A Shifting Purpose: How Schindler's List Redefined and Reinforced Spielberg's Career
Steven Spielberg directs an important period piece about a tumultuous event in history. Liam Neeson plays a character who risks everything to save lives. Ralph Fiennes plays a villainous supporting character, hell-bent on killing nearly everyone who despises him. I could hypothetically be talking about The Post, Taken, and the Harry Potter franchise. Instead, I’m writing about the one film that combines each of these beautiful strands together: Schindler’s List.
Released 25 years ago, Schindler’s List follows the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German businessman who uses World War II as a way of promoting his business interests and who is willing to work with both Nazi officials and Jewish individuals, as long as he can turn a profit. The film was lauded by virtually everyone who saw it: critics gave Spielberg some of the best reviews of his career, the Academy awarded it with 7 Oscars, including Best Picture and Spielberg’s first Best Director Oscar, but most importantly, the Jewish community lauded the film with praise, from Jewish historians to Spielberg’s own childhood Rabbi.
This wasn’t Spielberg’s first foray into historical dramas, as The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun can attest to. However, neither film marked a career transition for Spielberg so much as brief deviations from his usual blockbuster filmography. Maybe it’s because they didn’t feel as personal to Spielberg, or maybe it was because the material wasn’t as graphic or affecting as in Schindler’s List. Whatever the case may be, Schindler’s List redefined Spielberg’s action-heavy, thrill-seeking approach to filmmaking into a more introspective, character-driven style. That film allowed Spielberg to become part of a very small number of directors that have been able to make careers out of making completely different styles of movies, including Martin Scorsese, from the drug-fueled sleaze fest The Wolf of Wall Street, to the historical religious persecution of Silence; Alfonso Cuaron, from two horny teenagers in Y Tu Mama Tambien to an astronaut seeking survival in Gravity; and Kathryn Bigelow, from 90’s action camp Point Break to 21st century Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker.
It’s really easy to see Schindler’s List as this brand new experience coming from a Spielberg movie. What’s truly fascinating is all the ways in which Schindler’s List actually resembles his classic blockbusters of the ‘70s and ‘80s. For example, the introduction of Oskar Schindler feels like an introduction of the larger than life protagonist we’ve come to expect from Spielberg movies, especially something like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Dressed in a classy suit, carrying stacks of money, and turning the heads of everyone at the party he attends, Schindler is presented as a Bond-esque businessman that mostly earns him the male character distinction of “men want to be him, women want to be with him.” The only thing preventing him from fully gaining this honor is the Nazi button on his lapel, the first of many instances that call attention to Schindler’s flaws. The film also has the type of old-fashioned, harmless humor that allows for fleeting moments of relief commonly found in Spielberg films in spades: charming the party guests, filing through different secretaries, and snooping on the Jewish spies in church. E.T., Jaws, and the entire Indiana Jones trilogy thrived off of these moments of hilarity as a way of reinforcing its tone. While Schindler’s List uses it as a slight deviation from its tone, it’s the same humor nonetheless.
But in all the ways it’s different and in all the ways it’s similar, there’s one reason it stands above and beyond anything else Spielberg has ever made: the character arch of Oskar Schindler himself. For the first third of the film, Schindler holds the Jews and the Nazis on equal footing, remaining neutral in a struggle in which he expects to turn a profit and leave any and all moral equivalency at the door. When one of his workers is killed, his response is: “I lost a worker; I expect to be compensated.” More than any other, this line encapsulates the indifference of the business-minded Schindler in the first third of the film perfectly.
After witnessing the girl in the red dress, the raiding of Jewish homes, and the burning of Jewish bodies at the savage whim of Amon Goeth, Schindler begins to do something he once deemed impossible: he cares. Halfway through the film, he contends between his natural tendency to deflect the importance of running a business and the cruel reality that dozens, if not hundreds, of the human beings around him are dying daily, and chooses to make his first move towards using his power for good with two names, the beginning of his famous list. The rest of his actions in the film, whether it be convincing Goeth of the power of not killing, dousing the hot workers with water, or saving a group of girls from going to Auschwitz himself, are driven by a newfound basic moral code caused by the constant loss of life around him and the wish to do something to stop it.
By the film’s emotional climax, when the war is over and Schindler is sent on the run, he breaks down. His business has become such an innate part of his being that he can only express his grief through the price of each of the people he could have saved. He has transformed from expecting to be financially compensated for losing workers to failing to be emotionally compensated for not saving enough. That man you swooned for at the beginning of the film. The life of the party. The successful businessman. The man Spielberg had introduced as coolly as Bond or Jones. He was a poor excuse for a human being. His apathy for other human beings made him no different from any other Jew-hating Nazi. He was the real antagonist. That is until he was constantly confronted with that apathy and pushed to use his considerable wealth and power to help others instead of himself. Only then did he become the hero.
Oskar Schindler’s transformation is so deep that it resembles a transformation for Spielberg himself. Making money is fun, but investing in something with your heart and soul is an action that can resonate with a large group of people long after you’re gone.