For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
As I move towards the final films on AFI’s list, directors who have multiple films on the list begin to come into focus. Their body of work starts to form patterns and the historical perspective, within the context of popular American cinema, gives insight into their influences and inspiration.
#8 “Schindler’s List” is Steven Spielberg‘s final appearance on AFI’s top 100. It is his fifth film to appear, after “E.T.,” “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “Saving Private Ryan.” What this list of films from Spielberg illustrates to me is a filmmaker’s uncanny ability to choose compelling subject matter, even more so than his talent as an artist. Each film taps into a core desire or fantasy of an enormous group of people.
“E.T.” gives us childhood fantasy, and the desire to be chosen or special. “Jaws” taps into our primal fears, and terrifies us with an unseen attacker. “Raiders” gives us an escape from everyday life, and places us within a conspiracy driven supernatural adventure. Finally “Saving Private Ryan” taps into the collective nostalgia and sacrifice of an aging generation. To attack any one of these films risks a backlash from those that sympathize with and hold dear the subject matter, even when the films themselves are flawed.
I have had my differences with Spielberg’s approach to filmmaking, and I have participated in arguments over the importance of his work, most notably in regards to “E.T.” Before I dive into “Schindler’s List” specifically, I would like to pose a question concerning Spielberg’s work that has appeared thus far. As the only director with five films scattered throughout AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list, he is presented as more influential than any other single director. Does Spielberg deserve such a vaunted position?
I of course have my opinion, but the question is not rhetorical. I would like someone to try and show me how Steven Spielberg is more important than Stanley Kubrick, Billy Wilder, Charlie Chaplin, or Alfred Hitchcock. I feel that though Spielberg has a few films that are deserving of praise, his importance has been severely overinflated, because the subject matter that he chooses is without reproach.
My wife, Jaime, nailed it when she said that Steven Spielberg is the New York Yankees of filmmaking. He has the money to buy all the talent he could ever hope for, the marketing power to promote any film to a successful opening weekend, and a knack for understanding what will sell. Most modern Yankees fans seem to value winning over the love baseball. Most Spielberg fans seem to love winning over a love of film. Even though he produced them and did not direct them, the Transformers films should illustrate my point.
In regards to “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg chooses a subject that is ready made for a compelling visual story. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is an unlikely hero. A pragmatic war profiteer, he finds himself at first taking advantage of then sympathizing with Jews in Krakow during World War II. Schindler goes so far as to transport and protect a large group of Jewish laborers until the end of the war.
In his introduction of Schindler, Spielberg presents us with a man that craves power and status. He is corrupt and charming, and most importantly he knows exactly how to get what he wants. Schindler is not evil, but he is pragmatic and understands how the war can work to his advantage.
When the subject leads the visual content, then “Schindler’s List” is a success. Unfortunately Spielberg has never been known as a director who has a light touch. His compulsion to overwork his subject into a frothy lather works against “Schindler’s List” and gives us a film that is also one quarter saccharine filled moments that belong in a made for television drama, not a powerful cinematic offering about the Holocaust.
Many have speculated as to what the girl in the red dress means. I think the answer is simple. Spielberg needs to give Schindler something that can act as a fulcrum for his shift from profiteer to protector. He also needs to make this fulcrum visually distinct, so that the audience will recognize it.
Spielberg makes two mistakes with this particular image. First, he should give us some way of making this child visually distinct that works well in black and white. It seems a sloppy choice to color-tint the dress, and feels similar to voiceover that is created as an afterthought to clarify meaning and ease a scene. Some distinct ornamentation on her outfit would have worked in black and white, and would have been a more elegant choice.
Second, we are given a single child that motivates Schindler to his act of humanity. Do we need such a singular element with the enormity of violence that surrounds Schindler? The death of an innocent is always a tragedy, but how does this one child standout amongst the piles of the dead who are incinerated? I find the hill of burning bodies a more emotionally poignant image, and one that could easily motivate our protagonist. I just find the girl in the red dress a bit of distracting and unsubtle filmmaking.
Though I think that Spielberg’s forced sentimentality does rupture the film, it does not derail it, and there are moments when Spielberg can give us a visual punch to the gut.
Ralph Fiennes gives a great performance as Goeth. It would be difficult to make such a despicable character even slightly sympathetic, but Fiennes manages to increase Goeth’s terrifying presence by also making him charming and human. Though Goeth is entirely condemnable, his actions arise from human weakness, which makes him all the more frightening.
During the first two hours of “Schindler’s List,” the film builds slowly. Spielberg incrementally ratchets up the violence on screen, so that Schindler and the viewer accept the scenario that develops. All of this changes when the bodies of those killed during the forced expulsion of the Krakow ghetto are exhumed and incinerated.
With that, Schindler and Stern create the list.
Beginning with the incineration and continuing until all of the labor force arrives in Czechoslovakia, Spielberg begins a truly epic visual journey that is reminiscent of John Ford, F.W. Murnau, or John Huston.
The men, chosen by Schindler, arrive safely in Czechoslovakia, but the women are accidentally sent to Auschwitz. One doesn’t need words when you have images like this to tell your story.
Schindler discovers that an error has been made, and that the women he selected for his factory have instead been marked for extermination at Auschwitz. He makes a round of appeals and bribes the correct individuals to insure that the Jewish women, who he had on his list, are sent to him.
Even so, the girls are separated as nonessential but Schindler makes a passionate appeal, claiming that only their hands are small enough to polish the insides of shell casings.
Though the time at Auschwitz is a remarkable piece of cinema that shows tact courage and subtlety, Spielberg can’t allow his work to just be. After the end of the war and a heartfelt speech from Schindler, Spielberg must have his protagonist breakdown, and vocalize the emotions that we should be feeling.
How much more complex would it have been if Schindler had simply shaken Stern’s hand, looked around, and left? It would have forced the viewer to come to the conclusion that Spielberg too easily provides.
The epilogue further ruptures the film as a narrative. I can understand the impulse to have the Schindler Jews participate in this project, but though it is a touching documentary moment, it feels as though we are being force-fed.
I find it troublesome that many of the same critics who tore down “The Color Purple” and “The Empire of the Sun,” two films that I feel are better than “Schindler’s List,” for being overly sentimental and poorly constructed, would praise the fearlessness of Spielberg and the power of his Holocaust epic, without pointing out the forceful manipulation that Spielberg uses to conclude his film.
The content is unquestionably gripping and beyond critique, but that stands apart from a discussion of “Schindler’s List” as a film or work of art. I do think that “Schindler’s List” is a solid film, and it probably does deserves a place on AFI’s list, but the flaws that distract from the content should be considered before placing this film in the top 10. The top of this list should be reserved for films that approach perfection, and though it shows potential, “Schindler’s List” falls far short.
Up Next #7 “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962)
For links to #10-19, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #10 The Wizard of Oz (1939)
For links to #20-29, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #20 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
For links to #30-39, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)
For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)
For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)