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'Schindler's List' re-release evokes conflicted legacy

Jochen Kürten sb
January 25, 2019

Twenty-five years after its theatrical release, Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning epic about Oskar Schindler and his rescue of over 1,100 Jews returns to cinemas. But the multi award-winning film still stirs controversy.

Ralph Fiennes as an SS officer walking past line of women on snow, film still Schindler's List
Image: picture alliance/United Archives

After Schindler's List screened in US cinemas for one week in December, Spielberg's epic Holocaust drama will return to Germany on January 27 to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

A quarter of a century after it premiered across the world, Schindler's List is once again being released in theaters worldwide in a newly restored 4K Ultra HD version. This includes in Poland, the country where the film was set and shot, and where the German-Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated 74 years ago.

'The extent of the Holocaust must not be forgotten'

"It is difficult to believe that it's been 25 years since Schindler's List first arrived in theaters," said Steven Spielberg regarding the film's re-release. "The true stories of the magnitude and tragedy of the Holocaust are ones that must never be forgotten, and the film's lessons about the critical importance of countering hatred continue to reverberate today. I am honored that audiences will be able to experience the journey once again on the big screen." 

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler
Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, the German factory owner who saved hundreds of Jewish livesImage: UPI

Spielberg was 46 years old when he released his 1993 masterpiece that went on to win countless accolades, including best film and best director Oscars.

At the time, Spielberg was better known for blockbuster films such as Jaws, Indiana Jones and E.T. that made him one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood. But while he had created enduring icons of American pop culture, an epic period drama like Schindler's List came out of blue — despite the director's Jewish heritage. 

While Spielberg came from a Jewish family that lost many relatives in Nazi concentration camps in Poland and the Ukraine, few believed that this chronicler of murderous sharks and sympathetic aliens could create a serious examination of the Holocaust on celluloid.

But Spielberg proved them wrong.

A novel adaptation

Schindler's List tells the true story of German entrepreneur Oskar Schindler (1908-1974), who came from Sudetenland, now part of the Czech Republic, and who saved the lives of more than 1,100 Jews during World War II.

The film was based on the bestselling 1982 novel Schindler's Ark, by Australian writer Thomas Keneally, that describes events in Poland when it was occupied by the Nazis shortly after the outbreak of World War II.

Film still Schindlers List, man sitting at typewriter while another one looks on e
Ben Kingsley starred as Itzhak Stern, the accountant who compiled the list of names of the Jewish workers Image: UPI

Schindler was a moderately successful businessman who arrived in Krakow, Poland and soon built an enamel and ammunition factory that began to grow rapidly. He had many Jewish and Polish forced laborers working for him.

Played by Liam Neeson in the film, Schindler is a member of the Nazi party and enjoys the wealth and status it affords him. But the Germans' brutal treatment of the Jews begins to trouble him. He soon decides to rescue as many of his Jewish workers as possible (with the help of his fictional accountant Itzhak Stern, played in the film by Ben Kingsley), and must deceive SS officer Amon Göth (played by Ralph Fiennes), who is commander of the Płaszów Forced Labor Camp.

Hollywood ending?

Shot in many of the original locations in Poland, Spielberg's rendition of Oskar Schindler and his commitment to the Jews employs many melodramatic effects throughout its three-hour playing time.

But despite its critical success as a serious drama, many were concerned that this film about the genocide of the Jews has a relatively happy Hollywood ending.

The famed Jewish-American director Stanley Kubrick is reputed to have said of the film: "Think that was about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn't it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler's List was about six hundred people who don't."   

Film still Schindler's Lis
The film is based on the novel 'Schindler's Ark' by Thomas KeneallyImage: UPI

But Spielberg's directorial skill, along with the fact that his emotive approach was pitched to a larger audience, was praised by many. One of the most prominent advocates was the Holocaust survivor Ruth Klüger, Professor Emerita of German Studies at the University of California.

"Apart from Claude Lanzmann's great documentary Shoah, this feature film by Hollywood's greatest entertainer is cinema's most impressive work on the Jewish catastrophe that I know," she said.

However Lanzmann himself was shocked by the film, which he described as a "cheesy melodrama." The Hungarian novelist, Nobel laureate and concentration camp survivor Imre Kertész also criticized Spielberg's "positive thinking" that told the story of the Holocaust from "the view of the victors."

Read moreWhy Holocaust drama 'Son of Saul' is an 'anti-'Schindler's List'' film

Raising consciousness

At a time when many Americans did not understand the term "Holocaust," and even doubted whether the National Socialists had murdered the Jews at all, the success of Schindler's List raised the history of the genocide into popular consciousness. 

Spielberg used proceeds from the film to build the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which conducted interviews with survivors worldwide and preserved them for posterity.

But as Schindler's List returns to cinemas, its legacy is still open to debate. With the film advertised as an "incredible true story," viewers and critics alike might have to reconcile the impact of Hollywood on Spielberg's most serious film drama.