My friends mentioned they were going to watch Schindler's List yesterday, and I've had that cautiously listed on my bucket list for a long time, so I jumped at the opportunity to watch it with company and not alone with my tears.
Where to start? Lets start here: Schindler's List is a meaningful and beautiful work of art. It's one of the few Holocaust movies that don't end with me and my tender heart sobbing over a bucket. I'll address why it's amazing in a moment. First I'd like to point out something the movie made me contemplate.
Isn't it kind of... selfish to expect a movie about the Holocaust to be enjoyable? I mean really - they went through hell, surely I can sit through a two hour movie, to "remember," right? But I think this is faulty reasoning for two reasons. One, I don't need a two hour intensive to remember. Two, dwelling in that place, meditating on it if you will, doesn't fix anything. I refuse to watch the general cavalcade of Holocaust or other disaster movies for the same reason I refuse to watch the news. I can see no practical reason to put my heart through disaster stories over and over because I can't do anything about it anyway. If watching it would fix it, I would watch them all. But it can't. I need to know and remember, but I don't need to live in that space. It was bad enough that one set of people had to go through the real Holocaust without others torturing themselves for hours for no practical reason.
On a deeper level, I think movies that just shock with the horrors of the Holocaust are somewhat unproductive beyond the basic role of recording facts. They produce nothing but horror in the viewer. They don't emphasize the value of human life in such a way that it inspire kindness and selflessness in the viewer. Horror appears to be the end instead of the means to an end.
I challenge stories to say something. And furthermore, I challenge them to say something positive no matter how horrifying their subject matter. Because the truth about life is that there are always silver linings, there's always hope, and love will win the day.
One more thought on this issue: There is a tendency I have noticed in some writers (both books and film) to mistake disaster for depth. Louisa May Allcott appears to do it, although perhaps I am wrong. In each of her books (which I love) there is a chapter where someone dies tragically, usually young, and the chapter is spent in mourning the loss of such an innocent life. She then picks up the next chapters with a disconnected vigor and barely mentions the deceased throughout the rest of the book. What purpose did that death serve, then? Stories are just accounts of events all lined up in a row until they contrive to SAY something. That's what makes it a story. At least according to me. So anyway, I've noticed that some movies about the Holocaust say nothing whatsoever, they just report the facts. It seems to me you have a better option to choose....
Schindler's List (The actual review starts here.)
Liam Neeson is masterful as Oskar Schindler, taking the character from a suave, greedy opportunist to a guilt-ridden, selfless hero. There is no one moment where the character fully changes. The early picture of the man has many good points, and the final portrait has many flaws. I went from actively disliking the man to loving him so much, my heart breaking with his as I look around at the people he saved, wanting to cry because he saved so many and wanting to cry because he didn't save more. I'm shaking my head slowly as I write this. Just... amazing work, for both Neeson and the writers. I applaud the fact that they didn't just make him a simple hero figure - it would have been so easy to trust the subject matter to make the movie compelling. But following his journey is the soul of the movie. Watching him fall guilt-ridden on the ground at the end, whispering how if he'd sold the car, he could have saved another ten people, makes each of us powerfully search our own hearts to see if we are holding back something we could give up to save "another ten people." Perhaps the time it takes to make a phone call, the money it costs to sponsor a child, the love it requires to heal a relationship. This story SAYS something. It reminds us of the power of the individual and the value of every single life.
I found it fascinating that they bothered to include in a script overlay at the end the fact that Schindler failed in marriage and in several businesses after the war. Why include that? Are they trying to say something about what defines a man? I'm just spit-balling, but perhaps they wanted to say that it doesn't take a hero to be a hero, so to speak. Saving people is pretty much what makes you a hero. You don't have to be perfect to do it. And when you save people, the gratitude that is out-poured perhaps even makes the rest of your failures seem meaningless. Perhaps saving people is the whole point, metaphorically. Perhaps life is about giving everything you can to save people (and sometimes yourself) from a million different things, from real danger, despair, or loneliness.
A few more notes:
Ralph Finnes is equally masterful as the creepy villain, selfless as an actor, fearlessly presenting a revolting portrait of a murderer. Seriously. Just see it for those two actors.
The girl in red is such a powerful choice of visual storytelling. Bringing the Holocaust to one individual girl brings it home to each of us.
This is an R rated movie. There is a lot of nudity and (obviously) a lot of violence. IT IS WORTH IT.
Remember the Holocaust. It's real, it happened. But don't for one second believe that the horrors of the Holocaust are the whole truth about life. Good will win in the end. After night comes day, after Hitler came the Allies. The horrors that were experienced I will never pretend I understand. I am blown away by the strength it must have taken to start up a life again after experiencing that. And yet I'm grateful that there is a movie that can harness the power of the Holocaust to tell a story that uplifts as well as horrifies, that affirms the value of every single life: the story of one man whose compassion got the best of him.