“He who saves one life, saves the world entire.” – Jewish Talmud.
It is a humbling task, trying to write about one of the most powerful movies ever made, a Booker-prize winning book, and a man who saved upwards of 1200 lives. It is a daunting task as well, as very few words are capable of describing either of them completely.
“Who is that man?.
That’s Oskar Schindler!”
Schindler’s Ark, released as Schindler’s list in the USA, is a novel by Thomas Keneally. It is a marvelous work of historical fiction, meaning while it is based on real people and events, the dialogue between them is a work of fiction. Despite this, Keneally undoubtedly captures the agony of the times, the raw emotion associated with several moments throughout the book, the girl in the red coat for example.
The movie is a masterpiece directed by Steven Spielberg, the lead actors being Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. Neeson plays the role of Oskar Schindler, whereas Fiennes that of Amon Goeth, the labor camp commandant.
The film is almost shot entirely in black and white, except for certain cuts. It opens, for example, with a colour shot of candles being lit and a Hebrew prayer being recited. What follows next is the actions of Oskar Schindler, who sees the war as an opportunity to earn money, and successfully greases hands and does favors to ensure he gets a certain amount of Jews to work in his factory. This is what makes this character special, his humanness. And I say humanness, not humanity, because he is not a hero talked about in epics and fables, but a man in a cruel time, complete with flaws of his own. The book talks about his alcoholism, extra-marital affairs and greed in the initial stages of the book. His own shortcomings show him to be a complete man, not an ideal one is expected to strive towards, but someone who can be identified with, and emulated a little more realistically.
This is a conversation he and his wife have when she visits him while he is in bed with another woman –
Emilie Schindler: I will only stay if you promise me, no doorman or maitre d will ever mistake anyone but me for Mrs. Oscar Schindler.
Emilie Schindler: [Next shot she is going away on a train] Good-bye!
Oskar Schindler: Good-bye!
When the Jews in the Krakow ghetto are finally carted off to the Plaszow concentration camp, Mr. Schindler realizes that he needs to change his plans in order to keep his business running. And while we see some vestiges of his humanity shining through while interacting with people in the ghetto, it is at this point in the film that we realize the remarkable change that will come over him.
One of the most powerful moments in the film, the most in my opinion, it shows the Nazis hunting down Jews in the ghettoes, accompanied with barbaric acts of violence and execution for no good reason. With the background score playing some haunting music sung by a children’s choir, Schindler views from a distance a girl in a red coat, a glaring splotch of color in the black and white film, making her way through the streets of the ghetto. It is not only the red color that draws our eye, the light hair on the head of 7 year old who seemingly escapes bullets and notice by all the SS guards, and hides in one of the buildings of the city.
But this alone is not the harrowing bit. Not the absolute sorrow on Oskar Schindler’s face as he follows her progress, no.
It is the shot several minutes later, when we have seemingly forgotten about her, of her dead body being carted off to be burnt in the concentration camp, still clothed in a red coat amidst the smoke-screened black and white landscape. A truly marvelous job by Steven Spielberg, to drive the barbarity of the time home for us.
The movie and book both proceed to describe the dire conditions in the concentration camp, beginning with Amon Goeth waking up and shooting random people from his balcony. This is where one wonders, did they really consider the Jews subhuman? Was it really such an inhumane time?
Oskar Schindler: Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.
As the movie draws to a close, we see Schindler bargaining with Goeth about the Jews he can take with him for work on his factory, in fact to save them. He succeeds, and Germany surrenders 11 months later.
Here is the dialogue at his farewell to his Jewish friends, who present him with a ring for remembrance. It is one of the most powerful dialogues of the film, and I dare a single eye to remain dry after seeing a broken man sitting in his car, saying “ I could have got one more” again and again.
Oskar Schindler: If I’d made more money… I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I’d just…
Itzhak Stern: There will be generations because of what you did.
Oskar Schindler: I didn’t do enough!
Itzhak Stern: You did so much.
[Schindler looks at his car]
Oskar Schindler: This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people.
[removing Nazi pin from lapel]
Oskar Schindler: This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this.
Oskar Schindler: I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t! And I… I didn’t!
The sight of it will give you goose bumps.
I personally like the movie more than the book, not that the book is of any less caliber. It is just that the most poignant scenes of the movie can hit hard only with the sight of a red coat, and Liam Neeson’s broken face. Some other books perhaps, like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas are better than the movies, because they narrate the innocence and horror of the camps much better. All of them, extremely crucial for us to watch, because they are to be considered historical literature in their own right.
“Since when are history and literature not important?” – One of the Schindler Jews