1939-1945, and the few years before and after, were arguably some of the darkest in human history. They were also some of the most studied, researched and documented years, and Hollywood has regularly looked to this period for inspiration for countless films and stories, both factual and fictitious. Perhaps the common factor in most of the documentaries, films and stories of this time is of the Holocaust itself, and the misery and suffering that befell millions at the hands of the ‘master race’.
Schindler was an Austrian-born, German businessman, member of the Nazi Party, entrepreneur, opportunist, scam merchant and a womaniser with a taste for the finer things in life. He was the kind of man who knew exactly how to put himself in a winning position in any given situation. As the saying goes, ‘…he could fall into a bucket of shit and come up smelling of roses”. Schindler knew there was money to be made in Krakow by employing Polish Jews that would cost him virtually nothing. With Jewish financial backing, a Jewish accountant and Jewish workers from the Ghetto, he turned a bankrupt factory into a very profitable enamel works factory, with lucrative contracts selling pots, pans and utensils to the German forces
One of the benefits of Schindler’s wheeling and dealing was that the Jews who worked for him, at the very least, had the opportunity to get out of the Ghetto daily, allowing them the chance to barter for goods not available inside the Ghetto, no matter that it was an offence punishable by death. In telling their stories, Steven Spielberg found a way to approach the Holocaust, which is a subject too vast and tragic to be encompassed in any reasonable way by fiction. In the ruins of the saddest story of the century, he found, not a happy ending, but at least one affirming that resistance to evil is possible and can succeed. In the face of the Nazi charnel houses, it is a statement that has to be made, or we sink into despair.
”Schindler’s List” gives us information about how parts of the Holocaust operated, but does not explain it, because it is inexplicable that men could practice genocide. Or so we want to believe. In fact, genocide is a commonplace in human history, and is happening right now in many parts of the world. Religion and race are markers that we use to hate one another, and unless we can get beyond them, we must concede we are potential executioners. The power of Spielberg’s film is not that it explains evil, but that it insists that men can be good in the face of it, and that good can prevail.
The film’s ending brings me to tears. At the end of the war, Schindler’s Jews are in a strange land–stranded, but alive. A member of the liberating Russian forces asks them, ”Isn’t a town over there?” and they walk off toward the horizon. The next shot fades from black and white into color. At first we think it may be a continuation of the previous action, until we see that the men and women on the crest of the hill are dressed differently now. And then it strikes us, with the force of a blow: Those are Schindler’s Jews. We are looking at the actual survivors and their children as they visit Oskar Schindler’s grave. The movie began with a list of Jews being confined to the ghetto. It ends with a list of some who were saved. The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf. As the movie’s by line puts it – “He who saves one life saves the world entire”