Thursday, March 19, 2009

Flick of the Week: "What, if you don't mind my asking, would you do?"

This week's flick of the week takes us with Liam Neeson from the sugary goodness of Love Actually, to the harrowing Schindler's List.

I was fortunate to come to the story first through Kenneally's fantastic Schindler's Ark, but even those who had not read the book knew this was a big picture. It was Spielberg going serious (which he had already done with Empire of the Sun, but hardly anyone saw that), and it was on the holocaust. And it was to be done in black and white. This, if ever there was, was a picture that demanded to be taken seriously.

The rumour is that Spielberg didn't think he could do the story justice, and so tried to get Martin Scorsese and then Roman Polanski to direct it. Scorsese doing a holocaust film would be a very bizarre thing to see, and Polanski would of course go on to later direct The Pianist. In the end director Billy Wilder convinced Spielberg to do it himself.

The story about a German businessman who was a bon vivant, speculator and charmer (according to Keneally) and who despite getting rich using Jewish labour also saved around 1200 Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis is a cracker. Unfairly criticised by some cynics as a "feel good holocaust story" it is a pretty brutal film that certainly isn't the thing to put in the DVD player on a relaxing Friday night.

But I have to admit I have a lot of problems with it. The use of black and white was a cop out. A device notionally used by Spielberg to create a sense of the times, but I think was done more because he was worried viewers would not be able to think of a film by him as serious, and thus he wanted to be as clear as he could to viewers that this wasn't the Spielberg of E.T. or Jaws. I doubt he would do it know - people now know he can direct "serious" films. The use of the black and white allows the viewer to distance themselves from the action - as though it happened a long time ago and is no longer relevant.

Spielberg also uses the photography as a gimmick when he allows us to see only one thing in colour - the red jacket of a young Jewish girl. It is a sentimental device that fits better in E.T. than this film. You have to wonder if Spielberg was worried that people wouldn't feel enough emotion watching entire families being murdered, and so used the device to ensure the tears flowed. It was manipulative, and unfortunately is the type of thing Spielberg seems unable to stop himself from doing. (He does it at the end with the coda of the actors and the real life people they portrayed putting rocks on Schindler's grave)

Despite this, the film is great, if only for two reasons - Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes.

Neeson lost the Oscar to Tom Hanks in the showy role as the gay lawyer dying of AIDS in Philidelphia. Looking back now it was obvious Oscar bait, and I don't think deserved the award, but I actually would have given the award that year to Anthony Hopkins for The Remains of the Day.

Neeson though was excellent. Prior to the role, he was just another actor from Britain/Ireland, who got a lot of bit parts in nothing films - I saw him play the lead in Darkman and I have to say it wasn't very good. But after this! Well now, suddenly he was Liam Neeson. You think he would have been in The Phantom Menace, Gangs of New York, Rob Roy, or indeed be playing Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg's upcoming Lincoln if he hadn't been in this film?

For actors, careers are all about taking the tide at the flood. Neeson was given a dream role, and he made the most of it. His speech to the guards at the end of the war is masterful:

Neeson brilliantly conveys the personality of thius complex man - in the opening scene when he completely takes over a restaurant, you want to be dining with him - you know immediately that Schindler's table is the table to be sitting at. He also is able to show that Schindler was in no way a saint - he almost doesn't understand himself why he is risking his life to save his workers. And yet by the end he is a world removed from the confidant man striding into the dining room demanding to be told about the wine cellar.

But as good as Neeson was, his was not the best performance in the movie. Ralph Fiennes as the evil twin of Schindler, Amon Goeth, created one of the all-time great acting performances.

It was his first major role, and that did help the believability of the performance. Similar to Ben Kingsley when he played Gandhi, because we had not seen him act before he seemed to inhabit the role. But whereas now when you go back and watch Gandhi you can see Ben Kinglsey the actor, when you watch this film, even if you have seen Fiennes in all his other roles, the brilliance of the performance is not diminished.

He is evil incarnate. He is the devil, and yet he is charming. He is not a lunatic' he is someone who has retained sanity but completely discarded his morality. The book makes more of the fact that he and Schindler are quite similar - but that Schindler took the path of humanity; Goethe took the path to hell.

And yet he lost the Oscar for Best Supporting Oscar to Tommy Lee Jones for The Fugitive. Quite possibly the worst decision ever in that category, and surely one of the top 5 all-time worst decisions by the Academy Awards. All Jones had to do was chew some scenery while delivering his "hen house, outhouse, dog house" speech. Fiennes had to play a man who could in one scene start by talking to his Jewish housekeeper Helen Hirsh about "reaching out to her loneliness" and then end it with "No, I don't think so. You Jewish bitch, you nearly talked me into it, didn't you?" and to beat her.

Youtube has a few clips of the role, but this scene was one that stuck in my brain after the first viewing:

It is a shattering role that dominates the film, and it signalled the start of a career that is as good as any going around at the moment. If you want tortured drama - Fiennes is your man (action comedy or romcoms, not so much! - for those of you who have seen The Avengers or Maid in Manhatten).

Schindler's List is ranked number 7 all-time on I don't think it's that good. But it is a very good film that rewards re-watching.

Best line:
Oskar Schindler: I've been speaking to Goeth.
Itzhak Stern: I know the destination. These are the evacuation orders, I'm to help arrange the shipments, put myself on the last train.
Oskar Schindler: That's not what I was going to say. I made Goeth promise to put in a good word for you. Nothing bad is going to happen to you there, you'll receive special treatment.
Itzhak Stern: The directives coming in from Berlin talk about "special treatment" more and more often. I'd like to think that's not what you mean.
Oskar Schindler: Preferential treatment. All right? Do we have to create a new language?
Itzhak Stern: I think so.


LiteraryMinded said...

Hi Grog, I liked this piece - I hope you'll do more revisitations of films. I love the scenes inserted in the discussion too. That's really one of the great things about blogs.
I agree on the performance of Fiennes in this film - he's incredibly frightening. But I also love Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern. Every scene with him in it is wonderful (such as the one you cited).

PB said...

A good review.

I wasn't troubled by the black and white. I thought it worked well.

I never wanted or intended to see this film. I think by the time I got to thirty I'd seen and read all the holocaust stories I could stand. The layers upon layers of horror just become overwhelming after a while. But it was on TV one night, I accidentally turned it on (the restaurant scene was on) and before I knew, I watched it all the way through.

I'm not sure I agree with your concerns about manipulation. What are stories about, other than evoking a response to those they're told to? When the manipulation is too obvious then it's a problem, but I don't think the girl in the red jacket is too manipulative. How can you absorb all that horror? It is numbing. But if you see it and feel it for one small girl then you get some feeling of the avalanche of it for the millions.

Sorry. Got a bit carried away there. It's a great film but I never want to see it again.