At some point in a director's life, he may be seized with an urge to make an Epic that will be remembered, he hopes, as his Magnum Opus. He pours his heart and soul into his work, producing a movie that expresses his inner feelings, baring his soul for the world to see.
For instance, in 1980 Martin Scorsese had sunk into a depression, and he felt that his life was nearing its end. So he decided to make one "last" movie, something that would bring all of his emotions and feelings to the surface; it would serve as a cleansing, so to speak. The result was one of the greatest "biopic" dramas ever made: Raging Bull, a brutal, shattering portrait of a man whose greatest enemy was himself.
Other directors have created their own "epic" films, though not all have been successful: Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900; Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now; Michael Cimino's disastrous Heaven's Gate; even Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible; Walt Disney's Fantasia and the legendary Greed by von Stroheim. It's as though the artist is seized by the need to produce something memorable, something that will be remembered even after it disappears from the theaters.
Pauline Kael notes that these personal, shrieve-my-soul projects differ from so-called Hollywood "epic sagas," in that they're made with something else in mind besides raking in bucks at the box office:
Which brings me to Schindler's List, the story of one man and the Holocaust, from the most "Hollywood" of Hollywood directors: Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg, of course, is the man who earned more money for one Hollywood studio than perhaps any other director. His name is synonymous with God in the land of box-office receipts and account books – so when he announced that he wanted to shoot a drama about the Holocaust that was over three hours long, and in black-and-white, no less, then who was in a position to say no? No one else in Hollywood has the power and influence to get a studio to spend so much money on a film that is almost guaranteed to lose money. In this day and age, how many moviegoers are willing to watch a black-and-white movie? Why risk so much when you could turn in a quick profit filming something like Wayne's World 2 or Mrs. Doubtfire?
But Spielberg has aspired to be something more than a director of action movies and box-office hits. He wants to be an auteur filmmaker, to produce something that can stand up in the roster of cinema greats like 8 1/2, The Third Man, The African Queen – and Raging Bull, among others.
Spielberg has been trying to grow up, to escape the image of the Disney wanna-be child at heart who can only make light-hearted "family entertainment" movies. His previous attempts at making "adult" drama have met with mixed acceptance at best: The Color Purple was a fine movie, but he merely went through the motions with Empire of the Sun and Always, and thus he failed.
The fatal flaw in his movies has been that of character: he has trouble bringing truly "lifelike" characters to the screen in realistic settings. While he's given us larger-than-life heroes like Indiana Jones, or everyday people in fantastic situations (as in Close Encounters and Jaws), he's used fantasy as a crutch to escape from the real world. He says so himself when referring to Schindler's List as his true awakening.
But is Schindler's List a true rebirth for Spielberg?
It's a well-crafted movie, and it has many scenes that will stand out in your mind for a long time after it ends. But it only scratches the surface of its characters, including Oskar Schindler himself, and it never lets us see them as real people.
This movie is little more than a World War II melodrama masquerading as great entertainment.
Spielberg's attempt to produce a human-centered "epic" falls into the classic "Hollywood" style of storytelling: it has clear-cut good guys and bad guys, lots of suspense, a lily-white hero to root for, and a happy ending - just like every other Spielberg movie.
And yet, this is still a good movie. The acting is superb, even if the actors' roles are limited; the cinematography fresh and energetic; the use of black-and-white superb; and the editing keeps the story flowing so that we are never bored. As entertainment, it's certainly one of the better films to be released in a year where we've had some very good movies.
But as a character portrait of an enigmatic man, the movie fails. It's based on the story of Oskar Schindler, a Nazi Party member who bucked the system in the heart of Germany's occupation of Poland, and who managed to save the lives of over a thousand Jewish citizens of Poland by employing them as laborers in a war-supplies factory. Initially, Schindler supplied the army with basics such as pots and pans, but near the end of the war, out of necessity, he moved his base of operations to central Europe and ran a munitions factory.
Over the course of the war, Schindler became very rich. He didn't have to pay his workers because they were Jews, and he exploited their labors for his personal benefit. But by the end of the war he was a changed man, and he spent his entire fortune in bribes and "favors" to Nazi officials to make sure that his operation, and his favored treatment of the Jews, was never noticed.
What made Schindler tick? What caused him to undergo such a drastic change in his character? Was he really the heaven-sent angel portrayed in the movie?
Of course he wasn't. Very few people in history turn out to be as pure of heart as they're portrayed in the movies. They're far more complicated than this, and rare is the movie that dares to dig underneath and let us understand just why a person does what he does.
Schindler's List does not dig very far.
The story's basic flaw lies in the screenplay, where the characters are not fully fleshed out. Steven Zaillian, the screenwriter, knows how to write characters as plot devices – but he can't give them the "feel" of human beings. He made a similar mistake in this summer's Searching for Bobby Fischer (which he directed), in which every character had a part to play, but they never seemed like anything more than living plot devices. For example, Ben Kingsley's role as the professional chess tutor was a character of pure logic and no emotion; he existed solely on that level.
Here he plays the role of Itzhak Stern, Schindler's accountant; once again, his character seems to be single-mindedly devoted to one purpose. He is Schindler's conscience, there to serve as a gopher and to occasionally remind Schindler that he could get in a lot of trouble if his true motives are ever discovered. But that's all we know of him, and we never feel any emotion for him as a human being – because here he's not one.
Schindler himself begins the film as a war profiteer. Profit is everything to him, and he bases his cooking-utensil factory on the cheap labor he gets from employing Jewish workers. But he sees the reality of Nazi persecution for himself - and he doesn't even see it up close, the way we do; rather, he only gets a distant glimpse of the slaughter in the Krakow ghetto, from horseback. This, of course, is irony: he's rich and powerful, and this power has come from the exploitation of other people who have no rights of their own.
The symbolic importance of the girl in the red coat is the "marker" by which we can judge Schindler's transformation into a selfless angel of mercy - a complete 180-degree turn, which cheapens and simplifies the actual real-life awakening of Schindler to the horrors of war. Before seeing her, he is greedy and heartless; afterwards, he's an altruistic humanitarian.
The film takes pains to portray Schindler as a good guy: it downplays his casual use and abuse of the women working for him, so that we can easily forgive him of this "petty" fault. Even after the Krakow massacre, he continues to amass wealth and to befriend important Nazi officials - but we know now that it's just a ruse, and that he's doing it to ensure the survival of his "employees." The movie would have us believe that he didn't enjoy wealth and power, because we never see him basking in the fruits of his labors.
Therefore, Schindler is a Good Guy, and everything he does is for the good of his fellow men.
The problem is, people like that only exist in the movies.
Still, Liam Neeson plays this role to the hilt. After turning in a stellar performance in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, he has managed to land some very choice roles in recent Hollywood movies. His star is on the rise, and he is being showered with praise for this role. He and the other actors turn in good, solid performances, underplaying their roles and never acting preachy or bombastic.
This is a plus for Ralph Fiennes, who portrays the evil Nazi commander Amon Goethe as a true monster. He casually sits on his seat overlooking the Plaszow Forced Labor Camp, shooting Jews because he has nothing better to do. He's heartless and cruel, and while Fiennes could have easily slipped into caricature here, he maintains the character as believable.
Goethe believes, like a true Nazi, that Jews are sub-creatures and less than human. But after he talks with and befriends Oskar Schindler, he gains a soul and a conscience – temporarily. Here the film goes even further to portray Schindler as a pure angel: he inspires pity in the worst demonic dregs of humankind. But Goethe is the Bad Guy, and his fate is inevitable – as we see at the end of the film, when Schindler is rewarded and he is not.
We're also given glimpses of of the Jews themselves, though once again they're portrayed as plot devices, and not as human beings. The Jewish citizens of Poland exist in this film as a prize to be won, either by the Nazis or by Schindler. The movie takes pains to emphasize the fact that no one under German occupation knew whether he would live or die - but because of the conventions of the motion picture, with Schindler as the Jews' guardian angel, we know that their safety is assured. Sadly, this lessens the impact of such scenes as a card game played between Schindler and Goethe, with the life of the Jewish servant girl Helen Hirsch hanging in the balance. We know exactly what's going to happen; likewise, when Itzhak Stern pleads with Schindler for him to take an elderly couple (who obviously can't work in a factory), we know what their eventual fate is.
But these complaints aren't likely to convince many people of the movie's primary flaw. That's because people enjoy a simple, well-told tale - and essentially, that's what Schindler's List is. It doesn't ask many questions, and we don't have to think very hard about the characters. Combine this with Spielberg's gift for touching our emotions, and the result is a film that packs an emotional wallop, in a style similar to the effect that Jurassic Park had on us.
Besides, we can't deny the fact that Schindler's List is a supremely well-crafted film. The use of black-and-white photography by Janusz Kaminski (who recently shot The Adventures of Huck Finn) is superb: the use of light, dark, and grey is as full and varied as the great black-and-white films of the past. The use of color isn't quite as good; we can tell when a color scene is about to take place because of a noticeable change in the tint of the previous scene. But this is nit-picking.
Spielberg's cinema is that of images. At this, he is an unquestioned master: there are many moments in the film that stand out on their own. Unfortunately, all of these moments come from good camerawork and editing - not from the characters themselves. Scenes such as that of hundreds of dead bodies being dumped into a raging inferno, or the flashes of gunfire in the windows of the Krakow ghetto, or a man hosing down a train full of Jewish prisoners at Schindler's insistence to give them drinking water are all great visual moments - but they do nothing to develop the characters.
In fact, the film's most emotional moment, as a room full of women and children at Auschwitz await certain death in a gas chamber (with vague humanoid figures wandering back and forth, obscured by bright lights and eerie, ominous music exactly as in the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind), smacks of blatant emotional manipulation. This scene is there solely for suspense: we feel the tension rising as the crucial moment approaches - and then the event occurs. It's a terrifying moment, but what purpose does it serve? An earlier conversation between Jewish residents of the ghetto (they question the existence of the death camps) foreshadows this moment and builds up to it - but why is it here? We don't learn anything more about the characters in this scene than we do already. We certainly get scared, but that's all. Are we watching a horror movie? No, we're supposed to be seeing a drama of the Holocaust - except that this isn't it.
Spielberg certainly knows how to make a death scene shocking. We can watch Steven Seagal or Arnold Schwarzenegger casually place a gun to someone's head, pull the trigger, and then laugh at the result; moments like this are often cited as proof that we've become "de- sensitized" to violence in the movies. But the deaths in Schindler's List are memorable and harshly realistic; we're jolted out of our seats when we see a Nazi soldier casually shoot a Jewish civilian. Even though we don't know these people, we feel for them - and that's the Spielberg touch. It's this use of sympathy and shock that makes the massacre of the Krakow ghetto one of the film's emotional high points.
The storyline never bogs down, and it interests us enough so that we're taken on a three-and-a-quarter-hour ride without feeling bored or tired. This is a remarkable achievement in itself. Hollywood has fallen into the trap of believing that "more is better," and this has resulted in blockbuster hopefuls with an average length of over two hours. Just this year alone we've had The Firm and The Pelican Brief, both of which are two and a half hours long, Rising Sun (two hours and ten minutes), The Age of Innocence (two hours and twenty minutes), The Fugitive, and other movies that would be better if they had fifteen or twenty minutes trimmed from the final cut. Schindler's List does not suffer from this problem; despite its length, we feel that every scene is essential.
Kudos are also given to John Williams for his quiet, haunting score. It's markedly different from the usual overblown, bombastic John Williams work we've heard in movies like Platoon: it's so different that you would have to see Williams' name in the credits to believe that he wrote it.
I just wish that the screenplay was as unflinching and full of depth as the film's production values.
Am I placing too much blame on the script? I don't think so; I can't help wondering what the story would have been like if the screenplay had been written by Paul Schrader (whose works include Taxi Driver, Mishima and Raging Bull). This is a movie that earnestly wants us to feel for its characters, to become familiar with them. We certainly do, but we just don't KNOW them.
This is what keeps Schindler's List from being a truly "epic" film. It's an entertaining story. It's well-acted, the scenery is harsh and realistic, the editing is flawless; and the pieces fit together nicely. But it's a simple, Hollywood-style version of the Holocaust. It's not a documentary, and as a result it takes creative liberties with history - but instead of using fiction to ask questions about its characters, as with Lawrence of Arabia or Raging Bull, it merely entertains us. Who WAS Schindler, anyways?
As with Hook and Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg finds himself a great director working from a merely adequate story. In the end, it lessens the potential of Schindler's List, and makes it less of a movie.
Spielberg hopes that this movie will be remembered as his great contribution to the art of cinema. He's already had an effect on moviemaking by directing several of the biggest box-office hits of all time, and he'll certainly be remembered for his mastery of the craft of filmmaking.
But as a truly "epic" motion picture, Schindler's List does not live up to its potential.
Schindler's List is a good movie. It could have been great, but it's still good.