HGP Book Club Notes: Schindler's List (3/3)

Schindler's List (1993; Dir: Steven Spielberg)

I'm typing up the notes for this one post-presentation so can write a little bit about the insights of the students. Some of the members of the RAD group said that they had seen clips of Schindler's List in their History class, but none of them have seen the whole film - which is understandable considering the length of the film and the amount of content that needs to be taught in lesson time!

For this post, I'll focus on a few key elements of the media language used to convey meaning, as well as a few specific characters and scenes in bullet points. For the purpose of context, here is the brief synopsis of Schindler's List, as taken directly from IMDB: 'German-occupied Poland during World War II, Oskar Schindler gradually becomes concerned for his Jewish workforce after witnessing their persecution by the Nazi Germans.'

  • First of all, why is the film in black and white? This was a symbolic, artistic choice and not a technological one as the Technicolor format had been widely used since the 1930s (this film was released in 1993). It was also a controversial choice. According to my research, the only person at MCA/Universal who agreed with Spielberg and director of cinematography Janusz Kaminski’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white was CEO Sheinberg. Everyone else lobbied against the idea, saying that it would stylise the Holocaust. Apparently, Spielberg and Kaminski chose to shoot the film in a grimy, unstylish fashion and format inspired by German Expressionist and Italian Neorealist films. According to Spielberg: “It’s entirely appropriate because I’ve only experienced the Holocaust through other people’s testimonies and through archival footage which is, of course, all in black and white.”

  • Oskar Schindler, the eponymous character played by Liam Neeson, is first portrayed as an immoral businessman, husband and Nazi party member. He often presents a (false) conflict between business and national priority.

For example, in a fairly early scene where the Jews are forced to shovel snow instead of working (see gif) – Schindler poses this to the Nazi officers as losing a day of production, and this is where you being to wonder: how much is his priority is running a profitable business, and how much of it is actually him having a social conscience trying to keep his workforce safe? Over the course of the film, his morality becomes less and less ambiguous and, ultimately, he uses his power and status for good by saving Jews with his list. Throughout the film, Spielberg often uses chiaroscuro lighting, composition and setting to represent his different sides. The still below exemplifies this brilliantly and would make for great discussions of representation and characterisation:

  • Oskar Schindler's relationship with Amon Göth/Goeth is an intense and complex one, as you can see from the image above. Take a read of one of their conversations below:

Oskar Schindler: Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don't. 

Amon Goeth: You think that's power? 

Oskar Schindler: That's what the Emperor said. A man steals something, he's brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground. He begs for his life, he knows he's going to die. And the Emperor... pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go. 

Amon Goeth : I think you are drunk. 

Oskar Schindler : That's power, Amon. That is power.

Schindler attempts to manipulate Amon Goeth (the commandant of Plaszow concentration camp near Krakow) into thinking he would be more powerful if he showed mercy. In a following scene Goeth tests this idea to see if pardoning a young Jewish boy who is cleaning his bathroom gives him the same satisfaction as killing. It doesn't...

Notice how the the same (trigger) fingers he uses to pardon the boy are used to pardon himself in the mirror for what he is about to do – does he consider himself some sort of God? Is he trying to emulate the power of Hitler? Ralph Fiennes, the actor playing Goeth, does a brilliant job of portraying the maniacal levels of malevolence in this power-hungry man throughout, but his performance in this scene is especially harrowing.

  • Even if you haven't seen Schindler's List all the way through, you probably have some awareness of The Girl In The Red Coat:

She is both a symbol of innocence and the death of it - the little girl in the red coat who appears during the liquidation of the ghetto in the movie was based on a real person. This famous scene is a pivotal point for Schindler as he watches from her from the villa, completely in awe of her obliviousness of the destruction going on around her. The sight of the little girl forces him to confront his role and to see a grey moving mass as a group of individuals.

Spielberg: "America and Russia and England all knew about the Holocaust when it was happening, and yet we did nothing about it. It was a large bloodstain, primary red colour on everyone's radar, but no one did anything about it. And that's why I wanted to bring the colour red in.” This quotation links to the interpretation that the red coat suggests the “red flag” the Jews waved at the Allied powers during World War II as a cry for help.

The RAD students were quite taken with this scene and had some really perceptive comments of their own. One student made a link between Schindler's final scene, when he is deeply regretful that he couldn't save more Jews. She suggested that when he was desperately repeating 'Just one more' that he might have been thinking of this little girl, who clearly captured his attention, and maybe even his heart. I thought that was such a thoughtful comment to make - a female film critic in the making!

Please feel free to comment on Twitter with any further insights or interpretations of this moment in the film.

  • Next, I explained how the power of editing is put to incredible use in the following scenes: Schindler celebrates his birthday with a group of Nazis in a nightclub; a wedding in the labour camp; Goeth brutally beats Helen Hirsch in her basement after a strange attempt at seduction. The parallel action is linked through cross-cutting, which is used to imply that all three events are happening in different places at the same time - the hope and joy of the wedding and birthday celebrations are contrasted with the brutality of Helen’s bleak situation. As well as the editing technique, sound is also used in a way to make the audience feel uncomfortable as the crushing of the light bulb (a traditional element of a Jewish wedding ceremony) is used as Helen is abused by Goeth. I see these intertwined moments as all being linked thematically by forbidden love (in different contexts) and collectively as a violent, unsettling reminder that every small moment of joy was tarnished for the Jewish people.

  • Though the entire film portrays an unfathomable atrocity, I spent some time talking through some of the most horrifying scenes in the film:

• The first moment which really saddened me was when the Jewish people were told at the train station that their luggage would follow. Yet the next shot is of the luggage room which pans from piles of emptied, named suitcases to jewellers looking through boxes to check the monetary worth of their contents. Then there were piles of shoes, glasses, clothes and photos of loved ones. For me, I think this scene hit home because it was a visual reminder of the complete dehumanisation .

• During the liquidation of the Ghetto we are shown some of the hiding places: inside pianos, strapped under the bed, and the little boy who goes from place to place only to find that all the small spaced are already filled. He eventually finds a spot inside a toilet, which is already crowded.

• The balcony shootings – Goeth picking off random Jews for 'fun' as target practice.

• The slow ’snow’ fall of ashes.

• The ‘sorting’ of Jews and the lengths they went to try to appear healthy enough to stay alive.

• Perhaps the most terrifying of them all, the mothers and their children in this scene:

For those reading who have seen Schindler's List, what was the most powerful moment for you? Was there a particular visual or sound that affected you more deeply than others? Was there anything that changed your perception or way of thinking about any of the ideas and themes presented? Please share via Twitter, including @rwbaholocaust.

  • The ending: Schindler’s compassion is finally clear and even if his motives were initially unpleasant, in the last act, they are undeniably good – he operated for 7 months, bribing officials with millions so that the factory could remain a place of refuge for his Jewish workers.

He demonstrates guilt, solidarity and respect in the final scenes, allowing the Jewish rabbi to conduct a Shabbat ceremony and his speech when the ‘unconditional surrender of Germany’ is announced allows for a concrete resolution: “At midnight you’ll be free and I'll be hunted.” (For being member of the Nazi party, slave labour and ammunition production.) The desperation to do everything in his power to save ‘one more’ before he flees is conveyed incredibly well in Liam Neeson’s performance, below:

Final Thoughts

What it does well:

• Jews saying their names in hope of making it onto the list – lots of close ups and individuals – low angle shot gives them back some power and at that point in the movie, some hope was needed.

• Sense of emotional peril and physical trauma/abuse are conveyed excellently.

• The focus on characters doesn’t overlook the impact of the horrific events on the masses. There are scenes and visuals where the lead characters don't appear so that the scale of the Holocaust is conveyed.

• It's film of great depth produced with sensitivity.

• There is enough of an engaging narrative to appeal and connect with large audiences who perhaps wouldn't have otherwise sought out a film or documentary on the same subject matter.


• Should it be criticised for its decision to focus on the rescue of 1,200 Jews, rather than the murder of 6 million?

• Is the final portrayal of Oskar as heroic or angelic too much?

• The length may put off some viewers.

If you have more time, there is a great blog on other criticisms of the film here and another education site which features some interesting discussion questions is here.

Side note: Spielberg relinquished his salary for the movie and any proceeds he would stand to make, calling any such personal gains 'blood money'. He used the film’s profits to found the Shoah Foundation, which was established to honour and remember the survivors of the Holocaust by collecting personal recollections and audio visual interviews.







For the first post in this blog series, visit this link. For the downloadable resource on the portrayal of the Holocaust and genocide, click here and complete the contact form.

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