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Give Me An Oscar- why "Schindler's List" is bad

by Tony Pellum

Schindler's List is quite possibly the most praised movie of the decade. This 185-minute classic won seven Academy Awards in 1994 and was the only film released in the last quarter-century to make the American Film Institute's top ten list of best American movies of all-time. Schindler's List is an important film, but not necessarily a good one. As a piece of art, Schindler's List falls short, but it is sufficient enough for raising awareness of the Holocaust. Although the ethical side of the film must not be neglected, we must speak of the film's artistic merit, putting feelings aside. Not that emotion isn't important, only that our emotional responses to the Holocaust that can stand as an obstacle in fairly judging the film.

The screenplay is based on Thomas Keneally's 1982 novel about the life of Oskar Schindler, a German Nazi businessman who single-handedly saved over 1,100 Jews from extermination in the concentration camps during World War II. At first, Schindler (Liam Neeson) is only interested in the Jews for cheap labor to further enhance his bank account, but he eventually becomes quite the humanitarian and begins to take giant risks in order to save "his Jews" from the horrors of the concentration camps. He kept hundreds in his factory and out of the camps while challenging and manipulating an especially vicious and childish S.S. officer. Throughout, Spielberg depicts savage scenes of random, cruel slaughter within the Polish ghetto, and later within the concentration camps. Much of this barbarous behavior is seen in the S.S. officer, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), an overindulgent brat with murderous power. Schindler undergoes a subtle transformation from slave exploiter, to savior, and finally, in a hard to handle final turn towards sentiment, a hero that goes into hiding. A scene that appears detached and unrepresentative of Schindler's behavior, as well as totally fabricated, an outrageous sob sell-out, not being part of the original novel. The only prominent Jewish character in the story is Schindler's Jewish accountant (Ben Kingsley) who gives the film some warmth, but is overall, a powerless and underdeveloped character.

Cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski filmed the movie in almost entirely black and white. While this was particularly effective in some scenes giving the film a detached, gloomy atmosphere, it appears that Kaminski and Spielberg are inexperienced in black and white film. While the color scenes are impressive and quite symbolic, Spielberg failed to use lighting in any consistent or reasonable way, making the film in black and white, without being a black-and-white film. The film did make some very significant technical achievements. The steps taken in visual effects increase the realistic portrayal of the film. The film allowed the audience to see people killed in ways that were impossible to capture on film before. However, seeing how the mind is capable of producing the most horrifying of scenes, and the visual power that actual footage from concentration camps strikes with, these effects may be seen as improperly used and unnecessary.

In judging the film's artistic quality, we must first determine whether the fundamental focus of the film is Schindler or the Holocaust. This issue is very important in determining it's historical relevance. If the film is simply about Schindler, it has little to no historical value and must be treated as any other film: a singular point of view, taking many historical liberties. However, if the film is intended to be perceived as a historical, factual account of the Holocaust, we must determine if it fairly and accurately represents the subject.

If the film is meant to be seen as one man's story, based on a few key characters, Spielberg fails miserably. While the actors do a commendable job for their performances, the character development is lacking. Spielberg fails to address the issue of why Schindler had a change of heart, why the Nazi's were so brutal to the Jews, and, while the Holocaust is predominantly about the Jewish struggle, why there are no central Jewish characters. While Schindler undergoes this subtle change from greedy to heroic, Spielberg fails to announce any reason for it. Is it likely that one man in such a powerful, entrepreneurial position would choose to become the humanitarian? While Spielberg introduces cold-hearted characters who abuse their power and kill many innocent Jews, it simply doesn't make sense that amongst those standing silent, that one would rise up and save over a thousand Jews. Seeing how this unlikely event occurred, it is absurd that this rise in one man's morale and humanitarianism, and obvious inward struggle is completely overlooked by Spielberg.

It is difficult to believe that Spielberg didn't intend Schindler's List to be considered a historical work. When a film is made to teach and relive history, it is mandatory for that film to accurately portray the events. Spielberg unsuccessfully tried to weave historical context into Schindler's story. The nature of art is to select which situations are important. Schindler's List does depict several local events that should categorize the Holocaust in general. We must determine whether or not these instances are credible and typical of history. After seeing the film, one might easily interpret that the S.S. is the only cause of evil and the sole cause of the Holocaust, and that there was only a select few Germans who believed themselves superior to the Jews. While this couldn't be further from the truth, it may explain why the film did so well in Germany, helping the Germans to believe that they weren't all evil. One of the main problems with the film is disproportion. For each Schindler, there wasn't one Goeth, but hundreds. Even worse, there were thousands of ignorants who didn't care about or change the situation. The film doesn't acknowledge this fact. The only explanation for the Nazi's behavior in the film is given by its hero, Schindler. He said that Goeth is really a good man and that it was the war that turned him evil. Those witnessing Goeth's behavior shouldn't accept this explanation, it is quite evident that he is cruel by nature. But what about the other Nazi's? The film doesn't describe any. They simply observe and follow orders, viewing Jews as animals. However, an explanation for this behavior is again ignored.

Thousands of voices are needed in successful documentary filmmaking, yet very few are needed for dramatic filmmaking. Dramatic filmmaking relies upon an intimate knowledge of few characters in order to make personal empathy possible. Schindler's List relies on weak character development and slaughter of random, hollow characters. Spielberg gives us an intimate view of a few characters, but there are problems with these. First, Schindler isn't a Jew. From a historical perspective, a Jew should be the center of attention in a film about the Holocaust. Schindler's List, as well as films such as Salvador, where El Salvador's history is reduced to the experiences in an American Journalist's life, exemplify a marketing cop-out to give the film's audience someone to relate to culturally. However, it may have been more effective to put a Jew as the center of attention, with Schindler as an interesting sidelight. The Holocaust should have been the center of attention, with Schindler's factory in the background. The main Jewish character in the film is Stern. However, he has no family, interests, passions, or background. He gives up little of himself and is spared from the horrors of the Holocaust. The camp commandant's Jewish housekeeper may be a better example, yet suffers in silence. The rest of the film's Jews are shallow cameos (i.e. the woman engineer, the hinge-maker, and the girl in the red dress). They express some suffering, but then leave, never becoming individuals. Spielberg attempts to add several voices to the film, trying to make it more documentary style. However, his lack of character development doesn't make it as effective of a drama, and it's historical misrepresentation doesn't elevate it to documentary standards. The film teeter-totters between these two genres without delving deeply enough in either to be effective.

I fear that Schindler's List will become historically viewed as Sergei Eisenstein's October is. Both are monumentally important in the history of filmmaking, but shouldn't be taught as history. In Russia, there is no actual film of the Russian Revolution. Eisenstein's brilliant use of montage results in the use of the film in schools. Russian schools teach Eisenstein's October as history. The persuasive nature of film can be a very dangerous tool. Films should not be shown as history. History is made up of multiple points of view, while a film shows only one of them. Schindler's List is not a sufficient tale of the Holocaust. Anyone who has seen actual footage by the troops as they entered the concentration camps knows that the visual impact is greatly diminished in Schindler's List. One film cannot supply the demands of history.

The film's greatest success is that it raised Holocaust awareness. Although many will walk out of the film with little understanding of why the Holocaust happened, questioning why these characters behaved the way they did, and ignorant to the historical details which suggest that the atrocities of the Holocaust were much worse, those unfamiliar with the Holocaust will know that it existed. The Holocaust isn't a story of the survivors, as the film suggests. It is not a story of charity and brutality. It is a story of millions of people who had the misfortune of being exterminated simply because they were Jewish. Spielberg appears insincere and blind to these facts. He ignores all of the difficult questions and fails to represent all of the facts. I believe that this film would not have been as accepted and praised if Spielberg hadn't be Jewish himself, as if that adds relevance to the story. While Schindler's List is a monumentally important film, I hope that people realize that it is only a film. It doesn't necessarily represent truth. I hope that this film urges others to ask the difficult questions and to search for their answers. Neither of which the film provides.

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