I revisited the movie ‘Schindler’s List’ a few days ago. The last time I watched it was in the early 1990’s, perhaps as a student. We walked away then, after the movie carrying images of a young German businessman who helps save Jews from concentration camps in Poland. Though I was aware of the atrocities that took place through visuals of photographs of the World war that I have seen, or maybe books I have read, the movie brought the horror a lot more closer. But still, for a young Indian, the war and the genocide appeared so distant and removed, from another place and time, and I never really integrated it as the history of humanity – something I am part of. When I watched the movie again with a different perspective now, twenty odd years older, I was shocked at what I saw. How could I have made a passing comment on something like this and got on with my life when I was 20?
‘Schindler’s List’ is a movie based on a novel, based on the real life story of Oskar Schindler a German businessman who arrives in Krakow, Poland soon after Germany occupies Poland circa 1939. Schindler hopes to profit from war and is looking for profitable businesses to start. He is a Nazi party member, a lover of the good life with a series of women, the choicest of clothes, parties, wine and so on. While he is scouting around for business, the Germans are building concentration camps and herding in the nine million Jews living in Poland systematically under the vague promise of relocation. The Jews leave their homes which are taken over by the army, and arrive in Krakow, knowing nothing of what they are headed for.
Meanwhile Schindler finds Stern, a Jewish accountant, who helps him get Jewish factories and Jewish investors. The factories would make army mess kits for the German army. Schindler hires the Jewish prisoners because they are cheaper than the others, and he pays their salaries to the SS which is in charge of the concentration camps. He hires Stern to handle the administration of the factory. Stern hires as many Jews as he can labelling them as ‘essential’ workers. Most of them are new to the work and learn their work fast to stay alive.
In Krakow the Jews are herded into ghettos which are overcrowded. Soon the men and women are separated. The old and infirm and disabled are shot down in cold blood. Children are taken away in truck loads and killed because they are too young to work. The able bodied are retained for work. People are shot for no crimes, at whim, without any regard.
A German commandant Goeth arrives to oversee the making of the concentration camp. He is a man who seems to enjoy killing for no reason. As the SS starts shifting Jews to the camps, murdering people at will, Schindler is horrified and transformed. He uses his contacts and money with the SS and Goeth to build a sub camp for the Jews so he can employ them in his factories. At every stage now, Schindler pays heavy bribes to get his people who are now being shifted to the Aushwitz camp to the gas chambers. Along with Stern Schindler makes a list of Jews for his ammunition factory, a list of 1100 people, men, women and even children, who he says are essential for his production. In this phase Schindler moves heaven and earth to bring the Jews into his factory, makes the factory premises out of bounds for the SS guards and lets the Jews live as normally as they can. The factory produces nothing. Schindler buys ammunition from other suppliers and supplies them to the army to escape inspection. In the process he loses all his fortune. Luckily for him, the war also ends at the same time.
The SS guards are called in when the announcement is made that Germany has surrendered. Schindler tells the guards that they can return to their families as men or as murderers, that is their choice. The men leave the Schindler Jews alone and leave Poland. Schindler himself has to leave that midnight as he is a wanted war criminal, a Nazi party member and a war profiteer. As he is about to leave in his car at midnight, the 1100 Jews who consider him their God, surround him and give him a signed list, that to them, he is not a war criminal. They also give him a gold ring made out of the gold tooth of one of the Jews with an inscription that says if one has saved one life, he has saved the world. Schindler breaks down when he receives the ring and tells Stern that he could have done more if he had more money, he could have sold of his car and bargained for ten more people, his Nazi medallion and bought two more. Stern comforts him and tells him he has done much more than anyone could have.
Oskar Schindler was apparently invited to plant a tree in the Avenue of the Righteous in 1958. His grave is in Jerusalem and is visited by the descendants of the Schindler’s list. At the end of the movie, the actors who played the roles of real Jews in the movie walk hand in hand to Schindler’s grave a place a stone on it as a mark of respect.
The Nazi regime exterminated six million Jews in the genocide. One million of them were children. This genocide was based on a myth that Jews were conspiring to take over the Aryan quest for supremacy – a myth. Hitler had made clear his intentions to kill all Jews before the war. The Nazis made what was called the Final Solution for the Jewish question which was to kill all of them in an industrialised and systematic way. Apart from shooting them at random, piling them on in rows and columns, and then shooting the next row, until piles of naked bodies grew and rotted, the Nazis used gas chambers where poison gas was used to kill thousands at once.
In Poland, at the time of the making of the movie, in 1993 or so, only 4000 Jews were alive. The Schindler’s list had grown to 6000 - from 1100. The paradox was that one German businessman sacrificed everything he had and risked his every life to save as many Jews as he could while a whole army was systematically killing them. How the Jews got over this is something I cannot fathom, how they forgave the sins perpetrated against them is something I can never understand. One can only offer prayers and pray for their peace.
This is the same humanity that we are part of where millions of defenceless people were slaughtered. If it were not documented it would seem too fantastic to be true. It happened not too long ago – merely seventy years ago, with the rest of the world watching. It could happen anywhere if the people of the world are not vigilant and put the brakes on ambition that borders on madness. But despite all that went on this movie is about Schindler who stands for all things that give us hope.
The movie is shot in black and white and leaves many dramatic visuals in your mind. Only in the end does the movie turn into colour as the surging Schindler’s survivors from Krakow turn into their current selves in Jerusalem. One other shot is shown of a young girl in a red coat, later shown among the dead. She would be six or seven years old. Liam Neeson is brilliant as Schindler and I wonder why he did not get it that year, Ben Kingley is perfect as the Jewish accountant Stern while Ralph Fiennes plays the role of Goeth well. And for making this wonderful movie and reminding us of certain things that humanity should not forget, Steven Spielberg, thank you. For the record, the movie won seven Academy Awards.