Schindler's List is a biographical film directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Steven Zaillian. It is a dramatized account of the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved the lives of more than one thousand Polish Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories.
The film, based on the novel Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally, stars Liam Neeson as Schindler, Ralph Fiennes as Schutzstaffel (SS) officer Amon Göth, and Ben Kingsley as Schindler's accountant Itzhak Stern. The film was both a box office success and recipient of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Score. In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked the film #9 on its list of the 100 best American films of all time.
Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes) arrives in Krakow to initiate construction of a labor camp nearby, Płaszów. The SS soon clears the Krakow ghetto, sending in hundreds of troops to empty the cramped rooms and shoot anyone who protests, is uncooperative, elderly or infirmed, or for no reason at all. Schindler watches the massacre from the hills overlooking the area, and is profoundly affected. He nevertheless is careful to befriend Göth and, through Stern's attention to bribery, he continues to enjoy the SS's support and protection. The camp is built outside the city at Płaszów. During this time, Schindler bribes Göth into allowing him to build a sub-camp for his workers, with the motive of keeping them safe from the depredations of the guards. Eventually, an order arrives from Berlin commanding Göth to exhume and destroy all bodies of those killed in the Krakow Ghetto, dismantle Płaszów, and to ship the remaining Jews to Auschwitz. Schindler prevails upon Göth to let him keep "his" workers, so that he can move them to a factory in his old home of Zwittau-Brinnlitz, in Moravia, away from the "final solution", now fully underway in occupied Poland. Göth acquiesces, charging a certain amount for each worker. Schindler and Stern assemble a list of workers that should keep them off the trains to Auschwitz.
"Schindler's List" comprises these "skilled" inmates, and for many of those in Płaszów camp, being included means the difference between life and death. Almost all of the people on Schindler's list arrive safely at the new site, with exception of the train carrying the women and the children, which is accidentally redirected to Auschwitz. There, the women are directed to what they believe is a gas chamber; but they see only water falling from the showers. The day after, the women are shown waiting in line for work. In the meantime, Schindler had rushed immediately to Auschwitz to solve the problem and to get the women off from Auschwitz; to this aim he bribes the camp commander, Rudolf Höß with a cache of diamonds so that he is able to spare all the women and the children. However, a last problem arises just when all the women are boarding the train because several SS officers attempt to hold some children back and prevent them from leaving. So Schindler, who is there to personally oversee the boarding, steps in and is successful in obtaining from the officers the release of the children. Once the Schindler women arrive in Zwittau-Brinnlitz, Schindler institutes firm controls on the Nazi guards assigned to the factory, permits the Jews to observe the Sabbath, and spends much of his fortune bribing Nazi officials. In his home town, he surprises his wife while she's in church during mass, and tells her that she is the only woman in his life (despite having been shown previously to be a womanizer). She goes with him to the factory to assist him. He runs out of money just as the German army surrenders, ending the war in Europe.
As a German Nazi and self-described "profiteer of slave labor", Schindler must flee the oncoming Soviet Red Army. After dismissing the Nazi guards to return to their families, he packs a car in the night, and bids farewell to his workers. They give him a letter explaining he is not a criminal to them, together with a ring engraved with the Talmudic quotation, "He who saves the life of one man, saves the world entire." Schindler is touched but deeply distraught, feeling he could've done more to save many more lives. He leaves with his wife during the night. The Schindler Jews, having slept outside the factory gates through the night, are awakened by sunlight the next morning. A Soviet dragoon arrives and announces to the Jews that they have been liberated by the Red Army. The Jews walk to a nearby town in search of food. As they walk abreast, the frame changes to another of the Schindler Jews in the present day at the grave of Oskar Schindler in Israel. The film ends by showing a procession of now-aged Jews who worked in Schindler's factory, each of whom reverently sets a stone on his grave. The actors portraying the major characters walk hand-in-hand with the people they portrayed, also placing stones on Schindler's grave as they pass. The audience learns that the survivors and descendants of the approximately 1,100 Jews sheltered by Schindler now number over 6,000. The Jewish population of Poland, once numbering in the millions, was at the time of the film's release approximately 4,000. In the final scene, a man (Neeson himself, though his face is not visible) places a pair of roses on the grave, and stands contemplatively over it.
Spielberg was unsure of his own maturity in making a film about the Holocaust, and the project remained "on [his] guilty conscience". Spielberg attempted to pass off the project to director Roman Polanski, but Polanski turned down the project, finding the subject matter too sensitive because his mother was gassed at Auschwitz, and from his own personal experiences in (and his eventual survival of) the Kraków Ghetto. Polanski would go on to direct his own Holocaust film, The Pianist in 2002. Spielberg also offered the film to Sydney Pollack. Martin Scorsese was attached to direct Schindler's List in 1988. However, Spielberg was unsure of letting Scorsese direct Schindler's List, as "I'd given away a chance to do something for my children and family about the Holocaust." Spielberg offered him the chance to direct the Cape Fear remake instead. Billy Wilder also expressed interest in directing the film, "as a memorial to most of [his] family, who went to Auschwitz." Spielberg finally decided to direct the film, after hearing of the Bosnian genocide and various Holocaust deniers. Spielberg stated that with the rise of neo-nazism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, people were once again tolerating intolerance, as they did in the 1930s. In addition, Spielberg, who suffered Antisemitism as a child, was accepting his Jewish heritage while raising his children. Sid Sheinberg greenlit the film on one condition: that Spielberg make Jurassic Park first. Spielberg later said, "He knew that once I had directed Schindler I wouldn't be able to do Jurassic Park".
Thomas Keneally was initially hired to adapt his book in 1983, and he turned in a 220-page script. Keneally focused on Schindler's numerous relationships, and admitted he did not compress the story enough. Spielberg hired Kurt Luedtke, who wrote Out of Africa, to write the next draft. Luedtke gave up almost four years later, as he found Schindler's change of heart too unbelievable. During his time as director, Scorsese hired Steve Zaillian to write the script. When he was handed back the project, Spielberg found Zaillian's 115-page draft too short, and asked him to extend it to 195 pages. Spielberg wanted to focus on the Jews in the story, and extended the ghetto liquidation sequence, as Spielberg "felt very strongly that the sequence had to be almost unwatchable." Spielberg also felt Schindler's transition had to be ambiguous, and not "some kind of explosive catharsis that would turn this into The Great Escape."
Ralph Fiennes was cast as Amon Göth after Spielberg viewed his performances in A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Spielberg said of Fiennes' audition that "I saw sexual evil. It is all about subtlety: there were moments of kindness that would move across his eyes and then instantly run cold." Fiennes put on 28lbs to play the role and looked at newsreels and talked to Holocaust survivors who knew Göth. In portraying him, Fiennes said "I got close to his pain. Inside him is a fractured, miserable human being. I feel split about him, sorry for him. He's like some dirty, battered doll I was given and that I came to feel peculiarly attached to." Fiennes looked so much like Göth in costume that when Mila Pfefferberg, a survivor of the events, met Fiennes she trembled with fear.
Overall, there are 126 speaking parts in the film, and thirty thousand extras were hired during filming. Spielberg cast children of the Schindlerjuden for key Jewish speaking roles, and also hired Catholic Poles for the survivors. Halfway during the shoot, Spielberg conceived the epilogue where 128 Schindlerjuden pay their respects to Schindler's grave in Jerusalem. The producers scrambled to find the real life people portrayed in the film.
Shooting Schindler's List was a deeply emotional time for Spielberg, as the subject matter forced him to confront elements of his childhood, such as the anti-semitism he faced. He was furious with himself when he didn't "cry buckets" while visiting Auschwitz, and was one of many crew members who did not look on during shooting of the scene where aging Jews are forced to run naked being selected by Nazi doctors to go to Auschwitz. Kate Capshaw and Spielberg's five children accompanied Spielberg on set, and he later thanked his wife "for rescuing me ninety-two days in a row... when things just got too unbearable." Spielberg's parents and his rabbi also visited him on set. Robin Williams called Spielberg every two weeks to cheer him up with various jokes. Spielberg forwent a salary, calling it "blood money", and believed the film would flop.
The decision to shoot the film in black and white lent to the documentarian style of cinematography, which cinematographer Janusz Kaminski compared to German Expressionism and Italian neorealism. Kaminski said that he wanted to give a timeless sense to the film, so the audience would "not have a sense of when it was made." Spielberg was following suit with "[v]irtually everything I've seen on the Holocaust... which have largely been stark, black and white images." Universal chairman Tom Pollock asked Spielberg to shoot the film in a color negative, to allow color VHS copies of the film to be sold, but Spielberg did not want "to beautify events." Black and white did present challenges to the color-familiar crew. Allan Starski, the production designer, had to make the sets darker or lighter than the people in the scenes, so they would not blend. The costumes also had to be distinguished from skin tones or colors being used for the sets.
According to Andy Patrizio of IGN, the girl in the red coat is used to indicate that Schindler has changed: "Spielberg put a twist on her [Ligocka's] story, turning her into one more pile on the cart of corpses to be incinerated. The look on Schindler's face is unmistakable. Minutes earlier, he saw the ash and soot of burning corpses piling up on his car as just an annoyance." Andre Caron wondered whether it was done "to symbolize innocence, hope or the red blood of the Jewish people being sacrificed in the horror of the Holocaust?" Spielberg himself has explained that he only followed the novel, and his interpretation was that
Schindler's List won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes were nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively, but did not win. At the British Academy awards the film won Best Film, the David Lean Award for Direction, Best Supporting Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Cinematography, Editing and Score. Schindler's List also won Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture (Drama), Best Director and Best Screenplay, with John Williams awarded the Grammy for the film's musical score.
The film has had its detractors, for example, Robert Philip Kolker, in his A Cinema of Loneliness, attacked the portrayal of Goeth as "too unrelievedly brutal. He is a psychopath, and psychopathology is too easy a way to dismiss Nazism and its adherents. [...] Ideological elements are so distorted by dreams of power, authority, and manufactured hatred and convictions of necessity, that the majority of a culture gets caught up in the act of killing the demonized other. There were psychotic Germans, to be sure; but Nazism cannot be reduced simply to psychosis. There are scenes in Schindler's List of German officers in a hysterical frenzy of killing that are, perhaps, more accurate than Goeth's unrelenting murderousnes, but also bring with them the old Hollywood representations of Nazis as sophisticated gangsters.
In addition, Schindler's List also featured on a number of other "best of" lists, including the Time magazine's Top Hundred as selected by critics Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel, Time Out magazine's 100 Greatest Films Centenary Poll conducted in 1995, Roger Ebert's "Great Movies"' series, and Leonard Maltin's "100 Must See Movies of the Century". In addition, The Vatican named Schindler's List among the top 45 films ever made.
The readers of the German film magazine Cinema voted Schindler's List #1 to the best movie of all time in 2000. In 2002, a Channel 4 poll named Schindler's List the ninth greatest film of all time, and it came fourth in the 2005 war films poll.
Following the success of the film, Spielberg founded and continues to finance the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, a non-profit organization with the goal of providing an archive for the filmed testimony of as many survivors of the Holocaust as possible, so that their stories will not be lost. Spielberg also used the money from the film to finance several related documentaries including The Lost Children of Berlin (1996), Anne Frank Remembered (1995) and The Last Days (1998).
As to the 1997 television showing of the film itself, per Spielberg's insistence, it aired unedited and nearly uncensored, although the sex scene was mildly edited by removing nearly all of the "thrusting." The telecast was the first ever to receive a TV-M (now TV-MA) rating under the TV Parental Guidelines that had been established at the beginning of that year. Many fundamentalist and evangelical Christian groups, which had previously been squeamish about the movie, stridently objected to the film being shown on network television at all, due to scenes of nudity, violence, and the use of vulgar language which were not edited out of the TV production. Senator Tom Coburn, then an Oklahoma congressman, stated that NBC, by airing the film, had brought television "to an all-time low, with full-frontal nudity, violence and profanity," adding that airing the film was an insult to "decent-minded individuals everywhere. Under fire from fellow Republicans as well as from Democrats, Coburn apologized for his outrage, saying: "My intentions were good, but I've obviously made an error in judgment in how I've gone about saying what I wanted to say." He said he hadn't reversed his opinion on airing the film, but qualified it ought to have been aired later at night, when there aren't, as he said, "large numbers of children watching without parental supervision.