Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Four

Top5090s4

#4 — Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
In Empire magazine a couple of years ago, Francis Ford Coppola condescendingly asked Steven Spielberg (buffered by the safe distance afforded by an interlocutor) if he was going to ever make a “personal” film. Spielberg was understandably taken aback, insisting that every one of his films could be described that way. It sure seems to me that Spielberg wins that argument. I think there are few filmmakers whose individual works are so inextricably entangled in their creator’s place in the world at times they were made. Each film comes across as a precise statement on the concerns he’s grappling with, the problems he sees as he clenches an eye shut and peers into his viewfinder, and, more often than not, overt self-commentary on his own attempts to comes to terms with who he is as an artist.

In that context, Schindler’s List is commonly considered Spielberg’s first “adult” film. His prior stab at serious fare, 1987’s Empire of the Sun, is seen through the eyes of child, and its predecessor, 1985’s The Color Purple, may as well have been according to its many detractors, usually citing Spielberg’s timidity about depicting human sexuality to seal their argument. That holds up nicely if the film is considered in tandem with the candy-coated popcorn that is Jurassic Park, released earlier in the same year, as the decisive split between the two sides of his nature–childlike wonder and the solemn responsibilities of adulthood–that were explicitly at odds with one another in the otherwise negligible Peter Pan update Hook, released in 1990, and, in some ways, the strange sire of these two films that followed. Jurassic Park is the part of Spielberg that wanted to remain a kid forever, engaging in Play-Doh colored food fights with the other Lost Boys, and Schindler’s List is the part that longed to grow up.

There’s a clear appeal to that reading, but I think it’s also overly reductive. Schindler’s List isn’t a pivotal film for Spielberg because it represents him finally embracing maturity of mind and thought, considering the Nazis of World War II in a context other than cardboard villainy or deflective comic relief. What really sets the film apart from all those that came before it in the director’s filmography is that Spielberg has abdicated his self-imposed responsibility to be an entertainer, turning his astonishing technical acumen to the task of telling his story in a way that is harsh, probing and, in the end, completely devastating.

Adapted from Thomas Keneally’s biographical novel with consummate skill by Steven Zaillian, the film is about Oskar Schindler, a German manufacturing magnate who used his influence with Nazi authorities to get hundreds of Jewish people redirected from concentration camps to his factories. In the film, he positions himself as an opportunist profiting from slave labor, but his true intention is saving lives. Spielberg and his collaborators use the story as a pathway to a film that aspires to a greater understanding of the brutal horrors of The Holocaust. Gripping as the primary tale may be, the most memorable moments often arrive as the focus drifts ever so slightly to consider the broader impact of the tragic passage of history it depicts. No amount of drama can carry the same weight as the stark imagery of mountains of personal belongings at the station that’s the departure point for tightly packed trains to Auschwitz, items being sorted through with detached efficiency. Spielberg resists any temptation to soften the material, pushing himself and his film to capture the sorrow, pain and fear to the fullest extent possible.

The clearest example of cinematic invention within the film is also its most contentious scene. As the war is ending and Allied forces are approaching the factory, Schindler’s false persona as a stolid backer of the Nazis means he must flee. Right before he does, he addresses those he’s saved and laments all his small choices that could have been made differently to provide safe asylum to additional people. It’s pure fiction, and even feels like it in the moment. However, even if Spielberg is eschewing his entertainer instincts, he doesn’t dismiss his unmatched understanding of the emotional arcs of a film story, specifically the need for a moment of pure catharsis after the hours of grueling misery he’s presented. The characters need it, the audience needs it, and, most likely, the director needed it too. Spielberg spoke sincerely and openly about the ways in which making this film helped him connect to his own Jewish heritage as never before. The moment is Schindler’s tearful confession, but it’s Spielberg’s as well. Schindler’s List was a film that Spielberg tried to give away many times, offering it to Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese to direct before his guilty conscience drove him to decisively reclaim it, finally ready to devote his gifts to making a film of great challenge and import. It’s not hard to detect a quiet echo of regret for art unmade in Schindler’s anguished monologue.

Spielberg’s films that followed all live in the shadow of this one, not because of the importance of its subject matter, but due to the disciplined conviction of its telling. Spielberg directs as if this could be his final artistic statement, as if he recognizes the difficulty of speaking of anything else again once this has been said. It may not be his very best film, but it could be the truest expression of himself, his voice raised without reticence or guard.

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