Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XXI: I could have done more


The Serious Spielberg's magnum opus comes also in the form of one of his most profound and powerful emotion machines, in what can only be called one of the greatest historical dramas ever made.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Steven Zaillian (based on the novel Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally)
With Liam Neeson (Oskar Schindler), Ben Kingsley (Itzhak Stern), Caroline Goodall (Emilie Schindler), Embeth Davidtz (Helen Hirsch), and Ralph Fiennes (SS-Hauptsturmfuehrer Amon Goeth)

Spoiler alert:  N/A

Schindler's List, of course, is just a movie: it is constructed from roughly 435,000 individual pictures, each arranged so that if they are flashed upon a screen at 24 frames per second, the images of men and women in costumes, and sometimes not in any costumes at all, appear to move and do things, and it is paired with an audio track so you can hear what their writer has instructed them to say, along with the composer's emotion-rousing score.  So: just a movie.

And, from the way it was marketed, from the way it was received (by proponents and detractors alike), and from the central place it occupies in the American perception of the Jewish Holocaust, you'd never be able to tell.  If a movie could ever be more than a movie, then I guess this has to be the one: surely our single most important cinematic text about the Holocaust, it attained that status partly because of its novelty (there were not a dozen Holocaust movies per year before List), partly because nobody (other than academics and self-flagellating Woody Allen characters) ever really wants to watch Shoah, and mostly because Schindler's List actually manages to achieve a scope that, miraculously, feels correct, even while it reaches far beyond the patently clear limitations of its central narrative.

It makes you feel like you have watched an encompassing history of the Holocaust, even though it was delivered to you, primarily, through the lens of a Gentile Grinch, whose heart grows approximately one size per hour of screentime, until it fills every square inch of the frame.  This is, naturally, nothing but a feeling; however, the feeling is exactly what counts.  Thus I suggest that if you actually want History, then you ought to read a Book, because Schindler's List is, to belabor my point just a little more, a Movie.

So with that in mind, I'd like to place Steven Spielberg's epic within the context of our overview of Steven Spielberg's career.  Unfortunately, this compels us to begin upon the pettiest note possible; but it is the note I would surely begin upon, were List instead about an astronaut named Oskar who saved the Martians from Werner von Braun.  It is what I'd need to talk about if List were just a movie; and it concerns one of the most important people involved in making it into a movie.  His name is Janusz Kaminski.

Kaminski, a Polish-American who had trained in the fine arts in New York, had gotten his first real break only a few years earlier, when Spielberg discovered him and put him to work on one of the innumerable films that Spielberg is always producing.  When Kaminski turned out to Spielberg's satisfaction, the director picked him as the cinematographer for what was going to be, and was self-consciously planned as, Spielberg's Serious Masterpiece.  The rest is film history: Spielberg had finally found the cinematographer of his dreams, the one man in all the world whose aesthetic temperament was completely attuned with his own.  However, if you've ever read anything I've written about Kaminski, then you know already that, for me, their collaborations have sometimes been a source of frustration.

For starters, it led to, even if it did not cause, the downfall of the rather more talented cinematographer, Dean Cundey—DP to John Carpenter, then Robert Zemeckis, then Spielberg, and then to a succession of nobodies forever.  After scaling Hollywood's summit with Hook and Jurassic Park, Cundey was cast down; and I don't know why.

Thus I have cause to wonder what the next 23 years of Spielberg's career would look like, if he had kept Cundey on his right hand for all the films that did not need that Kaminski Touch.  I imagine it would've been the best of both worlds.  You see, like Vilmos Zsigmond, Douglas Slocombe, and Allen Daviau before him, Cundey had tempered all the worst excesses of Spielberg's devolving visual scheme—the permanently-fogged interiors and exteriors, the shafts of light streaming through every available orifice, the hideous glares off so many reflective surfaces, the increasing coldness of his color palette.  Kaminski, meanwhile, indulged Spielberg; and, ultimately, you get Bridge of Spies, a self-parodying monument to Kaminski's laughably overwrought technique.

But Kaminski is, even if I am reluctant to admit it, also a great cinematographer—only a great cinematographer would ever be able to be that annoying, really, and there would be many films in his and Spielberg's future worth praising for their style, even if that style wasn't always conventionally "pretty."  Beyond any other advertisement for Kaminski's greatness, however, there is still Schindler's List, and List makes it easy to see why Spielberg has stuck with Kaminski for more than two decades.

Shot in an absolutely manichaean black-and-white, Kaminski approached List with the avowed intention to wed two somewhat-incompatible strains of cinema—Expressionism and Neorealism—even though just about the only commonality they actually share is the tendency for each to eschew color.  And that's how List moves between a heightened reality straight out of film noir and a documentary-like impression of objectivity.  Which style Kaminski actually applies always depends upon the need of the scene—the Holocaust Moments are usually, but not always, depicted in the latter, objective mode—and so a rigorously-determined Expressionism and a faux-chaotic Neorealism find themselves side-by-side, only without the incongruity you'd think would result, for they come in the container of good old Spielbergian Classicism.

It's difficult to imagine a better way to tell this particular story, which is largely about control: over other human beings, over oneself, over one's soul.  It is about one man who presents himself as spontaneous and wild, yet is deliberate and self-possessed in the tiniest gesture, though he still cannot control his own conscience, which is the rarest disability of all; it is about another man, too, a man who pretends to have control, but is a slobbering wreck of humanity, swept along by history; and it is also about a whole people, who have lost control over their fate, and can look only to a sympathetic enemy for salvation.  The only control they can still exert is through the effect their immiseration—and their destruction—might still have upon him.

I'd expect that if one were to look very closely at List (as many, I suppose, have), one would find that more Expressionistic moments belong to its hero, more Neorealist ones to its villain (and his victims), and that the Classicism (which is the abiding mode of the film, though it is, by definition, less noticeable) belongs to the parts where the hero and villain collide and verbally spar.  But then, the Neorealist parts intrude upon Schindler, too, when he is confronted directly with the true face of the Holocaust—the burning bodies, the ashen snowfall.  The camera cuts right through the romantic manner in which he perceives himself.

So credit Spielberg and Kaminski with an enormously satisfying visual regime; still, I'd credit Spielberg's longtime editor, Michael Kahn, even more, for it's Kahn who puts it together in a way that feels entirely of a piece.  (Though that hardly defines the limit of Kahn's prodigious accomplishments.)

This does not entirely explain the decision to film in black-and-white, however.  No matter how dour his subject, Spielberg's never returned to black-and-white, and so that can only be a partial answer.  Spielberg's explained that another reason was his desire for verisimilitude—with visual documents of the Holocaust tending to be black-and-white, it would be best to reproduce that, rather than trying to extrapolate color.  The translation, I think, is "This is a gritty movie about WWII, and therefore it's in black-and-white."  That's not a bad reason (though neither is it an especially compelling one).

No, the justification really comes directly out of the film itself: aside from turning into strengths all of what would immediately become the usual Spielinski sins, List's brutalist dichrome puts into pictures everything that it was already about.  It is, after all, a film devoted to such stark contrasts: light and dark; good and evil; German and Jew; and, above all, the survivors and the dead.  This is the reason, too, behind all of List's echoed images, especially the images of paperwork—Nazi lists, evil lists—which must be considered against the existence of Schindler's list, "the absolute good."

And that, further, would help explain the humongous sprawl of List, which, since 1993, has been the biggest problem some folks have had with the film—notwithstanding the premise itself, that is.  Sometimes bitterly dismissed as the story of the Jews who didn't die, even this doesn't quite sum up the frothing animus of some of its critics.  On a strictly narrative level, of course, List is the story of a German—co-starring the Jews who didn't die.

List, obviously, is aware in every frame that its Jews are not the only Jews; and, in a great many frames, it drifts away from the Jews who didn't die and the German who saved them entirely.  The camera wanders around production designer Allan Starski's sterling reproduction of wartime Poland, completely dissociated from Oskar Schindler's perspective.  Sometimes weakly yoked to the perspective of his best Jewish buddy, Itzhak Stern (one of two Jews in the film who rise to the status of "character"), as often as not there's no obvious point-of-view at all, other than that of Spielberg himself, who is clearly sensitive to the vulnerabilities of his tale, and demonstrates a deep need (whether personal, professional, artistic, or all three) to try to encompass the Holocaust.

That no narrative could ever actually accomplish this seems to have escaped him—not so much that the Holocaust is uniquely too big, but that history is too big.  The Holocaust is Jews who died, Jews who didn't die, Jews who died in extermination camps, Jews who died in Ostfront villages—and it is a roughly equal number of non-Jews who died, too, a salient fact that shows up as a footnote to mainstream Holocaust stories, if it appears at all, which it certainly does not here.

And that's fine!  No story can be every story.  Yet Spielberg reaches to grab all the Holocaust he possibly can, from the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto to the scene with Auschwitz' apparently completely functional showers.  It is, on one hand, vital to the film: it establishes what the stakes are in a very visceral way, rather than simply assuming you know what the Holocaust entailed.  And it lends an infinite gravity, too; no story can be every story, though List comes close, for it wants to be the storytellers' story—the survivors who lived to tell the tale.

So let's say only that it addles List's sense of focus a little bit, though this is not really damaging here, as it has been elsewhere—in The Color Purple, just for example.  To my mind, there's only a few moments that feel clumsy; and one of them is the little girl in the red jacket.  The flash of color, symbolizing the crack in Schindler's practiced veneer of amorality, is a fine idea; it's rather wretchedly executed, and sums up everything "wrong" with the inability to fix the film to a point of view, particularly when the reddish-pinkess of her jacket persists when only we, and not Schindler, could possibly be watching her.

Yet, in all the conversation surrounding Schindler's List—which shall always be tilted, incredibly tediously, toward hair-splitting politics—what always winds up overlooked is its surprising watchability, despite trafficking in real-life horror.

In the years immediately preceding List, and in the decades to come, Spielberg would often express his impulse to chronicle history within noticeable genre constraints; Spielberg the Serious Artist is really only an aspect of Spielberg the Great Entertainer, and this is one of the more admirable ways he has achieved his status as (what I consider) the finest filmmaker of all time.  The feminist tale of The Color Purple found itself ensconced in melodrama; the anti-war message of Empire of the Sun found itself packaged within a fascinatingly specific coming-of-age tale, streaked with magical realism.  After List, the anti-slavery polemic of Amistad would be delivered in part via courtroom drama; the meditation on Israeli policy, Munich, would come in the form of one of Spielberg's most-accomplished thrillers.  Schindler's List remains a memorial to the Holocaust, and Spielberg's respect for the Holocaust prohibits his Holocaust memorial from ever being really and truly contained within the bounds of its story, as we've discussed; but it finds itself given shape by the genuine caper film that's taking place within it, which also happens to be an amazing character study, too.

I have not bothered recapping List's plot, rather secure in the knowledge that you damned well know what happens in it.  But List, boiled down to its most basic elements, is the story of a suave capitalist who comes into Krakow on the heels of the German Heer in 1939, and sets out to perform what amounts to a kind of scam upon the Germans and the Jews alike.  To actually execute his scheme, however, he enlists the services of one of Krakow's disenfranchised and dispossessed Jews, who hatches his own kind of "scam"; and thus List tells the tale of how the two scams being perpetrated by Oskar Schindler and Itzhak Stern became the same scam, the scam they pulled upon the Third Reich to save 1100 Jews.  Their struggle is full of setbacks and pitfalls and danger—because their scam is being undertaken against the backdrop of six million Jews being systematically murdered—but it would be really dishonest to say their story is completely devoid of pleasure.

List even has a sense of humor—a pitch black one, but it's there, most punchlines delivered by Kahn's masterful editing: that smash cut, from Emilie Schindler's sadly pathetic request that Oskar promise her that he'll cease his infidelities, to Emilie being put on a train and sent back to Czechoslovakia where she won't bother him with being alive and having feelings, is bitterly amusing.  Yet it's just a typical example of Steven Zaillian's script's ability to capture character with a touch of bleak comedy, as well as Kahn's ability to emphasize both with perfect timing.

It is a Holocaust movie, however, and so humor has a tendency to shade immediately into the obscene—and that's one of the most fascinatingly off-kilter things, maybe even one of the most human things, about it.  Spielberg is not lightening the mood but being intentionally repulsive when he and Kahn cross-cut from Schindler, settling into his new apartment in Krakow, to the justified complaining of the Jewish family who have just been thrown out of it.  ("It couldn't be better," says Schindler.  "It could be worse," says the expropriated wife, upon arrival in her new, awful lodgings.  "How could it be worse?" asks her husband.  And the camera pans to show him exactly how, with the arrival of another, enormous family.)  This is vaudeville, repurposed to make an ugly point.  But a true cosmic absurdity haunts List, and it has a face, and it has a name: Amon Goeth, the matinee Nazi villain who serves as Schindler's devilish friend as well as the commandant of Konzentrationslager Plaszow.  Propelled by Ralph Fiennes' ticcy, almost campy performance, Goeth is pushed into chaotic, elemental monstrousness—and, even after two viewings in close succession, I still find myself unsure if this version of Goeth is the best possible one, although Fiennes surely does all that he's asked to do and more.

The first time, I found Goeth quite distractingly broad.  And, despite Spielberg's clear intent to mirror the kindly Schindler with the demon of Plaszow, I really wasn't having it.  Schindler, after all, is the ordinary man (albeit an extraordinary schmoozer), who walked into an immoral world with selfish intentions, but soon discovered that his practiced amorality was only skin deep, and so chose to do good.  A mirror to Schindler would be an ordinary man who walked into an immoral world with selfish intentions, and did evil.  But Goeth?  He's just crazy.  (And this is made particularly clear by the way he goes around "pardoning" the innocuous follies of his Jewish slaves, after Schindler has tried to educate his morals; it is, if not more horrifying than his typical behavior, almost more perverse—for we know it shall not be very long at all before he gives up on the endeavor and returns to evil with full force.)

On a second watch, while the attempt to make a dichotomy of the two remains a (qualified) failure, Goeth still remains an enormously good foil for Schindler personally.  Neither his dark twin, nor really a very effective obstacle, nor in any sense an individual human being, Goeth nevertheless excels at being one thing: the personification of Nazi Germany.  Thus is Goeth mad and awful and (frankly) somewhat incompetent, and if there is one thing that is not appreciated enough about List, it's how sharply it depicts the Reich as an incredibly corrupt and poorly-run place that belied all the promises of fascist efficiency.  Where else in the world could Schindler have been successful in his quest?  Indeed, where else could Schindler have been successful, period?  The man is a consummate parasite.  And part of his journey of self-discovery is realizing exactly what he's always been.

Rather than played, I prefer to describe Schindler as "incarnated."  (And, if the last shot of the film is any indication, Spielberg agrees.)  Liam Neeson's Oskar Schindler is a performance that I can't imagine he's ever bettered; it's a nuanced thing, given room to breathe and to change in the most gradual and organic ways, over the course of six years (and three hours), and it is what drives home the annihilating, weepy climax that is Spielberg at his most Spielbergian, and which I treasure more than anything else in the picture.

And so Schindler's List, I guess, really is the Holocaust movie for Gentiles.  It is a fantasy for us: a moral fable which lets us hope against hope that, had we had found ourselves in the shoes of the ordinary German, we too would have been good, just like Schindler—who still did not do enough.

Score:  10/10

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