Film Analysis: Schindler’s List
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List is an insightful and powerful exploration of the experiences faced by victims of the Nazis’ Holocaust during the Second World War. This film, while presented in a storyline format following the lives of individual characters, is incredibly accurate and true to what we can verify of the real events it depicts.
This film doesn’t just include real events; it essentially is a portrayal of those real events, albeit edited and adjusted to fill in the gaps with which history has left us. In this respect, an analogy can be made between Schindler’s List and documentaries created from aggregation of real footage of the subject matter in which List is a detailed, but pencilled portrait made in reference to the documentaries’ incomplete set of shards of one photograph.
It is notable how, while this film portrays real events almost exactly, Schindler’s List was released as a movie instead of as a documentary. Indeed, Spielberg approached it as a documentary (McBride 432), but the presentation as a story adds to its effectiveness. Besides helping it to gross a larger audience, the story’s characteristic of following individuals’ personal lives helps viewers to comprehend the reality of the lives and identities lost in the Holocaust.
Still, List fails to portray all of those lives. There’s an strong focus on Jewish religion in this film—which, though historically significant in the prevalence of anti-Semitism that has existed for milennia, was not quite so important in the specific context of the Holocaust. The movie’s black-and-white cinematography (an incredibly important element of its symbolism) dulled the importance of race- and ethnicity-based conflict to the Holocaust, in which the form of German Nationalism birthed in the late nineteenth century became attempted justification for Hitler’s obsession with racial purity.
However, this overrepresentation of Jews as Holocaust victims is not a misrepresentation. All the people Schindler is known to have protected are documented as Jewish. The actual list of Schindlerjuden, released in its entirety as a PDF file by the group Yad Vashem, can be used as a source to assess accuracy here.
Though the facts don’t disagree with these plotlines, stereotypes about Jewish people held long before the Second World War arise repeatedly in this film. The most significant character archetypes apparent here are those of the “Jewish moneylender” (Schindler’s Jewish investors) and the “tempting Jewess” (showcased most disturbingly in the character of Helen Hirsch). These have appeared in literature throughout the history of anti-Semitism, including such memorable characters as William Shakespeare’s Shylock and Jessica and Sir Walter Scott’s Rebecca. (While Scott wrote Ivanhoe in a very pro-Semitic context, the novel saw his heroine Rebecca face an admirer and captor ordered to kill her as well as the platonic support of another Christian man, so it provides a look at this trope in a very similar light to the one in which Helen Hirsch is shown. In addition, some of Scott’s contemporaries featured his brave character in stories like William Thackeray’s “Rebecca and Rowena,” in which Rebecca is depicted converting to Christianity for the benefit of one Christian man by a devoted reader who clearly missed the point.)
Apart from the well-known tropes displayed in Schindler’s List, this film’s system of symbolism also often made real people into plot vehicles to express certain aspects of the Holocaust—like Helen Hirsch (psychological abuse), Chaja and Danka Dresner (familial loyalty), and Amon Goeth (irrational cruelty and insanity). While all these people’s lives are really documented and all followed the general lines shown in the film, it does seem that the film takes some liberty with making them represent huge populations who suffered or enjoyed the same experiences.
A major and recurring inaccuracy is the film’s treatment of the mental illness experienced by both the Nazis and their victims. On the Nazis’ part: After one heart-to-heart conversation with Schindler, Amon Goeth is “cured” and nonviolent for an entire day (which is actually noteworthy on the part of his character); Schindler stops guards ordered to kill the Jews with one sentence. For the Holocaust victims, none exhibited noticeable signs of PTSD; and the survivor Imre Kertész has objected to the hopeful epilogue, in which the real people portrayed place stones on Schindler’s grave along with the younger actors, on the grounds that it implied that these people didn’t suffer (probable) long-term emotional scarring from the Holocaust (“Who Owns Auschwitz?”).
Despite accusations from writers like Kertesz and John MacKay, in this film’s being a big-business exploitation of the Holocaust for profit and entertainment, Steven Spielberg actually refused to accept a salary for it. His quote calling that salary “blood money” (McBride 439) reveals the filmmaker’s lack of desire to profit from the film. The film itself is hardly entertainment; while it is profoundly intellectually and emotionally stimulating, a viewing of Schindler’s List is not a pleasant experience. These factors help us to determine that the filmmaker’s intentions centered around the goal of increasing both respect for Holocaust victims and acknowledgement that these events really happened, which he sought to do by raising public awareness of the Holocaust with a medium primarily used for entertainment.
Spielberg has mentioned that a major modern point he tried to make with the film was against Holocaust deniers (McBride 427). This was inspired by the growth of Neo-Nazism in Europe and overall disrespect for the Holocaust as a topic. As these seemed large-scale expressions of forgetting, Schindler’s List was made as a small, but fresh reminder of the horrors inflicted upon so many people during the Holocaust.
Kertész, Imre, and John MacKay. “Who Owns Auschwitz?” Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 14. Number 1 (2001): 267–262. Print.
“Shindler’s [sic] List.” Yad Vashem, n.d. PDF file.
McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997. Print.