10 January 2010

49. Schindler's List



This past year has allowed me to look at Spielberg in a new light. In the past, I had a knee-jerk reaction to his films, thinking I was clever for not liking them because they were popular. I was wrong.

As I mentioned in previous blogs about his films (and, correspondingly, about Martin Scorsese's films), they are almost always written exceedingly well, but the writing is almost always beside the point. This makes sense -- one of the many traits of a strong, legendary director is the ability to pick good material, a script that he can personalize and make his own. Going further, that director takes the script, casts it impeccably, and then discovers visual means of manipulating emotions, of telling the story economically, of getting the point of the story across. Spielberg does so in spades here.

This is a big story and one that can be endlessly dissected, so let's just look at a few examples relating to the above. The rumor has it that the "Ghetto Liquidation" sequence was only about a page of description in the script, but Spielberg turned it into a sequence, a set-piece, a filmed testimony of oral history by living witnesses. It consists of countless characters with little arcs, myriad locations, special effects, visual beauty and well-crafted editing to hold it all together. This is a prime example of the power of this story told visually (there are very few words throughout, and most don't matter) by the director, not through the writing.

Another example of the power of the filmmaker over that of the writer. Fiennes wants his tub scrubbed. The concentration camp kid can't get the soap scum out. Fiennes thinks about what Schindler said and he lets the kid go. We see the kid walking away. We see Fiennes back in his bathroom: "I pardon you," he says to himself, wondering if there is power in that. We see the kid again, being shot at (is it a warning shot?), we see Fiennes again. And then, we see Kingsley walking past the kid's dead body. The power in that sequence is that of a master storyteller using editing, acting, camera angles and movement (notice the dolly shot used as punctuation at the end) to show the horror of a psychotic man acting inside the guise of war. It's written well, yes, but that's not where the power comes from.

That said, there are several things to admire in the writing. While Fiennes is a sociopath and a distinct villain, Schindler is shown in shades of grey. He's a complex man, not a pure hero and thus we are able to identify with him. He drinks, he cheats, he gambles, he's greedy. In short, he's a human, and characterizing him as such is powerful because we come away with this: a mere man, not a hero, was able to save these lives.

I also like the slow reveal of information about his factories. Throughout, we think he's simply a war profiteer. Even though he's helping, it's really because he's got a bottom line and the secondary notion is to rescue Jews. Then we see a room stocked with pots and pans to the ceiling, and we see Kingsley tell him he's broke and Schindler remark "I should be very unhappy if this factory makes one usable shell" that the extent of his con game with the Nazis is revealed. It wouldn't have the same impact if we had known this from the get-go.

However, what I most appreciate about the writing here, particularly, is that the script is structured in a traditional Classical Hollywood style, yet it also contains many small, almost self-contained set piece that could basically be stand-alone short films. The above example is one. The hinge bit is another. The one-armed machinist who thanks Schindler and is later killed shoveling snow is another. The "gas chamber bed-time story", followed by the Hungarians arriving, is another.

Like the best Hollywood work, this is economical storytelling above all else. It allows us into many lives, into many aspects of Nazi sadism, into a more complete picture of the horror of this war.

There's much more to say about this remarkable movie, but the last thing I want to mention is this: this has to be one of the best lit movie I've seen in my entire life. Unbelievable cinematography, always beautiful, and always in service of the story.

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