#6: Schindler’s List (1993)

When and how did I watch this?

June 24th, 2017, on Netflix.

Had I seen this film already?

Nope.

What did I know about the movie before watching it?

I’m not sure why, but I happened to watch the 1994 Academy Awards. I’ve since learned that the Oscars are not a perfect gauge for the quality of films, and at the time I cared little for film beyond my 13 year old naivety, but I do remember Schindler’s List being repeated several times throughout the show and becoming curious what all the fuss was about. About seven years later, I watched The Pianist, which turned out to be one of the most haunting movies I’ve ever watched, because it depicted a terrible time in history in such a dramatic and visually unnerving manner that made something our world would rather forget something unforgettable. Schindler’s List is the precedent, from what I knew of it. Ranked far above The Pianist on the IMDb Top 250 and certainly earning its share of accolades, I knew this one would be special and possibly more challenging.

What do I know about it now?

There’s an apt line in A Knight’s Tale (featuring the late Heath Ledger) delivered by the protagonist’s herald before Ledger/William’s final jousting tilt: “Days like these are far too rare to cheapen with heavy handed words.” Films like Schindler’s List are hard to describe and treat appropriately, because the great scope it covers in a brief 3+ hours (too brief) is difficult to contain in mere words, and no summary or analysis would serve it well enough without butchering it. Perhaps it all begins with Liam Neeson’s performance as Schindler, a clearly flawed man and a drunken womanizer at worst, who is thrust into a situation where he feels compelled to use cheap labor in Polish Jews to keep his lifestyle and influence afloat, and in the midst of a terrible genocide garners tremendous empathy for his employees. Neeson commands our attention when he’s on screen; I understand him, hate him, and love him all at once. We’re talking about a historical and now revered figure, but we get all dimensions of his humanity. Meanwhile, a miserable situation is unfolding for the Jewish population at large — they’re being herded onto trains, and then sent off to labor camps and inhumane execution chambers, which is depicted here in a vivid manner despite its black and white treatment. Spielberg chooses to focus on the Jews’ panic and desperation for extended scenes as they’re shot indiscriminately, separated from their children, and used like rivets to be driven into the Nazi’s war machine. The Pianist does something similar, but peripherally. Spielberg instead gets into the crowds, allows us to see raw emotion as Nazis burn massive piles of bodies, as Jewish workers lose hope as their families are ripped apart, and the great shock and confusion about what to do next at the war’s conclusion. John Williams kills it with the score again, but you don’t really notice it — like a great symphony, it’s all working harmoniously, and when you’re through riding this train (too soon?), you know you’ve just experienced something legendary.

What are some themes in the film?

My gosh, I have to answer this? WWII and the Holocaust, humanity, greed, pride, violence, family, economics, racism/prejudice, rape/abuse, hope (and hope deferred), fate.  This doesn’t help depict the movie appropriately at all.

Did this affect me personally?

Having very young children of my own makes this film all the more horrifying. Choosing an effectual scene seems insensitive, because there are so many, but one that caught my attention in its brevity is a sign displayed on a shop diagramming how to identify a Jew using facial characteristics, complete with exaggerated and protruding chins and noses measured with dotted lines. This is real, and to know that these folks’ children were singled out in this manner is digusting to say the least.

Why is this ranked #6?

Uhh.

Did my wife watch/like it?

I commend her for her bravery.  She didn’t sit through its entirety, but she was present and accounted for, and that’s hard enough.

Would I watch it again?

Nope, nope, nope.  But that’s not because it isn’t a fantastic movie.

Would I recommend it to a friend?

Oh my, yes.  The images are searing and the screenplay is generally depressing with a glimmer of hope at the end, but it’s a triumphant film of impressive magnitude — probably the most important film you can possibly watch.

Does it deserve to be on this list as one of the greatest films of all time?

Schindler’s List is the best film I’ve ever seen, and I want to pretend it is so by a slim margin, but it’s not. There are all other films, and then this one. It’s a solid #6 here, and #8 on the AFI 100.  Strangely, it doesn’t crack the top 100 on Rotten Tomatoes, which basically puts the argument to rest that it bears any legitimacy as a meter for assessing films.  There are no flaws in this film.  It’s truly Spielberg’s masterpiece, and a great piece of art for the modern age.

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