”The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” Yeats’ famous lines from his poem ”The Second Coming” could serve as an epigram for the story of Oskar Schindler, by all accounts a charmer remarkably untroubled by conscience who nevertheless wound up the savior of some 1,100 Jews who would otherwise have perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. That the man was a hero is undeniable. Why he became a hero is something that neither Steven Spielberg’s multi-Oscar-winning epic Schindler’s List, nor the documentary Schindler can fully answer.
The profiteering businessman is, of course, the subject of the Spielberg film hailed by many as the blockbuster auteur’s first triumph as an ”adult” filmmaker. But the movie has also brought accusations that Spielberg put a Hollywood sheen on the Holocaust. One thing is for certain: Schindler’s List is a genuine Hollywood creation. While it does depict Schindler in all his boozehound, woman-chasing glory, it neglects to informs us, as the documentary does, that he was an intelligence agent for the Nazi party. And while a touching scene near the close of Spielberg’s film shows Schindler vowing fidelity to his wife, the documentary notes that he left his factory at the end of the war with both his wife and his mistress in tow. On the former point we can give Spielberg the benefit of the doubt; he was probably trying to streamline his story. As for the latter point, well, it’s pure moviemaking. Indeed, Schindler’s List employs cinematic sleight of hand to the max; repeated video viewings reveal a mise-en-scene that goes from The Sorrow and the Pity one minute to Grand Hotel the next.
Spielberg’s film details how a would-be vulture eventually became a Samaritan, spending vast amounts to save the hundreds of Jews he employed as more or less slave laborers at his enamelware plant. Liam Neeson’s portrayal of the businessman is a brilliant bit of physical acting; he lets you in on the man’s initial callowness and potential greatness right off the bat, just in the way he walks. Ralph Fiennes epitomizes stomach-churning banal sadism as Amon Goeth, the labor camp commandant accustomed to using his Jewish charges for morning target practice and the man with whom Schindler cagily bargains for human lives. Ben Kingsley is essentially asked to stand in for all European Jewry as Schindler’s stoic, initially distrustful accountant.
Although the British-made Schindler resembles anything you’re likely to catch on A&E on a given night, it allows us a bit more to chew on than Spielberg’s film does. Its most haunting interview is not with a victim but with an accomplice, Ruth Kalder, Goeth’s mistress. She lived with him at the Plaszow labor camp. Frail, suffering from emphysema, wearing something of a fright wig, she at first insists that her boyfriend was not a sadist but was merely doing his job: ”It wasn’t amusing.” Later, she says that resisting the Nazi policy of liquidating Jews was futile: ”We couldn’t do anything.” Her rationalizations are more chilling than any of the reenactments of murder Spielberg puts on screen.
”What was [Schindler’s] motivation? I don’t know,” says Irena Schek of his initiation of a prayer for his deceased workers. Since she was one of the many who would not have lived without his intervention, she doesn’t seem overly concerned by the issue. Nor, really, should we. Maybe Schindler was a cipher; the only proof that he wasn’t, though, happens to be living proof. The fact that Spielberg was compelled to make his Schindler a cipher with all the dash and vim of Cary Grant is just Hollywood realism. Schindler’s List: A-