After his many commercial blockbusters, it may have seemed odd that Steven Spielberg would turn his Midas-touching hand to something as 'serious' as Thomas Keneally's non-fiction novel 'Schindler's Ark' (1982). Amazingly, Spielberg started working on it before JURASSIC PARK had even been completed, and edited both simultaneously using a Warsaw TV station and a satellite link. Some artistic licence was taken, though; both Ben Kingsley's character `Itzhak Stern' and his actions were actually a composite of three men: Itzhak Stern (Schindler's accountant), Mietek Pemper (Amon Göth's stenographer) and Abraham Bankier (DEF's manager) - these latter two are not mentioned at all in the film - whilst the mercurial Marcel Goldberg (Göth/Plaszow's personnel clerk) was the one who actually drew up The List.
Both effort to the highest production values and attention to even the minutest detail in the making of this film were - and still are - impressive. Being shot in harsh but crisp black & white lent a noirish 'docudrama' effect. Cloying sentiment is deliberately absent, save for Itzhak Perlman's mournful violin and `Red Genia;' alone and bewildered, running around aimlessly during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, she is there to tug at the viewer's heartstrings ... and does so successfully. Both the portrayal and 'quality' of the gunshot executions is uncomfortably brutal and realistic (eg. Diana Reiter, the female University of Lublin engineering graduate). SCHINDLER'S LIST was filmed entirely in Poland. Dialogue coaches were brought in to get the pronunciation and syntax of various central and eastern European accents exactly right - both those of the former Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans living in enclaves abroad) and of the Axis partners alike. Like John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) said in the dinosaur movie, "Spared no expense ..."
The film was not without controversy, of course. The Muslim world refused to allow its screening - Malaysia initially gave it a release, then withdrew that after 'suggestions' from brethren Muslims elsewhere. And of course the neo-Nazis, career-Revisionists and standard-issue anti-Semites regarded it as science-fiction anyway. Even in the Western world there were those who felt that using emaciated Croatians recently released from Serb 'concentration-camps' as nude extras for the degrading scenes of running around Plaszow camp ... was pushing the bounds of good taste.
I saw this film on a rainy afternoon in the once-great ABC cinema in Norwich, several weeks after release when the mad rush had subsided. There were only ca. fifty people in the auditorium, spread out. During some of the more horrific scenes (such as Amon Göth's potshots off the balcony [in reality he did so from a nearby hill] and his farcical 'execution' of rabbi Levartov [the hinge-maker] ... clearly, Göth rarely bothered to maintain his pistol's serviceability) one was able to observe other viewers' reactions. With the exception of one lady a few rows in front of me, it was the stoïc resignation (or so it appeared in the gloom) of a consumerist society inured to cinematic violence and brutality. But this one lady flinched with every gunshot, gasped at every callous act, and wept openly during the final rock-laying tribute. Unusually sensitive? Perhaps reliving personal experiences? Actually, I quietly applauded her ... for not losing her humanity, nor her ability to be shocked by scenes however well-filmed, and for Feeling Something.
SCHINDLER'S LIST is about the Krakow Jews, but is a simile for what was happening throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. The barbarity of the Endlösung - the scenes of the piles of chalked suitcases, stacks of shoes, shelves of precious metal ornaments and jewelled trinkets, and boxes of extracted gold teeth - reminds us of the large-scale organized theft of property as well as the deliberate, state-sponsored theft of Life (there were even efforts to use human body oils to produce ersatz soap, but manufacture thereof proved to be "un-economic"). Particularly harrowing - for us, the audience - is the frightful anticipation when the anguished and terrified women, misrouted to Auschwitz instead of to Brünnlitz, are shorn of their hair, have to strip naked and crowd into a shower-room ... but instead of the expected Zyklon-B ... it is a shower. Less fortunate are a column of others, entering a building above which towers a large chimney belching smoke ...
It is unfair to hold the excesses of the Second World War (and there were so many) against the German people. The vast majority of Germans, reeling from humiliation at Versailles and utter impoverishment following the 1923 and 1929 economic crises, were mesmerized by dazzling promises of progress into a never-never land of perceived achievement(s), to the extent that the 'downside' - never mentioned by Goebbels' all-pervasive Ministry of Propaganda & Public Enlightenment until Russian artillery was pulverizing Berlin - was overlooked. And the most inhuman Germans were not alone in their anti-Semitism: auxiliaries from the Ukraine, Belorussia, Lithuania and Latvia - and even Poles (eg. the hatred in the little Polish girl's cries, "Goodbye Jews ... Goodbye Jews ...") - often outdid German SS guards in reaching indescribable depths of sickening cruelty and sadism at such generally-unknown places as Vilnius Fort No. 9, Ponary and Maly Trostinets. An entire people are never evil ... only individuals are evil.
Could it happen again? Well, as long as there are Human Beings on the planet ... yes. Unfortunately, ignorance, intolerance, bigotry and spite are very much human traits. L.P. Hartley said, "The past is another country, they do things differently there," whilst Hegel reminds us that, "He who does not learn from the past is doomed to repeat it." For there have been several such repeats since 1945: Pakistan-India, Tibet, Zaïre, Vietnam, Cambodia, Moçambique, Kurdistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Burma, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Rwanda, East-Timor, Kossovo, Israel/Palestine, western Sudan ...