Wednesday, April 22, 2009

453 - Play It Again #2 - Schindler's List

Ramin Honary is perhaps the perfect person for this exercise. When Ramin likes a movie, he watches it again and again until no piece of dialogue has gone unmemorized, no frame having escaped microscopic inspection. This dedication to study has served him well since he ditched Cedar Falls, Iowa, for the ludicriously colorful and campy streets of Tokyo, Japan, where he enthusiastically soaks up the culture, chases skirt, and speaks the language with impressive competence. Ramin has a masters in computer engineering and is the absolute most fun a teetotaler can be.

Ramin's choice is "Schindler's List," Stephen Spielberg's 1993 masterwork about the efforts of one man to do something good in a hopelessly evil situation.

I often talk about my favorite movies with acquaintances. When I mention that "Schindler's List" is one of my all time favorites, it's not unusual for someone to look at me as though they just realized they were talking to a weirdo dressed in black from head to toe who is obsessed with the macabre. Many people seem to think its one of those educational films meant to enlighten high school kids about the evils of anti-Semitism, and once you've seen it you don't ever need to see it again; after all, it's so depressing.

It is a good film for education. But it's a masterpiece of filmmaking, with every scene constructed to the best of the director's ability, and Steven Spielberg is more than an able director. He thought this work would be too violent and depressing for it to be commercially successful, yet he still put his heart and soul into making it. This is obvious in every scene from beginning to end. It is not a film that was made for success, but to make the darkest days of modern history unforgettable by immortalizing the characters and events through the medium of film.

The characters are actually rather ordinary. Indeed, the most terrifying realization one makes when studying the Holocaust is that the horror was perpetrated almost entirely by ordinary, mild-mannered people. That Adolf Hitler is not a character in this film illustrates that point. Even the title character is shown to be just an ordinary business man, not even a very successful or admirable individual.

I especially love the first half-hour of the film. Events flow so naturally from one scene to another as the characters are introduced against a backdrop of industry in wartime with such excellent storytelling that one cannot help but be drawn into it. If you had any reservation about watching a depressing film, you forget about it almost entirely inside the first half-hour. It's fascinating to see how Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) takes advantage of ridiculous anti-Semitic policies to make his factory profitable. Schindler does not care about who is working in his factory, as long he pays nearly nothing for their labor. It isn't until one of these workers is executed by the S.S. that we are reminded of the subject at hand.

Of course, it is still a film about the Holocaust. For me, the most memorable scene is actually just after the infamous gas-chamber scene, when the Jewish women from Schindler's factory emerge after having narrowly escaped death in the showers. One woman looks back to see an endless procession of huddled masses trudging mindlessly down some steps into the compound. The camera then pans up to show the furnace chimney spewing a river of smoke and ash. This is an image of a factory designed with the explicit purpose of destroying lives as efficiently as possible: human beings move in, smoke and ash come out. Lets makes sure we never forget that it really happened, and lets never allow it to happen again. - Ramin Honary