we saw the same things in color. So Schindler’s List being in black and white gives it a feeling of veracity that I don’t think would be as strong if it had been presented in the typical Hollywood (and Spielberg) style. We’d certainly have an initial, visceral reaction to the violence, but it wouldn’t have the same resonance.
It also struck me how quiet this film is. If Spielberg was restraining himself, John Williams must have had his arms strapped to his sides, because this is the least score-heavy collaboration the two have ever had. The images Spielberg presents don’t need the traditional orchestral tweaking, and either he asked Williams to lay back or Williams made the decision himself. Either way, it’s absolutely right, so that when music does appear, it’s almost like a sigh of relief, some finally beautiful thing amid the evil we’re watching.
I know some people gripe about Schindler’s breakdown at the end, where he says he wishes he could have done more. The one lone nod to Spielberg’s sensibilities, they say, but I don’t really see it that way. Throughout most of the first half of the film, Schindler’s protection of his Jewish workers is purely selfish. They’re an inexpensive source of labor that help his venture turn a profit. If he saves a life or two along the way, that’s not humanitarianism, it’s just good business. It’s only as the Holocaust intensifies that he finds himself saving lives for the sake of the lives themselves, and even then as much because he’s in too deep to stop now as it is out of benevolence. He really backs into his heroism, having it forced upon him by eventuality and circumstance more than conscious choice. So his rush of emotion after the war isn’t simply him wishing he’d done more. It feels like an acknowledgement that he was blind to both the enormity of the events around him and to the power he inadvertently wielded, and that despite the great personal risks he took and sacrifices he made, this small group is all he managed to save. He’s mourning not the fact that he did too little, but that he did it too late.
Schindler’s List clearly took a lot out of Spielberg. It would be four years until he released his next film, and being of Jewish descent himself, bringing to life the Holocaust must have been an especially harrowing experience for him. Besides, he’d just come off of possibly the greatest one-two punch any director has ever had, with the enormous box office success of Jurassic Park and the near-unanimous critical and awards acclaim of Schindler’s List coming within months of each other. His next two films would be less successful shadows of those two (The Lost World and Amistad in 1997), and after 1993 he’s got more films in the bottom half of this list than in the top, so you could argue that was the year Spielberg peaked. Then again, there’s one film from this later period we’ve yet to get to that I would say argues against that.
Tomorrow: I’ll be right here.