Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

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hearthesilence
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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#26 Post by hearthesilence » Sun Nov 13, 2011 8:40 pm

matrixschmatrix wrote:I've always been a List defender, but it does seem oddly similar to the kind of "A white hero saves the oppressed people" stories you get about the American South, or Blood Diamond or whatever- it's true enough that its stated aim is to be a movie about Oskar Schindler and not about the Jews, but there still something dehumanizing to the Jews in that design, particularly given the ending of the film. In that respect, it's very similar to Amistad, which as I recall is far more interested in the heroism of Quincy Adams than in the plight of the actual black people.
I think that's a valid point, it definitely crosses my mind every time I've seen the movie, but it's hard to reconcile that idea with the emotional response I had to the film (at least the initial ones I had). Rosenbaum dealt with this in his original review:
JonathanRosenbaum wrote:Despite both the subject matter and the fact that Spielberg himself is Jewish, Schindler’s List is anything but a Jewish film. Indeed, as I hope to show, even Jews who see this film are implicitly transformed by the narrative structure into gentile viewers...

On a few special occasions, the film also asks us to identify with the Jewish victims–again as gentile viewers, using Schindler’s humane sympathy as our guide. On these occasions the shots generally become newsreel-gray and hand-held, and the language we hear often switches from English to guttural European tongues, increasing our terror with both a sense of actuality and a sense of the unknown. But more often we’re asked to sit with Schindler or Goeth in the catbird seat. That’s why, when Goeth sadistically flirts with, interrogates, and finally beats his abused Jewish maid (Embeth Davidtz) in the wine cellar where she usually hides from him, Spielberg takes care to show us Davidtz’s nipples through the slip she’s wearing–to ask us to share Goeth’s unresolved sexual attraction to her.

It might be inferred from the above that I’m only denouncing Spielberg’s tactics. But the fact remains that if he weren’t this ruthless or this efficient I wouldn’t have wept at the end of Schindler’s List both times I saw it. And as tempting as it is to ridicule Spielberg’s reasons for making it–which probably include a narcissistically far-fetched identification with Schindler, and may even, for all I know, incorporate George Bush’s evocation of a “kinder, gentler” America–it would be stupid to deny that art often grows out of just such contradictions.

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Luke M
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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#27 Post by Luke M » Thu Dec 15, 2011 3:04 am

I don't care for the film and don't have much to add that others have already mentioned. I blame it on Spielberg being too Americanized. It's a holocaust film made by someone who grew up reading about in school instead of someone who actually went and saw the camps themselves or talked with survivors.

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#28 Post by RobertAltman » Thu Dec 15, 2011 10:15 am

While it's far from my favourite Spielberg, I have to say those arguments of yours are fucking ridiculous. Also, claiming Speilberg has never talked with survivors is incredibly ignorant (Shoah foundation, etc.), and I'd be surprised if he never saw any of the camps himself. Especially considering the fact that parts of the movie was shot in Auschwitz.

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#29 Post by MichaelB » Thu Dec 15, 2011 12:45 pm

RobertAltman wrote:While it's far from my favourite Spielberg, I have to say those arguments of yours are fucking ridiculous. Also, claiming Speilberg has never talked with survivors is incredibly ignorant (Shoah foundation, etc.), and I'd be surprised if he never saw any of the camps himself. Especially considering the fact that parts of the movie was shot in Auschwitz.
...and one of the film's producers, Branko Lustig, was himself an Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen inmate, and by all accounts was lucky to survive the experience: despite being in his mid-teens, he weighed just 66 pounds when he came out.

It's also highly unlikely that the film's heavily Polish crew (many of them veterans of Andrzej Wajda's films, most relevantly Korczak) would have been entirely unmarked by the Holocaust: even if they were too young to have experienced it at first hand, they were statistically overwhelmingly likely to know someone who had.

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Matt
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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#30 Post by Matt » Thu Dec 15, 2011 3:27 pm

There's a debate going on over at Tablet Magazine about the film, which came in at #100 on their list of 100 Greatest Jewish Films (and even then just to make a point about it being an "astoundingly stupid Holocaust melodrama.") That was so provocative that the author of that particular entry, Liel Leibovitz, has gone on to write a longer defense of his opinion.

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#31 Post by zedz » Thu Dec 15, 2011 3:39 pm

Great piece, Matt. Thanks for the link.

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Luke M
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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#32 Post by Luke M » Thu Dec 15, 2011 4:15 pm

RobertAltman wrote:While it's far from my favourite Spielberg, I have to say those arguments of yours are fucking ridiculous. Also, claiming Speilberg has never talked with survivors is incredibly ignorant (Shoah foundation, etc.), and I'd be surprised if he never saw any of the camps himself. Especially considering the fact that parts of the movie was shot in Auschwitz.
Well, I was giving him the benefit of the doubt.

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#33 Post by rohmerin » Thu Dec 15, 2011 4:32 pm

I think Jean Luc Godard wrote an essay or review where he disliked very much the film and was very controversial at his time. I am a dissater surfing the web but may be somebody can get it.

I remember that Auschwitz authorities didn't allow to Mr.Spielberg to shoot in real locations and all was remade in Polish sets.

I don't think Schindler's list is so bad or so good film. If you want to see a fake, melodramatic, cheap one, French hit La rafle (The round up) is on DVD in UK.

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#34 Post by colinr0380 » Thu Dec 15, 2011 5:31 pm

For me the girl in the red coat throws me out - as if we can only appreciate the holocaust through the plight of one standing for the many (which also shows, if we had not already guessed from the title, that this is more about Oskar Schindler above anyone else). As does the almost pornographic use of the tension in the 'fake' shower sequence, where everyone thinks they are going to be gassed until the showers turn on.

Doesn't Schindler's List get namechecked in Godard's Eloge d'amour? (It has been a while since I last watched it but doesn't it have a sequence interviewing the holocaust survivors whose testimony Spielberg used in the film?)
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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#35 Post by hearthesilence » Thu Dec 15, 2011 6:55 pm

I have vague memories of some of the controversy that erupted over Godard's response. Have yet to read his essay, but I would think his misguided accusation of Spielberg cashing in on the Holocaust was a major distraction from any valid point he was trying to make. (I'm guessing Godard was unaware that Spielberg had accepted no salary, admitting it would've been "blood money.")

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#36 Post by zedz » Thu Dec 15, 2011 7:05 pm

But surely the obvious criticism of Spielberg's opportunism / cynicism in re. Schindler's List is that he was doing it for an Oscar and the cachet that would bring, not for a big payday (since almost all of his other films had more chance of delivering that and it's not as if he were cash-strapped at the time). That might not be 'cashing in' if you're being pedantically literal, but it's not that hard to understand where Godard was coming from.

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#37 Post by Antares » Thu Dec 15, 2011 7:07 pm

hearthesilence wrote:I have vague memories of some of the controversy that erupted over Godard's response. Have yet to read his essay, but I would think his misguided accusation of Spielberg cashing in on the Holocaust was a major distraction from any valid point he was trying to make. (I'm guessing Godard was unaware that Spielberg had accepted no salary, admitting it would've been "blood money.")
I've never read his essay, but maybe Godard was using the phrase "cashing in" to describe Spielberg's desire for an Academy Award?

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#38 Post by colinr0380 » Thu Dec 15, 2011 7:11 pm

This does not pertain to Godard but a section from the (positive) review by Derek Winnert in of all things the Radio Times Film Guide from 1994 stayed with me regarding this film:
Spielberg goes for lots of big scenes and grand moments in the epic-scale filming of his mentor David Lean and the black and white photography is astonishing throughout, though such a stylistic treatment raises problems and questions: is this to be admired as an art object, an entertainment (as released by 'Amblin Entertainment'), a social study or a documentary on genocide?

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#39 Post by Gregory » Thu Dec 15, 2011 7:48 pm

That's a good question. Supporters of Spielberg's historical films (as with problematic historical films in general) often rush to the "it's only supposed to be entertainment; what did you expect?" argument. But there have been a proliferation of teachers' guides and lesson plans on Schindler's List, Amistad, etc., some of them released to schools by the studio. Based on my own experiences any what I know about the standard pedagogy of high school history, I'd suppose that these materials are not being used to critically examine the film but using its portrayal of historical events to uncritically "illustrate" basic facts, events, and concepts. And of course most people in this country get their historical "knowledge" from movies rather than from any history courses beyond the high school level. I think I've made very similar comments on the forum long ago, pertaining to Amistad, but this all seems up for discussion again now with Lincoln in the works.

And just because Spielberg declined a salary doesn't mean the film was not arguably self-serving, and in terms of his reputation, his standing (and likely in terms of indirect material benefit, though I don't know). Spielberg gets the prestige of having a top-10 AFI film from having said very little of any insight about the holocaust.

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#40 Post by Brian C » Thu Dec 15, 2011 8:12 pm

zedz wrote:But surely the obvious criticism of Spielberg's opportunism / cynicism in re. Schindler's List is that he was doing it for an Oscar and the cachet that would bring, not for a big payday (since almost all of his other films had more chance of delivering that and it's not as if he were cash-strapped at the time). That might not be 'cashing in' if you're being pedantically literal, but it's not that hard to understand where Godard was coming from.
Is this really what he meant, though? I thought he later accused Spielberg of making a ton of money from the movie and not sharing it with Schindler's widow.

Wouldn't it be an even lazier criticism if it was about Oscars, though? Surely "Oscar bait" is a real and annoying phenomenon but it seems like Spielberg can't really win here - any "serious" movie he does can automatically be described as Oscar bait by his detractors without any real argument behind the charge.

That said, I haven't read the Godard essay (can't find it online via Google right now, will look more later when I have more time), and it's possible that he made his case. But saying "HE WANTS OSCARS!!" sounds like a very unpromising line of ad hominem reasoning to me.

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#41 Post by zedz » Thu Dec 15, 2011 9:18 pm

I haven't read the Godard piece either (and I frankly wouldn't expect much in the way of a cogent or penetrating argument from him). My response was more to counteract the "but he didn't take a salary" defence, as if a paycheck was the only possible way Spielberg could have been self-serving (thanks, Gregory) with this film.

"Oscar bait" is an overused epithet, but I think it applies to this film if it applies to any, in that it's a self-consciously BIG, SERIOUS subject, treated in a shallow, pandering way, by a director who had been repeatedly snubbed by the Oscars and sidelined as a "mere entertainer." It's all dressed up in art film drag (Black-and White! - but with Heavily Symbolic Splash of Colour, to show we're Just Pretending; Foreign Language! - but only when the Imperial Stormtroopers -damn- Evil Nazis are barking orders to the Ewoks -damn- Jews), but it's terrified of alienating its mainstream audience by actually being challenging or ambiguous in any meaningful way.

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#42 Post by knives » Thu Dec 15, 2011 9:29 pm

Not to defend the film in any way, but Spielberg did not want to do it and tried pawning it off to every elder Jewish film maker he knew before taking on the project as a last resort. There may have been some self serving in how he directed it (though I think that's just his style), but I don't think he was primary goal was oscar.

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#43 Post by Gregory » Thu Dec 15, 2011 9:45 pm

Ah, the reluctant and famous artist. That doesn't capture what happened, as far as I understand at least. His interest in the novel is what led Universal to option it in the first place. He expressed some hesitation at various times, but also regret over Scorsese ending up slated to direct: "I'd given away a chance to do something for my children and family about the Holocaust." (Which doesn't make sense to me, as he could have done something else about it, and later did.) And I'm sure someone else could have been found to direct, apart from a few "elder Jewish filmmakers" that Spielberg approached. If he sincerely didn't want to make the film, he didn't have to do so. But I think he did want to, on the whole, but had some misgivings about how and when to tackle it. If his style is to make films that come across as self-serving, as knives suggests, then I wonder what his primary goal in fact was.

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#44 Post by hearthesilence » Thu Dec 15, 2011 10:58 pm

zedz wrote:But surely the obvious criticism of Spielberg's opportunism / cynicism in re. Schindler's List is that he was doing it for an Oscar and the cachet that would bring, not for a big payday...That might not be 'cashing in' if you're being pedantically literal, but it's not that hard to understand where Godard was coming from.
With regards to the specific criticism I was recalling, Godard meant money, and I was mistaken about the essay as the source - I was actually thinking of a film...

Roger Ebert's review of In Praise of Love:

Elsewhere in the film he accuses Spielberg of having made millions from "Schindler's List" while Mrs. Schindler lives in Argentina in poverty. One muses: (1) Has Godard, having also used her, sent her any money? (2) Has Godard or any other director living or dead done more than Spielberg, with his Holocaust Project, to honor and preserve the memories of the survivors? (3) Has Godard so lost the ability to go to the movies that, having once loved the works of Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray, he cannot view a Spielberg film except through a prism of anger?

As a project directed as a bald attempt at prestige (or an award), I can accept an argument that the film comes across that way because of the way Spielberg handled material, but I don't believe that was his motivation. Like knives said, the failings of his approach to this story is pretty much par for the course when you look at the way Spielberg directs anything. If the film's a failure, it's not because of intent.

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#45 Post by Gregory » Thu Dec 15, 2011 11:24 pm

#3 of the musings almost had me on the floor just now. Any lover of Fuller and Ray who can't enjoy Spielberg is just all angry? What is the relationship there, aside from all three being "going to the movies"?

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#46 Post by Brian C » Fri Dec 16, 2011 1:42 am

zedz wrote:I haven't read the Godard piece either (and I frankly wouldn't expect much in the way of a cogent or penetrating argument from him). My response was more to counteract the "but he didn't take a salary" defence, as if a paycheck was the only possible way Spielberg could have been self-serving (thanks, Gregory) with this film.

"Oscar bait" is an overused epithet, but I think it applies to this film if it applies to any, in that it's a self-consciously BIG, SERIOUS subject, treated in a shallow, pandering way, by a director who had been repeatedly snubbed by the Oscars and sidelined as a "mere entertainer." It's all dressed up in art film drag (Black-and White! - but with Heavily Symbolic Splash of Colour, to show we're Just Pretending; Foreign Language! - but only when the Imperial Stormtroopers -damn- Evil Nazis are barking orders to the Ewoks -damn- Jews), but it's terrified of alienating its mainstream audience by actually being challenging or ambiguous in any meaningful way.
Well, I was right about this line of argumentation being very unpromising. My point was, it doesn't much matter whether Spielberg made the film as a "self-serving" gesture or not - the film is good or bad regardless of Spielberg's intentions. They're just not relevant, but this seems to form the crux of your problem with the film, that it's a "vanity project" to quote your earlier comment.

Your second paragraph is a mix of irrelevant ad hominems (Spielberg being snubbed previously), maximally uncharitable judgments of minor elements ("art film drag"), and stuff I just don't really understand. I mean, what does it mean to be "challenging" in this context? What does it mean and why is it important to be "ambiguous"? Ambiguous about what? These sound more like cinephilic buzzwords to me than honest and meaningful critique.

Speaking more generally, I often wonder what commentary on the film would look like if the film was exactly the same but hadn't been delivered by a director with such baggage, because so much of the criticism on the film - positive and negative - revolves around him personally in ways that often seem unfair to me. And this is what I was getting at in my earlier comment; it's virtually impossible for Spielberg to make a "serious" film without every reviewer in the world tripping over their own perspective on the legendary status of Spielberg. Even Rosenbaum, whose linked-to review earlier in the thread strikes me for the most part as an honest and fair attempt to grapple with his profound ambivalence towards the film, can't help but slide into ridicule of the director on a personal level. And to what end?

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#47 Post by MichaelB » Fri Dec 16, 2011 5:28 am

Brian C wrote:Speaking more generally, I often wonder what commentary on the film would look like if the film was exactly the same but hadn't been delivered by a director with such baggage, because so much of the criticism on the film - positive and negative - revolves around him personally in ways that often seem unfair to me.
I haven't seen the film in nearly nineteen years, and obviously I was well aware of who directed it - but I remember being very pleasantly surprised that the first half had far more in common stylistically and thematically with one of Andrzej Wajda's great war/political films (a major and acknowledged influence: Spielberg hired several Wajda collaborators and later lobbied hard, and successfully, for Wajda to be given a career achievement Oscar) than anything especially 'Hollywood'.

And then he went and blew it with the horrible red-dress gimmick, after which the film went rapidly downhill.

But I suspect I'd have had a similar reaction regardless of who directed it.

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#48 Post by colinr0380 » Fri Dec 16, 2011 1:49 pm

knives wrote:Not to defend the film in any way, but Spielberg did not want to do it and tried pawning it off to every elder Jewish film maker he knew before taking on the project as a last resort. There may have been some self serving in how he directed it (though I think that's just his style), but I don't think he was primary goal was oscar.
I think maybe less self-serving and more too keen to underline things for the widest possible audience (the red coat moment) or to fall back onto the style of 'entertainment' films (the shower sequence and perhaps even Fiennes playing an archetypal 'evil baddie' who makes the capitalist antihero look more sympathetic in comparison), which feels as if it undermines the material in the way, say, The Pianist did not.

Which is problematic when Schindler's List becomes a set text in schools (my own school was showing it fresh on video in my final year there around 1995 or so - I remember particularly this and Gandhi being shown in History lessons, the only real encounters that the class had with either the Holocaust or Indian Independence/Partition before we returned to Romans and suchlike), but then any film (even some documentary ones!) used unthinkingly as a teacher's aide without further discussion would be problematic in a classroom situation.

Though the other thing we have to add into this discussion is Spielberg's founding of the Shoah Foundation following the film, collecting survivor testimonies.
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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#49 Post by dustybooks » Fri Dec 16, 2011 2:20 pm

colinr0380 wrote:I think maybe less self-serving and more to keen to underline things for the widest possible audience (the red coat moment) or to fall back onto the style of 'entertainment' films (the shower sequence and perhaps even Fiennes playing an archetypal 'evil baddie' who makes the capitalist antihero look more sympathetic in comparison), which feels as if it undermines the material in the way, say, The Pianist did not.
I generally just lurk on Spielberg-related threads at this board because my opinion of his filmography seems so far away from the consensus here (which is fine!)... but I must say that the reason I find Schindler's List so impressive is exactly what you describe, that it's audacious enough to filter the Holocaust through the visceral sensibility of Jaws and such, which is a morally tricky stunt that actually works for me. I see that it could be taken as cheap or manipulative, of course, but what I mostly see is the director's passion for his subject matter. Even if you believe he takes it in misguided directions, it was the most invested in a film's story he seemed to have been since the '70s.

I also don't really think the film shies away from Schindler's moral ambiguity and complications as a man... but it's been too long since I last saw it to comment much further at the moment.

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Re: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

#50 Post by matrixschmatrix » Fri Dec 16, 2011 3:42 pm

I think one of the problems with the movie is that there are a few moments which stick in the memory and eventually overwhelm the tone and conception of most of the movie- the ending, the red coat, and the watch speech in particular are all sort of embarrassingly Hollywood clip moments, but I don't think they're at all representative of the overall feel of the film.
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