One must be careful when it comes to filming sensitive subject matter, and during the lifespan of cinema there isn’t a sensitive subject that can even come close to the Holocaust in terms of needing to break out the metaphorical kid gloves. The organised systemic erasure of a people is such an incomprehensible evil that we still have difficulty fully understanding it; putting ourselves in the shoes of anyone involved, either victim or perpetrator, seems impossible. It still remains a raw subject decades on and will likely continue to do so as long as there are those who knew those who survived the Holocaust, so any reference in the media must be discrete and tasteful, utterly respectful and unwaveringly serious. With such heavy looming guidelines, it seems that often films centred around the Holocaust – or even any “lesser” tragedy – straightjacket themselves too much in presenting the impact of the situation: to the point that they lose sight to remaining a good film.
Schindler’s List recounts the life of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a suave profiteer, during Nazi occupation of Poland, who begins using Jewish labor as a money-saving exercise and ends the last months of the war sheltering over a thousand refugees as employees of a (completely defunct) munitions factory. This may seem inappropriate to say, but this film felt incredibly watchable – you’re not having fun watching it, by any means, but there is a greater story about the unending well of goodness that can be found in humanity beyond the typical “this is a horrible event that we should never forget” narrative. Similar to the way Saving Private Ryan finds room in the typical war narrative for heart-pumping battle sequences, Steven Spielberg frames a subtle narrative about Schindler’s transformation and redemption and his stand against evil as personified by his counterpart, sadistic concentration camp overseer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). Goeth’s monstrosity is as simultaneously understated and deeply human as Schindler’s compassion, and the interplay between the two actors would be amazing and nuanced were it to be put into a context with less weight behind it. When I was younger I had it in my head that I thought Spielberg to be a bit overrated as a director – a little too mainstream, maybe – but it’s precisely that mass accessibility that makes him such a talented director: any filmmaker could take the Holocaust and show you a tragedy, but very few could find a way to make it an inspiration.