Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Reluctant Savior

Most of the time, when someone announces a blog-a-thon, I find myself agonizing a long time over what to write about, but when Emma of All About My Movies proposed her blog-a-thon celebrating the “performance that changed your life,” my mind went immediately to the one given by that tall, dark and handsome Irish actor Liam Neeson when he portrayed the title character of Oskar Schindler in the film that, as I have said many times, changed my life (and not in the sense that it made me want to become an actor or be involved in filmmaking because I wanted to do those things already: no, this effect was far more profound): Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List. Incidentally, trying to describe why an actor’s performance is important to you is like trying to put it into words why a particular piece of music is so meaningful. One ends up describing their own thoughts, feelings and reactions to the piece more than they end up describing the piece itself. Thus, as I attempt feebly to communicate why Neeson’s work in this film is so brilliant, I ask for your patience and understanding.

By now everyone is familiar with the story of the German war profiteer who started out exploiting Jewish labor in his munitions factory for his own personal gain but who eventually used the factory as a means to save the lives of over 1,100 Jews from the Nazi’s genocide. In fact, we’ve probably heard it so much that we’ve lost our appreciation for what a truly remarkable story it is and what an incredibly brave and risky thing Schindler did. The transformation from a vain, selfish, egotistical industrialist to a heroic, noble and self-sacrificing “savior” is the central journey of the film’s protagonist and it is captured beautifully in Neeson’s bravura performance. The changes in Schindler’s character are subtle, almost imperceptable, upon first viewing. Some critics have written that his conversion seems forced and unrealistically “jumpstarted” by a single experience (his witnessing of the Krakow ghetto liquidation). While it is true that the liquidation sequence could be pinpointed to as the first indicator that there is humanity within Schindler that has yet to manifest itself, his alteration is far from over at that point. Schindler begins by doing little things for his workers, minute acts of kindness (a scrap of food to a starving prisoner here, an encouraging kiss to a girl there, etc) that mean so much to them in the midst of all the opression and persecution. Throughout it all, Schindler is very careful so as not to seem like a Jew-sympathizer knowing that it could easily jeopardize his position, reputation and life. The scene where he shouts angrily at Itzhak Stern (Ben Kinglsey also giving an excellent performance) about how his factory being considered a “haven,” and he being considered a “good man,” is extremely dangerous to him is an indicator that he still has a ways to go to becoming a truly changed individual. And yet his words seem to ring hollow in that scene, as if he were trying to convince himself more than anyone else. Despite his efforts to the contrary Schindler could not deny his sense of injustice and compassion the way the Nazis had long since lost touch with theirs. Schindler says "War only brings out the bad in people. Never the good, always the bad. Always the bad." This is not true, of course, because the war brought out the best in Schindler.

You are probably thinking, however, that most of this comes not from the work Neeson did as an actor but from Steven Zaillian’s script. This may be true but it is Neeson’s performance that lends credibility to thre writing, that brings the words to life, that makes Schindler into a believable, thinking, feeling human being and not just an “idea” of a certain kind of human being. Neeson’s body language, vocal tones and facial expressions help “sell” his own commitment to the role and make us as an audience believe that he is Oskar Schindler and not just Liam Neeson pretending to be Oskar Schindler. Some of his most sublime moments in the film come not from a line of dialogue delivered in a conversation or a gesture which he performs but rather from a quiet moment where he doesn’t really do or say anything, the camera merely rests on him as he thinks something. The look on his face, for example, when he sees the girl in red for the first time walking the street is a great bit of silent acting but his expression later in the film when he sees the girl in red later in the film is exceptionally powerful and breaks my heart every time I see it. It beautifully captures the many changes Schindler underwent in the interim and shows that Neeson is doing more than just acting in this film. He is being.

Much has also been said of Ralph Fiennes’ magnificent turn as the evil Amon Goeth and indeed it is a frightening portrayal and serves as an excellent counterpoint to Schindler. It has also been said that Feinnes’ performance is actually superior to Neeson’s. Perhaps, but one must remember that Feinnes’ character is a little more clearly defined that Neeson’s. Goeth is a psychopath, a man who uses his rank as an excuse to inflict the kind of inhuman cruelty and wickedness on others that only the darkest and most depraved person can. His character is by no means "one-note" and is certainly never uninteresting or un-engaging, but his motivations are clearer and his “arc” (what little there is of one) much simpler. Schindler is a far more complex, intriguing creation and Neeson hits all of the ambiguous, and at times seemingly contradictory, aspects of his personality. In many ways, Neeson’s job was harder than Feinnes.’

Probably the one scene that has garnered the most criticism of the film (although criticisms have also been aimed at the Auschwitz scene and the bookending color sequences) is Schindler’s final breakdown. Some have said that this was the most unnecessary, cloying, sentimental moment in the film (a place that Spielberg just couldn’t resist going to) while others have found it a very inconsistent thing for Schindler (an admittedly proud man) to have done. Though I will say more about it during "31 Days of Spielberg” this August, I am one of the precious few who happens to believe the scene is not only far from unnecessary, it is actually essential to the film and it's main character, both as a catharsis for the audience and as the completion of Schindler’s transformation. The meltdown may not have happened in reality as it is depicted on screen, but at least one witness has said that Schindler could be heard saying "I could've got more out" as he climbed into his car to depart. So, the sentiment was accurate if not the details of the situation. The weight of Schindler's emotional outpouring is aided in no small way, again, by Neeson’s amazing performance. Indeed, I can’t watch the scene (nor barely think about it) without crying. It is the final dramatic moment of an extremely gifted actor giving a richly textured performance in an exceptional film. I realize, of course, that the Oscars don’t ultimately mean anything but how Neeson wasn’t awarded the Best Actor Award for his work in this movie (it was given to Tom Hanks for Philedelphia was) is incomprehensible to me. Then again, Peter O’Toole didn’t win for his oustanding work in that other cinematic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia , so I guess Liam is in good company.

The “I could have done more” scene (as it has come to be known) is, for me, the culmination of everything Schindler, Neeson and Spielberg are doing in the film up to that point. It is the expression of Schindler’s identity as a truly righteous person. This is mainly why it is the performance (and the movie) that changed my life. True goodness is something that I don’t think we see enough of in cinema anymore. “Niceness” and/or “political correctness” we see all the time but real, genuine, sincere, heartfelt kindness, charity, virtue and pure moral goodness has become just as much a rarity in movies as it has become in reality. In a world of increasing selfishness and cynicism perhaps the very concept of pure goodness and virtue has become suspect (or at the very least "boring") to a "hipper" and "smarter" culture and I can’t help but feel that without compelling examples being reflected in art to help inspire us, how can we even know what it is that we are aspiring to? More than anything else, the representation of Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s film (and I realize that it is different from the actual Oskar Schindler who was an even more flawed, complex man than he was depicted in the film) provides an ideal, a goal for the way human beings ought to be… even if it is, unfortunately, not the way they often are. The work of Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List made me want to be a better person. How many films and/or performances can you say that about? Here is a man that, in the end, always wanted to do more. There was always one more righteous act to perform. No matter how many lives he saved, no matter how much money he spent, it would never have been enough. Oskar Schindler just couldn’t do enough good. May that truly be said of all of us too.


Joe said...

The scene where Schindler convinces Goethe and the other Nazis to let him bring water to the prisoners suffocating in the boxcars stands out for me. Instead of demanding Goethe let him do it, or trying to be charming, Neeson is just persistent in a low key way. Great performance.

I can't believe that Mel Gibson actually pursued this part. If Spielberg had cast him, Schindler's List wouldn't have been nearly as good at the time, and today, would be completely insignificant.

Damian Arlyn said...

That is such a memorable scene because Schindler is really putting himself out there with that gesture (and Goeth noticices it at the end). It comes I'd say about halfway through Schindler's "transformation" and yet it seems totally and completely consistent with his character.

I agree that if Gibson been cast it wouldn't have been nearly as great. Gibson is really more of an "over-actor" than an actor. he does a fine job in extreme, crazy characters (Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon, the title roles in Hamlet and Braveheart, etc) but as soon as he has to be ordinary, low-key or subtle, he's not very good. This shows, I think, Spielberg's knack for casting just the right actors for the roles in his movies (even if they're not big-name stars) and keeps me hopeful about Shia Lebeouf's presence in the upcoming Indiana Jones movie.

Peet Gelderblom said...

Damian, your email address on your blogger page doesn't seem to be working. I thought you'd be interested in seeing this 1-hour interview with Spielberg before August (if you haven't already):

Damian Arlyn said...

My e-mail link isn't working, huh? That's too bad. I'll see what I can do about that.

Thanks for bringing that interview to my attention, Peet. I love just listening to Spielberg talk. I am especially looking forward to the Richard Schickel documentary that premieres on TCM tonight.

Peet Gelderblom said...

Oh, and being a Wordpress man myself (except for articles on The House), is there any chance you could allow non-Blogger users to comment here?

Damian Arlyn said...

Well, I'll give it a try, Peet. I'll change the settings for a while so that anyone can leave a comment on here and just see how that turns out. If I end up getting some nasty anonymous comments or annoying spam (which I have gotten before), then I'm changing it back.

J.J. said...

The "I could've done more" scene is also my favorite of the movie, and my favorite *moment* of that scene is when he drops the ring. That small mistake in the course of his departure (and in the course of an otherwise stoic, calculated lifestyle) is what opens up his emotional floodgate. I assume that was scripted; but if it was an error that Spielberg decided to keep, then thank God.

Squish said...

"...choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog."

Damian, you can't get away from this, I'm the second person to tag you.

Damian Arlyn said...


I think you're right, J.J. That moment when Schindler drops the rings and frantically searches through the dirt for it as if it were the most precious thing in the world is brilliant. I also don't know whether it was a deliberate or not (and if so who conceived it: Zaillian, Spielberg, Neeson) but if it was accidental then it was providential and Spielberg had the good sense to leave it in.

You might be interested to know that in real life Schindler later sold that ring for alchohol,. This demonstrates, once again, that the actual, historical figure was an even more complicated man than the one seen in the movie.


Actually I think you're the fourth or fifth person to tag me with this meme. I guess you're right. I can't get away from it. Might as well face into it.

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Donald Schneider said...

This is a thoughtful and insightful critique of this magnificent movie and of the persona that was Oskar Schindler. A scene in the movie that has always stood out for me was the night before Schindler meets with Amon Goeth to buy the (at least temporary) safety of “his Jews.” He’s in his apartment while the latest of his myriad mistresses sleeps in their bed and an Ella Fitzgerald record is playing. Schindler opens his attaché case filled with the money that he will bribe Goeth with in the hope of saving so many lives. He looks pensively, almost wistfully at the money, and the viewer can just imagine him thinking: “Why am I doing this?” This is the subtext of the entire movie.

Why indeed, Herr Schindler. Because when push came to shove for this enigmatic individual, he discovered that he was not quite the rogue that he would have others believe…and perhaps himself. You did it, Herr Schindler, because essentially, you couldn’t not do it. Bravo!