Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Schindler's List" (1993)

Scene from Schindler's List
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Schindler's List
Release Date: December 15, 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Thomas Keneally (Book), Steve Zaillian (Screenplay)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 195 minutes

Oscar Wins: 7
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Cinematography
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Actor (Liam Neeson)
-Best Supporting Actor (Ralph Fiennes)
-Best Costume Design
-Best Sound
-Best Make-Up

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Fugitive
-In the Name of the Father
-The Piano
-The Remains of the Day

And the winner is...

In the grand scheme of things, there are very few movies released in a century that are "important." There are those that entertain and stimulate, but they hardly capture a deeper significance to the medium. In the case of director Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, he not only created a great film about The Holocaust, he made what is arguably among the most important films of the 20th century. Capturing the harrowing events of World War II, he brings to life one of the ultimate battles between good and evil in an attempt to show the truest form of humanity. It is an unflinching portrait the likes of which haven't been attempted with as much success before or since. It is likely that Spielberg will continue to make great movies, but there's little chance that he will make something that is as important to the film medium as this.

The film actually dates back to even before the publishing of Thomas Keneally's book "Schindler's Ark." In 1963, producer Poldek Pfefferberg made it his lifelong goal to make a film about Oskar Schindler, largely due to him being a Schindler Jew himself. He attempted a script with Howard Koch, of which went nowhere. Nothing really came of it until Keneally's book was published in 1982, at which point the producer began to shop it around. He approached Spielberg, who was curious about the project to the point that Universal purchased the rights. However, he felt that he was too young and immature to handle the film as of 1983. He decided to attempt to pass it along to a variety of directors who turned it down for various reasons. These included Martin Scorsese (who believed a Jew should direct it), Billy Wilder (who wanted to make it his last film, but passed), and Roman Polanski (who was still traumatized about his experiences with concentration camps). Polanski rejected it, but would make his own Holocaust movie later called The Pianist.

He took 10 years to finally agree to do it. This was largely inspired by his notice of growing antisemitism following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. He went through various scripts, including one by Keneally that was too long and focused too much on the German Nazis' relationships. He eventually turned to Steve Zaillian, who gave more focused to the Jews. He even had Aaron Sorkin do a "dialogue wash" in order to cut down on the wordy language. The studio was nervous about the film, believing that Holocaust dramas didn't do well. They wanted it shot in color, but Spielberg insisted that black and white would add a timeless feel. He wanted it to look like a documentary, with a main influence being Shoah. The studio set the budget at $22 million, and the film was shot in Poland. Spielberg considered shooting at the actual concentration camps (as he had gotten permission), but decided to go with realistic sets. His final deal was that he wouldn't accept a profit from the film, as he considered it "blood money." He instead donated his profits to the Shoah Foundation. It was also requested that he do Jurassic Park first, as it was understood that he would be drained after Schindler's List.

The film's bleak subject matter impacted everyone on set. With the extras being a mixture of Jews, survivors, and Germans; each of them experienced the recreations differently. Since they were in Poland, there was also many interactions involving antisemitism. In some cases, extras would panic - specifically involving gas chamber scenes. While only a page in the script, the liquidation scene took up 20 minutes and was too much for Spielberg, who considered himself more of a reporter than a filmmaker while shooting it. He was often too traumatized to look at his work. Even composer John Williams was moved by the footage, having to take a walk following his first exposure. Because of this, Spielberg sought comedy as an antidote. He was said to have watched episodes of Seinfeld every night. He also sought guidance from his family and called Robin Williams (of whom he worked with on his previous film Hook) for hours every day in order to be sane. 

The film was a large success and became, before inflation, the highest grossing black and white movie of all time as well as the most expensive since The Longest Day from the 1960's. The film grossed $321 million worldwide and was a critical darling by everyone who considered it not only the director's best, but one of the greatest achievements in WWII film making. Despite this, there were a few negative opinions, including from an unlikely source. Shoah's director Claude Lanzmann, who considered it a kitschy melodrama. Other directors who complained included Michael Haneke called a specific gas chamber scene dumb. Jean-Luc Godard thought that Spielberg was using the film to profit off of tragedy. Spielberg's childhood Rabbi would claim that the film was "Steven's gift to his mother, to his people, and in a sense to himself. Now he is a full human being." When he later returned to Cal State Long Beach to finish his degree, the teacher allowed him to submit this film as the student thesis. 

The film was impossible to beat at The Oscars that year. Winning 7 awards, it received a lot of notice for being the first major black and white film to win since The Apartment 33 years prior. When Branko Lustig won  his Oscar, he read his serial number A3317. He would later donate one of his Oscars to a Holocaust museum, believing that it did more good there. The winner of the Best Art Direction-Set Direction was named Ewa Braun, whose name is very similar to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's significant other's name - which caused Billy Crystal to announce regret of not hosting that year and being able to point it out to Whoopi Goldberg. While Pfefferbeg was retired by this point, Spielberg thanked him in the film and made sure to mention his work. This would also be the first of two times that Spielberg won Best Director (the other being Saving Private Ryan).

The film's legacy can be seen in its impact of WWII films and culture. As of 2015, it is one of the only late 20th century films to be included on various prestigious film group's best films list, including the American Film Institute's Top 10. It helped to spawn a resurgence of interest in the Holocaust, including Spielberg-funded documentaries such as Anne Frank Remembered. There would also be later films depicting various aspects of the Jewish plight, including The Pianist and The Book Thief (of which John Williams also composed). Even if there haven't been films that were as successful on the subject, it remains one of the few films that are so iconic and beloved, despite occasional complaints regarding the film's depiction of nudity and violence. Spielberg has adamantly shut down anyone who complains about its use, believing that it serves purpose to the story. As a result, the film was able to be shown on TV without censorship (he would also be able to do this with Saving Private Ryan a few years later). On a strange note, actor Liam Neeson claims to be disappointed with his performance. While her character dies in the film, "The Girl in the Red Coat's" inspiration Roma Ligocka would write her own memoir about the events.

Even if most people think that The Academy Awards can be farcical, there's no denying that Schindler's List is one of the greatest achievements in film. Not only does it mark a mature shift in Spielberg's direction, it also shows a new and harrowing depiction of The Holocaust that has caused the film's title to be shorthand for the tragedies. As the film has aged, it has only become more revered and has left the director insisting that this is his greatest achievement. It was a studio film that was able to show something otherwise impossible due to budgetary reasons. It remains a film so harrowing and powerful that it is likely to remain significant, even long after Spielberg has died. It definitely is a film that will be impossible to forget for several reasons that are personal and touching to everyone who sees it.

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