Schindler’s List: Holocaust in Film

(For more on Schindler’s List, also check out this additional post that summarizes common criticism’s of the movie.)

Schindler's List DVD Cover Image

Schindler’s List is a movie by Steven Spielberg that was released in 1993. The movie is based loosely on a book written by Thomas Keneally, which is also called Schindler’s List. The book, in turn, is based on the eyewitness testimony of Holocaust survivors who were saved by the actions of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and member of the Nazi Party who used his position and influence to turn his enamelware manufacturing labor camp into a refuge for Jews. The movie attempts to track the course of these events while also showing Schindler’s inner transformation from a cold, calculating businessman into a savior. The events depicted in the movie take place near the end of World War II in Kraków and later in the Płaszów labor/concentration camp, both of which are in Poland.

Various methods were used to turn this semi-historical information into an entertaining movie. Spielberg’s choice of coloring in the film was very intentional. Schindler’s List was designed in a way to make the audience feel as though they were viewing something historically accurate and making the film (mostly) black and white, rather than color, was a deliberate and effective means of making that connection. This was probably done to connect emotionally with the viewer and pull him or her along as the story progresses.  Spielberg also set up his characters in an oppositional way that is simple and easy to understand, probably to appeal to a wider audience, and reinforced this image of good vs. evil through the use of light and dark imagery.

Schindler’s List is almost entirely shot in black and white, but there are scenes that are in color for added effect. The opening scene of the movie is in full color and shows a Jewish family lighting the Shabbat candles on a Friday evening. As the candles burn down and the flame goes out, the film transitions to full black and white. The point of this switch to black and white is to give the movie a documentary-style feel, to impress upon the viewer the historical reality of what is being depicted and more easily elicit an emotional response. I won’t go into the problem of presenting fictionalized material in a way that makes it appear to be completely historically accurate here. Essentially, what Spielberg has done is make it easier for the audience to empathize with people they know are real. The climax of this effective use of color is in the final scenes, when the characters in black and white transition to the actual living survivors when the film was shot. They are shown moving across a field and then moving forward in a line to lay flowers on the grave of Oskar Schindler. That scene completes the emotional connection and reinforces the power of what the audience just saw in the rest of the film.

The most famous use of color in the film is the “girl in the red coat” in the Kraków ghetto liquidation scene. In this scene, everything is black and white except for the coat a little girl is wearing. The camera follows her as she walks down a street and adults are gunned down behind her and in front of her. This is meant to draw the audience’s attention and probably to emphasize the innocence of the children who suffered through this event. The next time the audience sees the red coat the little girl was wearing is when it is in a pile in a wheelbarrow. The audience is left to draw the conclusion that she no longer needs it anymore, because she is dead. Another instance of coloring in the film is during the Friday Shabbat candle lighting ceremony in Schindler’s factory. Schindler not only gives permission to, but insists that the rabbi in the factory welcome the Sabbath. During this scene, the flames of the candle are in color again, like they were in the opening scene of the movie. This may indicate a restoration of the Jewish people, through Schindler’s respect for them as human beings.

Color also plays an important role in the depiction of characters in the film, primarily in the use of shadows on their faces. This ties in with the essentially oppositional nature of the main characters in the film: Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth. To make this film more easily understood by a wider audience, Spielberg created a good vs. evil paradigm that posits Schindler as the hero and Goeth as the bad guy. Schindler is the troubled hero who starts out selfish and uninterested in others, much like Spiderman. Like Peter Parker, Schindler has to experience a traumatic event before he changes his mind about the Jewish people and uses his power for good. Like Parker’s uncle Ben, Schindler has the one-armed man and the girl in the red coat, among others. Schindler’s path to heroism is painted in a very easily understood way. Goeth is presented as an ultimate evil, a man that is beyond the bounds of sanity. He even has an evil sounding accent and an army of evil henchmen (the camp guards). To take the comic-book reference a bit further, we can think of Helen Hirsch as the damsel in distress that the hero, Schindler, rescues from the bad guy, Goeth.

This set-up of hero and villain is reinforced throughout the film by facial lighting effects. When Schindler is introduced, he is dark and mysterious and his face isn’t shown in full. When he is doing something negative, his face is in shadows. For example, when a Jewish woman shows up at his office to ask for his help, he is shown at the top of a staircase, in the distance and completely in shadows. Why? Because this scene shows him bowing to his dark impulses. In this case, he is acting on his lust for attractive women and because this woman is dressed conservatively, he sends her away. When she comes back dressed in a sexually appealing way, he agrees to meet her. When Schindler does something good, his face is shown fully lighted. An example is when he gives a chocolate bar to Helen Hirsch when questioning her in the basement, to reveal his good will toward her.

Fascism is not really addressed in this film, because it focuses more on Oskar Schindler and his transformation from Nazi party-man to Jewish savior. Oddly enough, the same can be said about the role of Jewish people in the film. There are many opportunities for character development, but the only Jew that really gets any serious screen-time is Yitzchak Stern. The Jewish people in Schindler’s List are essentially part of the backdrop of the Holocaust and act as supporting players to tell Schindler’s story. Not to belittle Schindler’s efforts, but it is odd that a film dedicated to the memory of six million dead Jews gives them so little time to tell their own stories, or act in any meaningful way.

Despite any flaws the movie has, Schindler’s List is an important part of the film industry’s portrayal of the Holocaust. It is the top rated Holocaust movie according to IMDB.com and has and will expose more people to the Jewish tragedy of World War II than any history book is likely to do, as sad as that may be. The use of color and the portrayal of the characters is very effective in drawing in and holding the attention of the viewer, allowing them to experience the film without having to think too hard about it.

Criticism of Schindler’s List: Holocaust in Film

Oskar Schindler from Schindler's List
Oskar Schindler from Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List, a movie directed by Steven Spielberg, was released in 1993 in the United States. The movie is loosely based on a book of the same title by Thomas Keneally, which in turn is based on the testimony of the true events surrounding Oskar Schindler. In Schindler’s List, Schindler is a German industrialist who uses World War II as an opportunity to reap massive profits. To accomplish this, he develops relationships with German military officers that he later exploits to secure a cheap Jewish labor force from the nearby Kraków ghetto, and later, when they are moved, from the Płaszów labor/concentration camp. About halfway through the movie, Schindler begins to care about the lives of Jews, especially those that work at his factory, so he uses his status as a Nazi industrialist to turn his factory into a refuge for Jews, eventually bankrupting himself to save the lives of approximately 1,100 Jewish people.[1]

Schindler's List - Official® Trailer [HD]

Schindler’s List is number eight of the top two hundred and fifty movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database. In 1994, Schindler’s List won seven Oscar’s, including Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Cinematography; Best Director; Best Film Editing; Best Music, Original Score; Best Picture; and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published. The film won seventy other awards and was nominated for an additional twenty-four.[2] The film has been heaped with praise and positive reviews, but not everyone is pleased with the movie. It has also received a fair share of criticism and having researched negative reviews for recurring themes and patterns, this paper will present and explore the most commonly cited reasons why people did not enjoy the movie. Complaints about Schindler’s List are not as varied as those for Life is Beautiful. People are primarily disappointed by the directorial style, bad acting and the way characters and groups of people are portrayed in the movie. All of these issues are interconnected and perhaps the real issue behind all of the complaints is that this movie is presented in a way that pretends to be historically accurate instead of entertainment, which is misleading and manipulative.[3]


The most common refrain among negative reviews is that Steven Spielberg, director of popular entertainment flicks like Jurassic Park, The Goonies and Back to the Future, should have stuck to directing “kid’s movies”, because he was out of his depth when it came to creating a proper film about the Holocaust.[4] Many reviewers did not elaborate, simply calling the movie shallow, simple and predictable, but others cited specific complaints regarding Spielberg’s style.

The girl in the red dress from Schindler's List
The girl in the red dress from Schindler’s List

The first complaint was that Spielberg’s use of black and white to mimic historical footage is problematic in two ways: first, it creates an association in the viewer’s mind with historical documentary footage, in an attempt to more easily elicit emotional responses to violence portrayed in the movie; and second, it gives the viewer the impression that what they’re watching is historically accurate, which isn’t necessarily the case. Also regarding color choice, Spielberg was criticized for what is one of the most memorable scenes in the film: the girl with the red dress. Some reviewers found this use of color as symbolism to be too heavy handed an approach and wondered why Spielberg couldn’t be more subtle and allow the viewer to make these connections in a different way, instead of “bludgeoning” the audience into getting his message.[5]

Other aspects of the movie were also considered to be manipulative and contrived. For example, in the scene where Stern is mistakenly put on the train, what was the point of the train starting to move out of the station while they were still searching? In a realistic situation, wouldn’t the Nazi military official run directly to the front of the train and tell the conductor to wait while they find Stern? Instead, the train is stopped at the last moment, after they find Stern, artificially building suspense to get a quick reaction from the audience, rather than to progress the storyline. Other reviewers complained that the music is used in a manipulative way as well, starting before the action, to let you know how you should feel about what is about to happen. Essentially, Spielberg presents his material in a highly dramatized way that is intended to take the audience for an emotional journey, rather than an intellectual one, and tricks the viewer into thinking they’ve learned something historical, when in reality they’ve simply watched a fictional recreation of a fictional recreation of historical events.[6]

Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth from Schindler's List
Left: Evil (aka Amon Goeth); Right: Good (aka Oskar Schindler).

Also problematic is the way the characters are depicted in the film, which ties in with complaints about Spielberg oversimplifying a complicated topic and manipulating his audience. In his presentation of the story, Spielberg takes a complex, morally ambiguous Schindler and turns him into an absolute hero. He then props up Goeth as an ultimate evil, giving the audience an easy good-guy/bad-guy dichotomy so they can enjoy the movie without having to strain themselves intellectually and ponder the deeper questions that a story like Schindler’s poses. For example, how is it that a man many would call morally bankrupt was able to pull off something as grand as saving the lives of over one-thousand people while other people one would label “good” sat back and did nothing? Or worse, contributed to the Nazi extermination effort? What causes a man like Goeth to be compassionate to his friends and perhaps his family, while being casually violent and indifferent to the suffering of the Jews? What causes that sort of emotional and mental disconnect? None of these questions are adequately addressed. There is no gray area in this movie, just black and white, like the choice of filming color.[7]


By presenting Schindler as an absolute saint and Goeth as an absolute evil, Spielberg deprives the audience of the ability to understand the Holocaust. Goeth was a bad guy, but he wasn’t the ultimate evil, and he wasn’t the only evil. He didn’t do bad things because that’s what Nazis do and the Holocaust wasn’t caused by someone who, as Goeth is depicted in this film, went mad. It was a bureaucratized, systematized, planned and scheduled genocidal extermination of an entire population of people, characterized by dehumanization and casual violence. At the outbreak of World War II, Germany was the most educated and cultured country in Europe, so what is it about Jews that makes Goeth so angry he discharges his weapon into a pile of dead bodies? Why does he casually shoot at Jews from his balcony in Plaszow? These are issues that should have been addressed in a movie that Spielberg presents as epitomizing the Holocaust by sending the movie to schools around the country, as if it were documentary and instructional rather than entertainment.[8]

Also, why does Schindler’s List have so little to say about the Jews themselves? Isn’t this movie about the Holocaust and the destruction of 6 million Jews? Why are the roles afforded to Jews in the movie so passive and two-dimensional? The only significantly complex Jewish character in the film is Stern, and he serves only a supporting role to Schindler’s character development. By denying the Jewish victims of the Holocaust an active role in their own survival, it instead becomes a story about Schindler’s redemption, a sort of good guy vs. bad guy fairy tale.[9]

The last major complaint about the movie ties into the simplified portrayal of Schindler and Goeth: it just wasn’t historically accurate. All of the other problems are tied to this complaint about historical accuracy, and that’s probably because the Holocaust was such a defining moment in history, especially for the Jewish people. It should be translated into film in a way that respects the actual events, and like I previously mentioned, the conversion of Schindler into a savior figure and the role of Goeth as the evil arch-nemesis reduces this complicated event into a fable. Schindler was a much more ambiguous person and he wasn’t exactly a saint. When asked why he felt the need to help the Jewish people, he didn’t say it was because he suddenly realized that all people are equal, he said that if you see a dog that is going to be crushed by a car, wouldn’t you help it?[10] Schindler still considered the Jews to be something less than human.

Schindler’s List is certainly an outstanding achievement that is not without value as an entertaining film that can potentially introduce people to the subject of the Holocaust that otherwise would never have known anything about it, but it has deep flaws. What some people consider to be the greatest Holocaust movie of all time, others feel is a shallow movie that turns a real tragedy into a fairy tale between good and evil, black and white. But perhaps the most serious problem with this film is that it poses as a historically accurate educational tool, making the defining movie about the Holocaust a Hero story about a Nazi instead of a film depicting the dehumanization, suffering and death of millions of Jews. And that’s not even counting the disservice it does to the millions of non-Jews who died in the Holocaust that it doesn’t even mention.



[1] IMDb, “Schindler’s List (1993),” 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] IMDb, “Reviews & Ratings for Schindler’s List,” 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, “Oskar Schindler (1908-1974),” 2013.

 

References

Flixster, Inc. 2013. “Schindler’s List Reviews.” Rotten Tomatoes by Flixster. May 6. Accessed June 16, 2013. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/schindlers_list/reviews/#.

IMDb. 2013. “Reviews & Ratings for Schindler’s List.” Internet Movie Database. June 15. Accessed June 16, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108052/reviews?filter=chrono.

—. 2013. “Schindler’s List (1993).” Internet Movie Database. June 16. Accessed June 16, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108052/?ref_=sr_1.

The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. 2013. “Oskar Schindler (1908-1974).” Jewish Virtual Library. June 18. Accessed June 18, 2013. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/schindler.html.

Night and Fog: The Holocaust in Film

The documentary, Night and Fog, directed by Alain Resnais, was produced in 1955 as a short historical documentary about concentration camps used during the Holocaust. The film’s original language is French and the original title is “Nuit et brouillard.” I watched the film using English subtitles. Night and Fog doesn’t attempt to explain how the Holocaust happened. Rather, it is a short film that attempts to explain what happened using a combination of historical footage and contemporary images and video of several concentration camps in Poland. Night and Fog is full of juxtapositions of contradictions: contemporary scenes vs. historical scenes, idyllic music vs. dramatic music, the normal or mundane vs. the absurd reality of the camps.

Night and Fog mixes scenes of contemporary color footage with historical black and white footage. This is done in a way that contrasts the almost pastoral scenes of the period of filming with the reality of what happened in those places in the past. As the narrator says, almost any place, even a resort village with a county fair, could lead to a concentration camp. In the contemporary footage, the narrator reinforces this contradiction by describing how new grass is growing, how a person might mistake a building for an actual clinic, and how the only thing left to see is a shell, devoid of the actions, emotions and experiences of the people that lived there. To go beyond that faҫade of normalcy, the historical footage is used, showing what actually went on inside those buildings and on those grounds. It’s a powerful way to remind the viewer to not dismiss the intensity of the events that happened in concentration camps just because they do not look that dangerous anymore.

Music also played an important role in defining different scenes in the film. From nearly the beginning of the documentary, it became obvious that the music seemed to be intentionally off, playful when it should have been somber, dramatic when it should have been idyllic, and almost graceful when it should have been attempting to express the inexpressible sadness of the scene. One of the most obvious examples of misplaced music is the scene depicting what happens to those who are sent “right” (rather than left, to work) to mass extermination after arriving in the concentration camps. In a scene where the music should be dark and brooding, the tone is soft, graceful, and almost dreamy. Another example is the scene showing the latrine. The music in this scene is probably the most forceful of the whole film, but it comes in at a point where one of those most normal and mundane actions in human life occurs. Why is the music misplaced? Perhaps it is to more closely hold the attention of the viewer by intentionally being jarring and discordant.  And perhaps the fact that the most idyllic music is shown at moments of death is meant to emphasize the peace that death brought compared to those who suffered the horrors of life in the concentration camp, which also touches on the next point.

The juxtaposition of the mundane and normal with the horrific events going on in the camps seems to have been purposely done to both emphasize the unnaturalness of life in the camps and to show the scale of the atrocity. “Normal” life is shown in the home of the commandant, with his bored wife acting in much the same way as she would in “any garrison town.” Just beyond the fences were scenes of “normal” life in nearby villages and towns. These scenes are juxtaposed with the scenes of the “town” the SS had actually built, where every aspect of life is a struggle to survive, even the toilets, where every act of relieving oneself became a litmus test for life expectancy. Normal life for inmates before being brought to the concentration camps is expressed in the film through showing the images of people in their passports. The scale in terms of numbers of people is added by flipping through dozens and dozens of pages of a leger showing camp inmates. The scale of the violence is shown through the casual litter of bodies found by liberating forces and in the way they were disposed of, almost as if they were sacks of garbage. The absurdity of their living situation is shown through their sleeping accommodations coupled with images of the presence of a green house, a brothel and even a zoo on camp grounds. Why add these conflicting images? To continue to break down the idea that anything normal or regular was happening in the camps, to express that it was a break with the natural progress of humanity?

The imagery used in the film is graphic and shocking. The purpose seems to be to force the viewer to observe the real result and purpose of the camps. Close-ups are regularly used. The camera seems to continually focus on the eyes, both in still images and on the eyes of the dead. This might just be for shock value, but it might also be meant to remind the viewer of the images of living, happy people shown in the entry visa photos, before their lives were altered by being in the concentration camps.

Night and Fog uses many techniques to aid in the narration of what happened in the concentration camps, to add impact and express ideas that cannot necessarily be verbalized. The film’s biggest tool is that of juxtaposing imagery to deliver the messages of scale, violence, and absurdity, and the necessity of not forgetting what happened just because things seem to be ok ‘now’. The narrator expresses this need to not forget, to go beyond the apparent faҫade, and watch out for the return of “monsters” that would plunge the world back into the absurdity epitomized by the concentration camps.