Wineskins Archive

January 20, 2014

Movie Review: Schlinder’s List (Jan – Feb 1994)

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by Larry James and Gary Cogill
January – February, 1994

[The following is a joint review written by Gary Cogill, film critic with WFAA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Dallas, and Larry James, Wineskins Media Editor]

23Schindler’s List is a monumental movie-going experience based on the true story of a Nazi industrialist who miraculously saved the lives of over 1,100 Jews living in occupied Poland during World War II. Liam Neeson (Darkman, Ethan Fromme, Husbands and Wives) gives a towering performance as Oskar Schindler, a complicated womanizer who lays his life and his vast fortune on the line when it counts most. Schindler became known throughout Nazi Germany as a flamboyant opportunist who found a way to exploit the labeled Jews of Poland to help him build his own financial empire. In exchange for their hard work in his metal-working, pot-making factory, Schindler assures them protection and life. While millions of Jews were being slaughtered systematically, Oskar Schindler offered, by comparison, a blessed labor camp experience.

Oscar winner Ben Kingsley (Ghandi, Bugsy, Searching for Bobby Fisher) plays Itzhak Stern, the Jew who runs Schindler’s factory while serving as the voice of his boss’s conscience. In addition to managing all accounting, Stern orchestrates his own careful strategy to move as many of his fellow Jews into the protection of Schindler’s factory as possible. In one of the dramatic closing scenes as he assists Schindler in preparing the famous list of Jews who would be marked purchase, Stern reminds his master, “The list is life.” Kingsley gives a profoundly subtle performance as a man who speaks volumes by barely speaking at all.

Ralph Fiennes is the real find in Schindler’s List, playing the horrendous Amon Goeth, the much-feared German commandant who uses helpless, unsuspecting humans for target practice from the balcony of his villa. Fiennes portrays the real-life criminal with vicious power and eerie depth. Amon Goeth saluted Hitler with his last breath at his public hanging following the war.

Schindler’s List explores complicated emotional ground for people of all faiths while serving as the ultimate reminder that pure evil exists in our world. Spielberg’s masterpiece reminds us no one is immune from the power of the darkness found at work on our planet. The darkness takes various shapes, assumes the disguise of many ideologies and hits human life with relentless fury. In one remarkable sequence, while every Jew on the screen is stripped of all belongings and loaded into railway cars to be sent off to die, a dazed child wearing a red coat wanders through the frenzied chaos on Spielberg’s black and white canvas without suffering a scratch. The image of the red coat reappears later in the film, but this time lifeless amid the piles of death. For Spielberg, long known as a filmmaker with the heart of a child (E. T., Hook, Jurassic Park), the child in the red coat likely explains one of the chief reasons the film was produced.

By his own admission Spielberg grew up feeling passionately about two things. “I wanted to be a gentile with the same intensity that I wanted to be a filmmaker,” he noted in an interview with Philip Wuntch (The Dallas Morning News, December 12, 1993, C-1). Spielberg’s grandparents lost about a dozen relatives in the Nazi death camps. As a teenager, Spielberg suffered physical and emotional abuse and rejection at the hands of classmates because he was a Jew. His personal spiritual pilgrimage brought him back to his family roots as his children grew older and when his wife, Kate Capshaw, converted to Judaism. Given this understanding of the director’s personal struggle with faith, Schindler’s List takes on the proportions of a restatement of his personal identity. The result provides viewers with a stunning portrayal of the powerful connections at work in the human experience between genuine faith, personal identity, and uncontrollable suffering.

In the life story of Oskar Schindler viewers confront the maddening contradictions inherent in the human dilemma. Held hostage in a fallen world caught in the clutches of the bizarre cruelty of Adolph Hitler and, at the same time, captured by his own personal sinfulness, Schindler represents unaided mankind’s best effort in the face of menacing evil. As his story unfolds, Schindler “grows up” as a person before our eyes. His capacity for compassion and redemptive involvement increases with every just and loving decision he makes. The longer he cares for his strange and pitiful “family,” the more he is able to care. Yet, in spite of his courageous bargaining to save his fellows, Schindler never manages to rescue himself from his own capacity for life-disrupting evil. In the powerful closing scene Schindler cries out in agony, weeping in despair over the value of a single human life. As a man who extended life to hundreds and who reached the end of his noble effort heart-broken because he had not been able to save more, Schindler epitomizes humanity’s desperate need for grace and the miracle of redemption only an all-powerful God can deliver.

The stunning three-hour film is one of the best ever made. We find great hope and joy in viewing the film. Oskar Schindler eventually bargained away his hard-earned fortune to save the lives of his workers. In spite of his personal moral flaws, much like ancient King David, he stands as an angel in the middle of despair. Most films of heroic genre tend to be “Rocky-esque,” reducing life’s valuable lessons to neat formulas or to bumper-sticker theology. Oskar Schindler is remarkable in his unpredictability. Likely, even he did not know the nature or the depth of the good he was doing. Often we find truth in unlikely places. In this case we find it in a movie created by the master of aliens, dinosaurs, and adventure. Steven Spielberg deserves an Oscar for his directing, and the film should be named “Best Motion Picture.” Movies, when crafted well, serve the masses and elevate our notion of popular culture and its sense of values. Schindler’s List serves all of us well. In the process the film reminds us of our absolute need for grace and insures we will never forget just what humans are capable of when unchecked evil takes control.

[The following is an exclusive interview by film critic Gary Cogill with Liam Neeson who played Oskar Schindler in the film Schindler’s List.

GARY COGILL: I want you to know up front that Schindler’s List is a monumental film for me personally and professionally.

LIAM NEESON: Well, thanks Gary.

COGILL: Even though Spielberg’s film deals with such a tough subject, you must have experienced great joy as an actor in being in a film so expertly conceived and crafted. Are you aware of that?

NEESON: Yes, I am aware of it and was well aware of it at the time. I am also aware of the fact that I am playing someone who actually lived and there seems to be reams of documentation and even footage of the man himself. It was interesting as an actor and I wanted to be careful not to do an imitation of the man. To present his spirit essentially because I don’t even have a resemblance to Oskar Schindler. We are close in height. He was a big, bulky man. In fact, he looked like Curt Jurgens mixed with George Sanders. Oskar Schindler loved to be compared to Curt Jurgens who was a major movie star at the time. I just wanted to avoid that pit that every mannerism had to be exactly like his. Also, I wanted free range because it’s not Winston Churchill I am playing. Not everyone knows what Oskar Schindler looked like. With Schindler I just wanted to have that size and project a feeling of gregariousness, which is the opposite of what I am. I’m basically shy and retiring and Oskar Schindler was the exact opposite. From an acting point of view, it’s great to play opposites.

COGILL: Did you feel comfortable in his skin?

NEESON: I did. After all, I was working with a great director and a great actor’s director, too. We conceived this together along with Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes. When we started the film, I wanted to be on set and just be confident as me, Liam Neeson, and whatever colors Steven Spielberg and the other actors wanted to throw on my artistic palette, I just kept myself open.

COGILL: Yet, you are in the middle of a film that is huge in scope with plenty of extras and elaborate sets. It’s cold. It’s outdoors. That must have helped you live the moment.

NEESON: Sure, because there is no leap of the imagination to make. The city of Krakow has not changed in more than 50 years when Schindler was on the go. The actual physical aspect of the city hasn’t changed in more than 200 years. There were buildings where you could still see bullet holes in the masonry. It was all there, you just had to step into it and not imagine too much.

COGILL: When I watched the film, I realized Oskar Schindler was a complicated man and not easy to figure out.

NEESON: He was living in a complicated world that was turned upside down by the genocide and the principles and doctrine of Hitler and his Nazi cohorts. Life was complicated. Schindler is a hero in the true sense of the word in that he’s not whiter than white. He’s not Francis of Assisi. He was a flesh and blood human being filled with contradictions like all of us. He was constantly living on a knife edge. The one thing I do know he had was an enormous depth of humanity. Of course he was a womanizer. Of course he drank too much and gambled, but the essence of his being was human and that was certainly put to the test.

COGILL: I want to ask you an odd question about acting. If you take away any sense of income, publicity, and notoriety about what you do, and it gets down to the moment of doing it, what do you really love about acting?

NEESON: It’s kind of like a child playing, and play is very, very important to all of us. As adults, we may call it recreation. For children, play is important for their development of imaginative skills, as well as their educational skills. That’s what I love about it, the chance to play.

COGILL: Is acting as fulfilling now as when you started?

NEESON: It is. It is. I must admit when I became a professional, I missed the freedom of being an amateur, a theatrical actor. There was a bunch of us: bank managers, school teachers, secretaries, doctors, nurses; all of us getting together in some little hall to rehearse a play. There was some level of purity to that. Today, the ingredients are slightly different, the politics are slightly different and money is at stake. I originally missed that innocence and purity of acting with bank managers and teachers.Wineskins Magazine

Larry James

Gary Cogill

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