Saturday, November 30, 2013

An Important Movie

"Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world."


In reality, there probably was no one who would have seemed less likely to be a hero before World War II than Oskar Schindler.

He was a German businessman and Nazi Party member, greedy, arrogant, a womanizer who lived an opulent life in Poland away from his wife in Germany. At first, he hired Jews to work in his factory because, with their wages set by the Nazis, they cost him less than Poles. That evolved, with the assistance of his accountant (Ben Kingsley), into Schindler's unrestricted use of his factory to protect an estimated 1,100 Jews from deportation and probable death.

It took nearly half a century for Schindler's story to be brought to the big screen. Appropriately, it was Steven Spielberg, perhaps the most popular filmmaker of his time, who told the story to a mostly ignorant world. Many people will tell you it is the greatest movie ever made. The American Film Institute didn't go quite that far. I'm not sure if I would go that far, but I would certainly rank it in the Top 10. It ranked "Schindler's List" eighth on its Top 100 list.

Schindler (played by Liam Neeson in the movie) was AFI's 13th–greatest movie hero — and Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes) was AFI's 14th–most villainous villain (the highest–ranking nonfiction villain on that list).

And, in the 20 years since its initial theatrical release on this day in 1993, "Schindler's List" has been used countless times as a classroom learning tool.

When you look back at Spielberg's career, you can see certain patterns in his work, as you can with just about any great director, I suppose.

In "Schindler's List," you can see a technique to which Spielberg would return a few years later when he made "Saving Private Ryan" — the vivid re–creation of a harrowing wartime event. In "Ryan," it was the re–creation of D–Day. In "Schindler," it was the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto.

Both scenes were lengthy — and painful to watch but necessary for the viewer to get a taste of what the participants must have experienced. Spielberg himself remarked that he felt more like a reporter than a filmmaker when he made "Schindler's List," as if he had been witnessing the actual events, not re–creating them for a movie.

By the time "Ryan" hit the theaters, you could see how much Spielberg's technique had matured. It was still in its infancy when he made "Schindler's List," but, even so, it packed a punch.

I don't think it is an exaggeration to say "Schindler's List" may well be the most important movie made in my lifetime. I guess it has almost become a cliche for someone to say that a movie project in which he or she was involved was important, but it really does fit "Schindler's List."

The interaction between Schindler and his accountant was one of the things I found especially remarkable.

Under far less extreme circumstances, it was the kind of partnership that usually succeeds in the business world. Schindler was the big–picture guy; Itzhak Stern was the nuts–and–bolts guy, the details guy. Both brought skills to the enterprise that were essential to its success.

But, in the intense atmosphere of the Holocaust, success and failure were entirely different.

I already admired Ben Kingsley's work. A decade earlier, he starred in a movie that really was an important movie, "Gandhi."

Until "Schindler's List," though, I didn't have the same kind of admiration for Liam Neeson. He had been in several movies by this time — I even saw him in one or two — and I was favorably impressed, but I didn't think of him as an important actor until I saw "Schindler's List."

After I saw his scene late in the movie where he spoke of how many more lives he could have saved if he had sold his watch or his car, he became an important actor in my eyes.

I remember the first time I watched "Schindler's List" on TV. It was shown with no commercial interruptions — on NBC, I think, and sponsored by the Ford Motor Company. As I recall, Spielberg spoke at the start of the movie and at the end. In one of those segments, he said that he had been asked if he would permit his children to watch "Schindler's List." He said he wanted all of his children to watch it when they were ready.

That was the kind of thing, Spielberg admitted, that each parent had to decide because children mature at different rates, but he said that, as a general rule of thumb, he wouldn't let young children watch it. But a child in junior high or high school probably could understand the material and ask thoughtful questions after the movie was over. Young children might be traumatized.

I thought that was a reasonable — as well as responsible — thing for him to say.

Consequently, I was astonished the next day when a lawmaker from Oklahoma complained about the nudity in "Schindler's List," and accused Spielberg, NBC and Ford of acting irresponsibly. I wondered if the lawmaker even bothered to watch the telecast. If he had, I thought, he might have realized that the Nazis used nudity as a weapon against the Jews, not as a means of their own arousal. It was an example of the Nazis' cruelty.

Truly, some people can't see the forest for the trees.

There was another element of "Schindler's List" that is worth discussing. I speak of the little girl in the red coat. In real life, she must have stood out in the crowd just as she did in the movie — made almost entirely in black and white — if the little girl ever really existed.

My understanding is that the girl in the red coat was fictional, that she was symbolic of how high–ranking officials in democratic countries like the United States did nothing to prevent the Holocaust even though they were aware of it like "a little girl wearing a red coat, walking down the street."

In fact, though, there was a little girl in a red coat in the Kraków ghetto, and for a time it was thought that the girl in "Schindler's List" either was inspired by her or was a minor dramatization of her story. Her name was Roma Ligocka, and she was remembered by many who were there for that red coat she wore.

In the movie, the girl in the red coat apparently died. I say "apparently" because the camera does not show her actual death, but it does show her limp body, identifiable only by that coat. It was a powerful moment in the movie, and it marked the beginning of Schindler's personal transformation.

But Ligocka did not die in the Holocaust. She survived and lives today in Munich. She is Roman Polanski's cousin.