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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Schindler's List (2003)

Few people who have seen the movie can forget the experiences and depth to which humanity can sink (and rise). For people who are not so aware of what the Holocaust was about, or about the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis on the Jews (and on Russians, Homosexuals, Gypsies, and others), the movie brought details in great detail. Using Black & White almost throughout the movie somehow seemed to convey scenes of horror and despair more brutally and clearly.
The film was first offered to Martin Scorcese, and then Roman Polanksi, but then it came to Steven Spielberg, for whom this sort of movie was very different. Steve Spielberg was already known as a gifted and accomplished director, but his movies were more thrillers or science oriented movies (such as Jaws, ET, Indian Jones, Close Encounters of the Third Kind); and here was this subject (based on the book Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally) about the Holocaust and the genocide directed by the Nazis, primarily at the Jewish population of Europe.

Schindler's List (2003)

It is calculated that the 'Final Solution' propounded by the Nazis (Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, Eichmann, etc) in the early stages of the War killed 6 million Jews in Europe during the course of the war. The Nazis were very systematic and documented everything that they did, and their solution of identifying Jews, separating from the rest of the population, and the concentration camps (that used industrial efficiency mass gas chambers) were a solution for mass murder that humankind was not able to visualize. Even though Western Europe and America knew that Jews were being victimized, the level of killings became known only when the concentration camps were over-run by Russian and American soldiers after the fall of the Nazis, and the true story came to light.
In the midst of this state-directed terror where the civilian population mostly stood by and let mass-murder happen (and Europe had gone through repeated bursts of anti-semitism including mass pogroms in Russia), there are stories of people who shed their normal beliefs and played heroic parts in saving people. One of them was Oskar Schindler. His role in saving around 1,100 Jews from being murdered was recognized and he was in fact feted in Israel in 1958, but the story was never very famous. And then came this movie. The movie did not shy away from presenting his negative points; he was a womanizer and unfaithful to his wife, he did not shirk away from setting up his factory using funds almost forced from the rich Jews who had been forced to live in the ghettos, he exploited Jewish workers, he bribed his way through the Nazi machinery; but all those are human weaknesses when compared with the super-human role he played in bribing the Nazi machinery in order to save 1,100 Jews by getting them employed in his factory. He fought for each worker, sometimes going to great distances to save them when they were mistakenly taken away. At some point during the killings, the impact of the genocide made him a person who was determined to use his cleverness and guile to save people.
And it is this portrayal of a complex person, but one who eventually spent everything he had in order to save people that makes this a great movie. Schindler's List was both critically acclaimed and a commercial success. The movie earned over $320 million compared to the $25 million that was spent, and also earned the movie 7 Oscars including the most important ones - Best Picture and Best Director. The 2 great performances of the movie - Liam Neeson playing Oskar Schindler and Ralph Fiennes playing the brutal SS officer Amon Goth (later caught after the war and hanged for crimes against humanity) were both nominated for Academy Awards, but did not win.
The movie is essentially about Oskar Schindler, out to make an opportunity from the war effort. He sees that war will need supplies, and he proposes to supply crockery to the army; with funding and labour from the oppressed Jews. Through a measure of drinking and fraternizing with the Nazis, he succeeds in getting started; he is not great at running his business but has some excellent support from Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley in a fine role) who is a gifted accountant. Running parallel is the horror story of the German Army marching through Poland, defeating the Polish Army within 2 weeks, and starting the first steps of the repression and murder (ordering the Jewish community to assemble in major cities such as Krakow and live in ghettos from where they will soon be marched off to concentration camps) that will become to be known as the 'Holocaust'. Getting papers stamped with a certificate of being an 'essential' worker will save a person, and that is what Schindler promises.
You see Schindler weaving in between the Nazi machinery, using a mixture of bravado and bribes to get what he wants; and woven in between are the brutalities; a group of SS men shoot a one-armed worker declaring him as useless, the Camp Commandment orders people killed when he feels like it or takes a rifle and randomly shoots a prisoner (with blood staining the snow dead), there is the sorting of items picked from Jews sent to the concentration camps (including jewellery, valuables, teeth with gold fillings, you get the idea), the horror of women being separated from their children. Schindler soon gets obsessed with the idea of saving his workers, and by the end of the war, he has managed to navigate the Nazi bureaucracy enough to save more than a 1,000 people.
This is a cold brutal movie that does not hesitate to show the darkest nature of what humans can turn into, but it also shows the essential humanity of a person from whom such actions were not expected. Schindler's List is a must-watch movie, even though it has been a long time since it was released.

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