Ed. note: This article discusses specific elements of the film’s plot that are best appreciated if you have already seen the film.
Schindler’s List (1993) begins with the flick of a match and the lighting of a candle. It is a war film that begins, untypically, with a prayer for peace – a Jewish family, assembled around a table, as the traditional Sabbath blessing is recited. This opening scene is a brief moment of colour in a black and white film. Steven Spielberg creates a moment of peacefulness that will soon be extinguished, alongside the candle’s flame. As the camera moves in to observe the candle’s final breath, the scene drains of colour and turns grey. The plume of smoke dissolves into the steam from a departing train, evoking the transportation of millions of Europe’s Jews to their deaths during the Holocaust. Where a flame first symbolises peace, it will later represent the burning of bodies, an image that Spielberg repeats, in the smoke from the crematorium chimney at Auschwitz.
The iconography we associate with classic war movies, such as The Longest Day (1962), often includes extended combat scenes, explosions, and acts of heroism. These are central to the dramatic structure. In Steven Spielberg’s later evocation of World War II, Saving Private Ryan (1998), with its extraordinary opening sequence of the Allied landing on Omaha Beach, these expectations are certainly met. While Schindler’s List contains its fair share of chaos and violence, these are not the elements of the film that linger in the mind. Rather, Schindler’s List’s visual power transfers into emotional muscle from quiet, observant moments, such as the lighting of candles, other symbolic images, and its black and white photography.
Schindler’s List tells the true story (in fictionalised form) of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman from Czechoslovakia, who effectively saved the lives of around 1,200 mostly Polish Jews, by keeping them employed in his factories. Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) is a fascinating figure. A member of the Nazi Party, he’s introduced to us as a morally depraved man, initially aiming to profit from the construction of the Kraków ghetto, and willing to trade on his relationship with the Party. Over 197 minutes, Schindler’s List moves between converging storylines. We see the people forced into the Kraków ghetto, Schindler’s business interests and his relationship with his Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), and the construction of the Plasźow labour camp, under the control of SS officer Amon Göth (an unnerving performance by Ralph Fiennes in his first major film role).
Despite its successes (it won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director), Schindler’s List is not a film without controversy. Over its lifetime, it has been critiqued for sentimentality, for turning the Holocaust into an entertainment, and Schindler, a Nazi, into a figure of sympathy (not helped by the elegant charm that Neeson conveys on screen). Spielberg was also criticised for focusing on the 1,200 saved, rather than the six million murdered, for effectively deforming history and giving the Holocaust a ‘happy ending’. The filmmaker, Claude Lanzmann (whose 9-hour oral history film, Shoah, makes clear that what remains unseen is more powerful) famously criticised Schindler’s List for showing the Holocaust through the eyes of a German, for turning horror into a Hollywood melodrama.
Schindler’s List does struggle, as all films about the Holocaust should, with the ethical question of how to depict or represent a human catastrophe that continues to defy understanding or explanation. But it also represents only one story out of the millions that emerged from that dark time. It is important to remember that a film is a combination of elements – sound, editing, performances, and repeated motifs – that come together to give it meaning and value beyond its narrative arc. Like all great movies, Schindler’s List works not only on the intellect but also on the heart, to affect, through artistic choices, an emotional response.
The most noticeable artistic choice here is Spielberg’s decision to film in black and white. While some critics have suggested that this gives the film a plain, documentary style feel, it’s important to remember that while based on true events, Schindler’s List is a work of historical fiction and a work of art. It is created within the rules of the medium of cinema. Rather than create a newsreel feel, the stark beauty of Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography suggests a world that has been drained of colour and ultimately of life. And this becomes all the more apparent and effecting on those brief occasions when colour is introduced back into frame.
Candles are an important visual motif in Schindler’s List. A lit candle, like the ones we see in the film’s opening scene, affirms the Jewish faith, offering a moment of calm and reflection within a chaotic world. But candles become most striking throughout Schindler’s List, in the context of their absence. We don’t see the Jews in the Kraków ghetto assembled for Sabbath, nor do we see them in moments of individual prayer. In the ghetto, hope has been drained. God is absent. But later, when Schindler permits his workers to mark the Sabbath once again, the flame is lit. While the scene remains black and white, the candle’s light flickers into colour, symbolic of the continuation of Jewish life and tradition in the face of annihilation.
The most famous use of symbolic colour in Schindler’s List is the young girl in the red coat. When Plasźow camp is completed, the Kraków ghetto is liquidated and most of the residents moved there (from here, most will be transported to Auschwitz for extermination when Germany realises it is losing the war). Spielberg imagines the liquidation of the ghetto as a chaotic event – children run and hide, potential escapees are shot on the spot, people are stripped naked, and of their remaining dignity. The decision to have the soldiers in these scenes speaking German, without subtitling, enhances the spiralling, disorienting effect.
Spielberg’s camera doesn’t stop moving through the maelstrom, but then rests on a girl as she meanders, with determination, through the crowd. Schindler, out riding, spots her from a hillside, and follows her as she goes to hide. He can’t look away but eventually loses sight of her when she enters a building, and as we see, hides herself under a bed, where her coat turns grey. The red coat is firstly a symbol of life. Later, when Schindler comes across her body, still dressed in the red coat, in a wheelbarrow after the excavation of a mass grave, it becomes a symbol of blood and death.
Images like these remain. An important, extended sequence, in which Spielberg shows us what happened to the suitcases left behind en route to Plasźow, is a supreme exercise in how the director lets the images speak for themselves. There is no dialogue, only silent, solemn observation of the dehumanizing machinery of war, which also included warehouses like these, designed to sort the artefacts of a life into rubbish or valuables. The camera moves around the room – we see mountains of suitcases, coats, shoes, children’s toys, and shelves bursting with silver, especially candlesticks. A table is strewn with photographs; the camera moves in to make the faces of the dead visible. Elsewhere, men sort through watches, jewellery, and diamonds, and gold fillings, still in teeth. Each suitcase and its contents emblematic of a life lost; an image of displacement, of human life reduced to profit and waste.
All the greatest war films are essentially anti-war films. They don’t glorify battle or violence but reveal the true terror and suffering that is any war’s lasting legacy. Schindler’s List reminds us of the power of visual storytelling, and of how much meaning can be conjured from seemingly simple images. It’s evident in the connective tissue that exists between various images of fire, from candle, to train, to death camp, in the silence of a discarded suitcase, and in the light movements of a young child. They convey the enormity of this history, without needing to say much more.
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