To mark the 25th anniversary of “Schindler’s List,” a digitally remastered version of Steven Spielberg’s award-winning blockbuster is being rereleased Friday for one week only at over 1,000 screens in North America.
Spielberg’s film won seven Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, is in the top 10 of the American Film Institute’s greatest American movies and is frequently cited as a masterwork of Holocaust cinema.
The movie starred Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes, and, unusually, was shot in black and white. It was based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman and Nazi Party member who saved nearly 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by providing them with employment in his enamelware and munitions factories. He was later recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations – a title bestowed on gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the war – by Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem.
The poster advertising the restored version of the 195-minute film bears the tagline “A story of courage that the world needs now more than ever.” In a Q&A session last week hosted by Facing History and Ourselves (a U.S. organization that trains educators who teach the Holocaust), Spielberg explained why he believes that to be true.
“For me, the film is more important than ever – especially for the young people today who face a country and a world where democracy is threatened,” he said. “Some of the very things that led to the Holocaust are surfacing again. Hatred and violence, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia – these are current things in the 21st century.”
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But 25 years on, is the film still relevant, and would it prove so successful if it were being released for the first time today?
“I don’t think there’s a doubt that for many people, this film was their first foundational encounter with the Holocaust,” says Oren Meyers, a professor of communications at the University of Haifa who specializes in collective memory and popular culture.
“It had a definitive influence on the way in which the Holocaust is remembered, especially in the West, and especially among non-Jews,” he says.
Meyers believes the timing of the original release played a key role in its success. “When ‘Schindler’s List’ first came out, the Holocaust had started to become a definitive kind of identity marker for American Jews, because they could no longer agree by then on Israel or on their religious belief, so it was the one issue on which there was a consensus,” he says.
Also coinciding with the film’s release, adds Meyers, was the rise of identity politics in America – which also affected the Jewish community – and the end of the Cold War. “All these things provided fertile ground for the film’s success,” he says.
Isaac Zablocki, director of film programs at the JCC in Manhattan, is reluctant to use the term in reference to the Holocaust but believes a key factor behind the success of “Schindler’s List” was that it made the greatest tragedy of modern history “digestible.”
“Spielberg just knows how to tell a story,” says Zablocki, who organizes an annual film festival in New York dedicated to Holocaust rescuers. “He knows how to reach an audience, he knows how to create drama and he knows how to make a film exciting and engaging.”
“Schindler’s List” was certainly not the first film to address the role of rescuers in the Holocaust, but, according to Zablocki, “nothing had ever been done at that level before.
“It’s interesting that Spielberg, as a Jewish director, chose that perspective,” he says, “and it could be that that’s what gave him an edge at the time.”
“Schindler’s List” was a box office hit, earning more than $320 million worldwide (including $96 million in North America). It also drew considerable praise from critics at the time. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, for example, the late Roger Ebert declared it Spielberg’s best film, “brilliantly acted, written, directed and seen.” Crowning it the best historical drama ever about the Holocaust, The New Yorker’s Stephen Schiff predicted that “Schindler’s List” would “take its place in cultural history and remain there.”
But the film was not immune to criticism. Those who did not like it often cited its Hollywood-like “happy ending,” noting that most European Jews did not enjoy the fate of those on Schindler’s famous list. Among the film’s fiercest critics was Claude Lanzmann, the French filmmaker and creator of the nine-hour documentary “Shoah,” which featured only testimonies from Holocaust survivors and was released to critical acclaim in 1985.
In an interview with the Washington Post in 1999, Lanzmann (who passed away in July), called Spielberg’s film “an absolute distortion of historical truth.” He explained: “It is not what happened to the vast majority of Jews. The truth is extermination. Death wins.”
But the film’s uplifting ending is also why audiences loved it so much, says Mimi Ash, acting director of the visual center at Yad Vashem. “I do think that’s probably part of its success, because it made it easier, as it were, to connect to the film.”
Unconventional lead character
Ash tends to believe, though, that a bigger factor in the film’s success was the fact it was based on such an unconventional character. “Here’s a man who was a Nazi, a hedonist, a profiteer, a man who loved women and booze,” she notes. “He just wasn’t the stereotypical, saintly rescuer. He shocks and surprises you. Sometimes the film has been criticized for focusing on a non-Jew – but I think that’s precisely what makes it so powerful. He’s a real human being, like the rest of us.”
Meyers concurs that the choice of protagonist may help explain why “Schindler’s List” did so well.
“When you look at moviegoers – and I’m talking mainly about non-Jews – no one wants to identify with the perpetrators,” he says. “At the same time, it doesn’t seem comfortable to identify with the victims, who are passive and helpless in many ways – and neither do you want to think of yourself as an idle bystander. So the character of Schindler was very helpful in this sense, because it gave people the ability to identify with someone who took action.”
He’s not sure the film would have been as successful if it were released today, though.
“Part of its success had to do with the reputation and the weight Spielberg carried back then,” says Meyers, co-author of “Communicating Awe: Media Memory and Holocaust Commemoration” (Palgrave Macmillan). “I’m not sure he’s in the same place he was 25 years ago.”
Meyers believes some of Spielberg’s artistic choices would attract more criticism today, including the casting of English-speaking actors (“with vague accents”) in key roles rather than Polish-, Yiddish- and German-speakers.
Zablocki is convinced the initial release of “Schindler’s List” marked the end of an era in Holocaust cinema. “It was the last of its kind in many ways,” he says. “It was a very straightforward black-and-white story, a story of good against evil – the kind Spielberg knows how to do really well. Most of the Holocaust films that have come out since have more of a twist to them. That’s because audiences are more cynical today, even when it comes to the Holocaust.”
This is also why no subsequent Holocaust movie has achieved the same degree of success, in his view. “When you’re dealing with subtleties, more nuance and a deeper look into human nature, you’re bound to lose part of your audience,” says Zablocki.