We're counting down to the Oscars with a few movies and movie songs at SteynOnline. This was the Best Picture winner at the 1994 Academy Awards, exactly 20 years ago:
With Steven Spielberg, the film is the star — such a sensible rule, you wonder why he's the only producer who gets it. As with the shows of his friends Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber, you don't go to Jurassic Park to see Sam Neill; and you don't watch Schindler's List to see Liam Neeson, notwithstanding Neeson's fine, sober performance. (He's an understated actor, even in his present eminence as the guy who flies in to some foreign capital to rescue his dimwit daughter and guns down 60 per cent of the local population). Back in 1994, those critics who expressed a snooty bewilderment that the fellow who made an effects-a-go-go crowd-pleaser like Jurassic Park should follow it with Schindler's List missed the point. Schindler's story appealed to Spielberg because it's just as big as dinosaurs restored to life. This director likes bigness not just for the cost and the technology, but for the size of the subject.
Big events and fundamental questions course, in their different ways, through both Jurassic Park and Schindler's List but they're anchored in manageable personal stories, discreetly cast. In TV mini-series of the time, when Jane Seymour and some bit-player turn up as penniless Jewish refugees, you knew which one to keep an eye on. Spielberg's great achievement in Schindler's List is to capture the cool indifference of fate. A roomful of frightened Jews being processed for Auschwitz: Who to root for? The photogenic moppet? The resourceful beauty? Some live, some die, but you can rarely guess which. Spielberg's choices seem to be as arbitrary as those of Nazi justice.
In E. T. et al, Spielberg was the slickest of traffic cops; here, he's as manipulative as usual but unobtrusively so, content to give us the impression that he's letting us weave our own way through the confusion. Oskar Schindler, a Cracow industrialist who saved 1,200 Jews, can be seen as opportunist or hero, reckless shyster or reluctant convert: it's up to us. The black and white photography is no affectation either, at least until an ill-advised closing gimmick leaves you with the unpleasantly queasy realisation that even the Holocaust isn't real enough for Spielberg. Still, for most of the time, his eye has the detachment of newsreel footage, and, unusually in motion pictures, his visual images are arresting not because of their composition but because of their revelatory truth. We see a train of Polish Jews leaving the station, on one-way tickets. The camera, with the measured tempo of a supermarket security monitor, scans their confiscated luggage piled up on the platform, suitcases being emptied, a heap of thousands of photographs — worthless except to those refused even the comfort of a proven past. The clerks pick over hundreds of human teeth, extracting the gold.
Gradually, you understand the film's decision to adjust Thomas Keneally's original title, Schindler's Ark. What separates the Germans from trigger-happy goons in a hundred banana republics is the system: the bureaucracy, 'the paperwork', as a dozen Nazi officials sigh wearily in the course of the film; the grotesque thoroughness of District B and Department W and the Business Compensation Fund regulations. Schindler and his Jewish accountant fight Nazi paperwork with their own list, the names of their factory workers. When a lazy official at Auschwitz offers him another 300 for the ones accidentally miscategorized for processing, Schindler is adamant; he wants his people back. All internees deserve saving, but to accept the officer's trade-off would be to accept the Nazi bureaucrats' obliteration of Jewish individuality.
All films 'about' the Holocaust have an uneasy tension between the close-up and the big picture. Spielberg understands that that tension is a problem not just of filming the subject, but of the subject itself: that the tale of any one individual has to struggle to avoid being swamped by the sheer scale of horror. His brilliant answer is to humanize the mass: in the anonymity of the ghetto, in the chaotic frenzy of a massacre, he can sketch characters in a few seconds, so that, in their various small responses, a hundred stories are told. And, even as he ennobles history's vast supporting cast, he corrects all those films which flattered the Germans by personifying Nazi evil in the form of lip-curling bullet-headed commandants. The real face of evil is the bland anonymous iGerman conscripts, after the Cracow massacre, combing the ghetto with the remorseless doggedness of petty officialdom, their stethoscopes pressed to the ceilings just in case there's anyone still breathing up there. Thus, the greater German "list" - process, procedures, rules to be followed - within which Schindler's had to operate; a system which transforms the stethoscope into an instrument of death and issues it to its infantrymen: In denying the Jews' humanity, the Germans killed their own.