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Spielberg Revisited

Universal Pictures

If a film has genuine worth, it’s more than one film. It changes with further viewings. The second time you see it, it’s larger. This time you aren’t “distracted” by the story, by discovering what happens next. You can concentrate on the qualities that made you want to see it again, usually acting or felicities of vision or both. (Third and later viewings—of especially fine films—have an even stranger effect: as you learn more about them, you simultaneously feel you’re seeing them for the first time. This happened to me recently with Grand Illusion and Citizen Kane, each of which I’ve seen upward of thirty times. Though I now saw even more in them, I had a feeling of fresh arrival.)

I don’t know how many times I’ll see Schindler’s List, but ever since my first viewing (The New Republic, December 13, 1993), I’ve known that I wanted to see it again, soon. For two kinds of reasons. First, personal. I’d expressed concern that people who know something about the Holocaust might find the earlier portions—ghetto enclosure and labor camps—overly familiar. Well, I know something about the Holocaust, and I wanted to examine more carefully what had happened to me, what might happen again, while watching the film. This second time, I was again so taken by Spielberg’s insistent honesty, by the heightened factuality, that I saw how my familiarity helped, made the film a confirmation and a deepening.

Then there were sheerly cinematic reasons. I wanted to see the “second” film; and throughout, I noted subtle compositions, astringent editing, overall vigor of construction that had certainly affected me the first time—I had thought it superbly made—but now seemed even more astonishingly fine.

But with the second viewing of Schindler’s List, some other things became clear. The film rests on two large motions of change, one within the film and one, so to speak, behind it. The first is Schindler’s metamorphosis, from hustling opportunist to self-disregarding savior. Some viewers have objected that Spielberg and his screenwriter, Steven Zaillian, didn’t articulate the change vividly enough; but to have done more would have been to tamper with history. Thomas Keneally, from whose book the film derives, is specific about the unspecificity:

One of the commonest sentiments of Schindler Jews is still “I don’t know why he did it.” It can be said to begin with that Oskar was a gambler, was a sentimentalist who loved the transparency, the simplicity of doing good; that Oskar was by temperament an anarchist who loved to ridicule the system; and that beneath the hearty sensuality lay a capacity to be outraged by human savagery, to react to it and not to be overwhelmed. But none of this, jotted down, added up, explains the doggedness with which, in the autumn of 1944, he prepared a final haven for the Jews who worked in his Krakow factory.

Recurrently, beginning in the middle of the film, we see Schindler being shocked beneath his poise by the blacker and blacker wolfishness of the Nazis whose party pin he wears. But never is there a Moment of Truth, together with an angelic choir on the sound track. Spielberg’s artistic triumph here is that he refuses to explicate, to interfere with what is actually known. He leaves the mystery of Schindler’s goodness as finally inexplicable as the mystery of the “human savagery” around him. (This, for me, is the true subject of the film.)

There’s another instance of this avoidance of italics. Near the end, when Schindler assembles his 1,100 Jewish workers on his plant floor to tell them that the war is over and they are free, the German army guards, fully armed, assemble on a sort of balcony above. Schindler addresses the guards: says he knows that they have orders to liquidate his workers; and asks them whether they want to go home as men or as murderers. After a moment’s pause, one of the soldiers leaves—and is soon followed by the others. Spielberg’s exquisite touch is that he never shows the face of this first soldier, no twitching, no making up his mind; after the pause we simply see the soldier pass the camera. Yes, we soon see the guards’ commander wavering in decision, but he has become a character who needs finishing off. The bellwether soldier is a particle of history.

The second major change is the metamorphosis of Spielberg himself. It’s not possible to compare the horror itself with a film about it; still, we might venture to compare the effect of the Holocaust on Schindler with the effect of knowledge of the Holocaust on Spielberg. We know from much recent interviewing that the Holocaust has long been a presence for him (as it was with Schindler) but how he has concentrated for the most part on ingenious commerce (as did Schindler). Then (again like Schindler) the force of the horror burst through to alter him.

How is that alteration manifested? Initially, with the choice of subject. Still, the filmmaking might have been Spielberg-clever. All the cleverness was renounced. Among the new powerful austerities, including the use of black and white, two elements stand out as warrants of gravity. First, the faces. Face after Jewish face appears, most of them only once, and each of those faces is a testament. By filming in Poland, Spielberg was able to use faces engraved with knowledge, inheritors of grief, that certify and magnify his story. Though they are faces of our contemporaries, they are nonetheless faces of the past.

The best compliment to Liam Neeson, the Schindler, and Ben Kingsley, the Jewish accountant, is that they don’t obtrude as actors. Their faces fit. This is also true of Embeth Davidtz, as Helena, the camp inmate selected by the Nazi commandant to be his housemaid.

Then the second element, the children. There are many, as there must be, and some of them are centered for a few moments each. They never seem to act. Spielberg has worked well with children before but always in childish matters. Here the children cannot possibly understand much, but they are convinced of something. Spielberg has brought these children up to the film’s level of truth.

The small boy fleeing the German army’s roundup of Jews in the Krakow ghetto for deportation and death, this boy who dives through the toilet seat in an outhouse, this boy who surfaces in the ordure and discovers that three other children are there already, this boy I’ll remember. There’s a notorious German army photo of a small Jewish boy, arms upraised, being marched out of the Warsaw ghetto by soldiers—Bergman used that photo in Persona. The Warsaw boy’s face is in the world’s memory—in reality. This Krakow boy’s face, ordure-streaked—Spielberg’s attempt to bear witness fifty years later—may join that earlier photo in the world’s memory.