An Unlikely Miracle : Reviewing ‘Schindler’s List’ on its 25th Anniversary

This year marks 100 years of the end of the First World War. It also marks 95 years of a failed coup of Germany, by a young German nationalist called Adolf Hitler. This set him on a path of a radical superior race propaganda. This combined with the humiliation of Germany at the Treaty of Versailles (1920) and it’s ambition for global superiority led to the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, with the military invasion of Poland by Germany and subsequent declarations on Germany by France and the United Kingdom. The vast majority of the world’s countries formed two opposing military alliances: The Allies and The Axis. The global war directly involving more than 100 million people, from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, effectively blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. Marked as the deadliest war in human history, it produced around 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included countless massacres, the widespread genocide of the Holocaust, the strategic bombing, the premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war. This event profoundly changed the social fabric and political ordering of the world. The Soviet Union and United States emerged as rival superpowers, setting the stage for the nearly half-century long Cold War. In the wake of European devastation, the influence of its great powers waned, triggering the decolonisation of Africa and Asia. Most countries whose industries had been damaged moved towards economic recovery.

In the midst of all the doom and gloom of World War II, there came out some extraordinary stories of survival and resistance which stands in stark contrast to the ugliest spectrum of human nature. One such is the story of Oskar Schindler and his Schindler Jews. Schindler, a Sudeten-German businessman, saved the lives of more than a thousand mostly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust by employing them in his factories at Cracow in Poland, during the War. A womaniser, a heavy drinker and ‘bon viveur’ as he was known to the Jewish people in Cracow, Schindler was a sort of an enigma to the people around him. He joined the Nazi Party in 1939 after joining the Abwehr, the intelligence service of Nazi Germany. Prior to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, he collected information on railways and troop movements for the German government.

As portrayed by the great Irish thespian Liam Neeson (who was nominated for an Academy Award for the role but lost to Tom Hanks’s heart-wrenching take on a wronged gay lawyer in ‘Philadelphia’), Schindler has a vampiric presence, as he calmly walks into a bar, clothed in a rich two-piece suit and lavishes bribes the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) and the SS officials, while wining and dining with their women. By doing so, he acquires a factory to produce enamelware. He enlists the aid of Itzhak Stern (a masterclass of subtlety and astute behaviour by the great Ben Kingsley), a local Jewish official who has contacts with black marketeers and the Jewish business community, to help him run the business. Stern helps Schindler arrange financing for the factory. Schindler maintains friendly relations with the Nazis and enjoys wealth and status as ‘Herr Direktor’, while Stern handles the administration duties. Schindler hires Jewish workers because they cost less, while Stern ensures that as many people as possible are deemed essential to the German war effort, which saves them from being transported to concentration camps or killed.

Amidst all these seemingly calm transactions, enters SS-Untersturmführer (second lieutenant) Amon Göth (if there is ever a manifestation of bone chilling, it’s Ralph Fiennes take on this character) to oversee construction of the Płaszów Concentration Camp. When the camp is completed, he orders the ghetto to be liquidated. Many people are brutally shot and killed in the process of emptying the ghetto. Schindler witnesses the massacre from a horseback upon a nearby hill with his wife and is profoundly affected. He particularly notices a young girl in a red coat as she hides from the Nazis, and later sees her body among a wagonload of corpses, a particularly powerful image in the movie. As time goes by, Göth randomly shoots people from the balcony of his villa, sexually mistreats his Jewish maid Helen Hirsch and the prisoners live in constant fear for their lives. Despite maintaining his friendship with Göth, through bribery and lavish gifts such as expensive alcohol, Schindler’s focus slowly shifts from making money to trying to save as many lives as possible. As the Germans begin to lose the war, Göth is ordered to ship the remaining Jews at Płaszów to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. At this time, Schindler asks Göth to allow him to move his workers to a new munitions factory he plans to build in Brinnlitz near his home town Zwittau. Göth agrees, but charges a huge bribe. Schindler and Stern create the ‘Schindler’s List’ – a list of about a thousand people to be transferred to Brinnlitz and thus saved from transport to Auschwitz. Over the next seven months, Schindler forbids the SS guards from entering the factory floor and encourages the Jews to observe the Jewish Sabbath. During this period, the factory does not produce any usable armaments. Schindler runs out of money in 1945, just as Germany surrenders, ending the war in Europe.

The miracle referred to in the title is a reference to a surprising awakening of his consciousness, his extraordinary initiative, tenacity, courage, and dedication to save the lives of his Jewish employees. Although the movie does fall into the trap of making him a paternalistic figure, a theme common in American cinema, it does push hard to showcase the extraordinarily true story of a disreputable schemer on the edges of respectability who becomes a father figure responsible for saving the lives of more than a thousand people. Another binary that the movie suffers from is the polar opposite portrayals of Göth and Schindler. While Göth is characterized as an almost completely dark and evil person, Schindler gradually evolves from Nazi supporter to rescuer and hero of the Jews. The movie does not probe more deeper into what made Göth into such a monster and how did Schindler, a German profiteer have this gradual change of heart. What were the factors and reasons that drove both the men into doing what they eventually did? Their backstories are never explored and the audience is left to grapple with it in the dark.

Coming from Steven Spielberg, Hollywood’s most successful capitalist, is another miracle. A Jewish kid from Cincinnati, Ohio, who had redefined the meaning of commercial cinema with his debut movie ‘Jaws’ (1975), Spielberg was known more as a conjurer of sweeping escapist experiences such as ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977), ‘E.T. The Extra Terrestrial’ (1982) and the wildly successful ‘Indiana Jones’ (1981-onwards) series, than as a cinematic chronicler of serious social issues and history. Although he had dipped occasionally into that genre with gems such as ‘The Color Purple’ (1985) and the beautiful and massively underrated ‘Empire of The Sun’ (1987), those were not considered as his forte.

The third miracle happened when  Poldek Pfefferberg, one of the ‘Schindlerjuden’, (Schindler Jews) made it his life’s mission to tell the story of Schindler. He narrated the story to Australian novelist Thomas Keneally who wrote the book, ‘Schindler’s Ark’ (1982). Spielberg became interested in the story when he was sent a book review of Schindler’s Ark.  Although unsure if he was ready to make a film about the Holocaust, he tried to pass the project to several other directors such as Roman Polanski, Sydney Pollack and finally his dear friend Martin Scorsese. He finally decided to take on the project when he noticed that the Holocaust deniers were being given serious consideration by the media. With the rise of neo-Nazism after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1991, he worried that people were too accepting of intolerance, as they were in the 1930’s. Universal Pictures which produced the movie, greenlit it on condition that Spielberg made a movie called ‘Jurassic Park’ first. He shot the film in black and white and approached it as a documentary rather than as a feature length production. He hired Polish cinematographer Janusz Kamiński to work on the project with him. They continue to work together till date. John Williams composed the score, and violinist Itzhak Perlman performs the film’s main theme.

For me watching the movie was a deeply disturbing yet enlightening experience. I couldn’t finish watching the movie the first time and had to wait for a couple of years to see it again. I barely managed to stomach the raw intensity of the film even then. Watching Göth’s brutal torture of the Jewish people, one cannot but draw parallels to the current regimes of totalitarianism in the contemporary world. Nationalism is a product of colonialism and does not have roots in the pre-colonial world. Its manifestations have led to the most brutal and horrific crimes committed in human history. ‘Schindler’s List’ for all it’s minor flaws, demonstrates that in the most tragic yet beautiful manner. It may be the work of an American Jewish filmmaker, but it has a stunning honesty which is hard to deny. There are several critically acclaimed and commercially successful films in the canon of cinema, but there are very few important ones. ‘Schindler’s List’ belongs to that rare category. Its biggest victory is not of winning seven Academy Awards (out of twelve nominations), including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score, but conveying a universal message at the end of the movie. This is when workers give Schindler a signed statement attesting to his role in saving Jewish lives and present him with a ring engraved with a Talmudic quotation: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” A True Miracle indeed.

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Aashish Khakha Written by:

Aashish Khakha is a PhD research scholar with the School of Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Mumbai. His PhD research is on the urban development of Ranchi and Shillong. He can be contacted at as_khakha89@yahoo.co.in

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