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What Makes It Great?: The Penultimate Scene of SCHINDLER'S LIST

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A classical radio station in Washington, DC once ran a regular feature called “What Makes It So Great,” in which the “greatness” of some musical work was analyzed. I would like to do something similar with a movie scene: the penultimate scene of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, commonly known as the “I could have got more” scene. It is the 1940's, and German businessman Oscar Schindler (Liam Neeson) has employed 1100 Polish Jews in his factory, thus sparing them from probable death in Auschwitz. After liberation, the Jews saved by Schindler–among them his own accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley)–present him with a ring inscribed with a life-affirming, Talmudic statement. Yet because Schindler himself joined the Nazis and even associated with notorious SS commander Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) insofar as the association would guarantee him Jewish workers–and because he might have saved even more Jews than he did–Schindler feels undeserving of their thanks. Before them he laments that he did not sell his car or his Nazi pin, since by doing so he could have added more Jewish names to his list. The realization brings him to tears, and he is consoled by his wife, by Stern, and by the rest of “his” Jews.

Filmed in 1993, Schindler’s List was a major cultural presence in my teen years: I was fifteen when it opened, sixteen when it closed, and seventeen when I first saw it, in its initial release on videotape. I clearly remember hearing adults discuss it, its realistic quality, and its saddest moments; one of my teachers who saw it told us how, when “I could have got more” came around, everyone in the theater “was wailing.” (That there were still many Holocaust survivors alive in 1993 surely had something to do with the film’s strong initial impact.) I didn't cry during the same scene when I finally saw it; I was too stunned. Yet it stayed in my memory until, years later, I watched the film again. Today, “I could have got more” affects me hugely and is my favorite movie scene.

Since the 1990's, the generally loved scene has come in for some criticism. Certain viewers say it is “off” in tone (too effusive for a man like Schindler) or even “sentimental," "maudlin," "melodramatic." To my mind, such adjectives are useless as they mean different things to different people and amount to value judgments. I would make a neutral statement–“Spielberg has a highly emotional style”–and leave it at that. As for “tone,” Spielberg himself admitted he included the scene in order to give the audience (which, remember, included those “Schindler survivors” who were present at the filming in Krakow) catharsis (a valid goal--it dates to the ancient Greek dramatists). I think the scene is something of a set piece but an aesthetically fine one much more subtle than reputed to be. I also think it conveys a major theme of the movie: that the Jews saved and those lost were neither “a virus” (Goeth’s words) nor names on lists but rather human beings–“people,” as Schindler says.

The "set piece" begins with Stern holding up the ring for Schindler to see. “It’s Hebrew, from the Talmud,” Stern explains. “It says ‘Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.'" Here mention must be made of the movie’s score, and especially of its famous theme. Composed by John Williams and played richly by Itzhak Perlman, the theme can be heard as Ben Kingsley starts to speak. It is not simply that the score and Perlman’s playing enhance the scene; it actually sounds as if the dialogue was all composed with the music in mind. The term “stream of consciousness” accurately describes the style of much of the dialogue in Schindler’s List: spoken in an undertone, it sounds like words overheard. This is the case too with Schindler’s “I could have got more"; yet the word repetition used by screenwriter Steve Zaillian for Schindler’s lines sounds more musical than prosaic. In response to Stern, Schindler says, “I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know, if I’d just...I could have got more.” In a similar vein he continues,

This car, Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car?
Ten people right there. Ten people, ten more people. This pin, two
people. This is gold–two more people. He would have given me two
for it, at least one. He would have given me one, one more. One more
person–a person, Stern. For this...I could have got one more person,
and I didn’t! I didn’t!

The repetition of words like “got,” “people,” “one,” and “more” functions like a refrain; just as Williams' theme is repeated (with variations), certain words are said more than once. The “rise and fall” of Schindler’s phrases (and of his sobs) seems to coincide with the melody, and there is at least one moment when the music expresses exactly the subtext of a line. At 2:30 in the video, that musical “surge” after Schindler says “one more person” is like a wave of realization: Schindler’s realization of the true value of a life. Moreover, there are times when it sounds almost as though Zaillian’s words could be sung to Williams’ music: listen, for instance, to 1:58 (“ten people right there”) of the video. That its music and its lines are so closely attuned to each other must be one reason “I could have got more” is often perceived as a set piece, but surely few similar scenes were conceived so subtly.

Anything "stagey" in the scene--the formal presentation of the ring, the neat rows of survivors gazing at Schindler and Stern–is offset by the fact that all of the emotion is believable, at times appearing as though the actors themselves felt it. The British are not generally known to be Method actors–but if the making of any film was an emotional ordeal for its cast, that film was Schindler’s List.* Says Spielberg, “There was sadness on that set every day. I had actors breaking down from the stress of the re-creation." Even for professional actors, he implies, certain scenes were upsetting. And at times in the film there does seem to be emotion that goes beyond "acting." Watch the penultimate scene closely and you will see tears in Neeson’s eyes from the instant he retrieves the dropped ring and glances away as if to compose himself. After he speaks his first line, and during his long moment of eye contact with Neeson (0:51-0:53), Kingsley looks as if he was trying to hold his expression steady (also at 1:47-1:48); fortunately, it makes sense here for Stern to be so moved. Surely Neeson's voice-crack at “If I’d just...” was spontaneous, as was his unsteady breathing. His dropping of the ring, while a gesture symbolic of how easily a thing of true value–like a life–can slip away, appears so natural that some viewers have assumed it was unscripted (it was not).

The onlookers’ reactions seem "real" as well; it would be hard to imagine the scene without the two young women in the front row (see 2:06) and their sympathetic expressions. These two are the first to run forward to embrace Schindler when he begins to weep, and the woman on the left looks truly empathetic. The way in which first Stern, then Schindler’s wife, and then a number of the survivors all enfold Schindler in a group hug–Stern and Emilie Schindler rocking him back and forth, a nice touch–makes sense both figuratively (they make him feel just how many people he did save) and practically (Neeson is a large man, as was Schindler). Like a great painter, Spielberg planned “I could have got more” with an eye for detail that proves crucial to its impact.

“Manipulative” is a word detractors have tagged the scene with, implying that its visual beauty is a bad thing. Though Schindler and Stern’s handshake around 0:58 seems very “Hollywood,” the scene is not all glossy perfection. The obvious disparity in height between Kingsley and Neeson makes Stern’s embrace of Schindler visually awkward–as real life frequently is. Stern looks startled when his friend begins to break down (2:40)–another life-like moment, as Schindler was not usually demonstrative. But too often, viewers embarrassed by the crying make more of it than Spielberg did. In fact, the camera soon cuts away from Schindler to the woman preparing his striped uniform (to leave Poland safely he must dress as a survivor); moreover, those embracing him conceal Schindler from our view, so that only his guttural sobs are heard. From the unity of the music and the words to the staging of Schindler’s breakdown, “I could have got more” is a sequence more subtle than even many of its admirers think it.

Schindler’s List, however, is not an "art film" but a popular, Hollywood movie about an unlikely hero of the Holocaust. Similarly, Steven Spielberg is not a cerebral director but one who aims to reach the hearts of his viewers; John Williams, with his great melodic gift, has a Romantic sensibility. In the penultimate scene of Schindler's List, Williams’ and Spielberg’s talents combine with those of Zaillian, Neeson, Kingsley, and Perlman to make the viewer feel something of Schindler’s sudden, overpowering regret at not having done all he could have for his fellow human beings. Pure emotion is both the point of the scene and what makes it great.

*Which can be gathered from this photo of Schindler survivor Poldek Pfefferberg sharing his memories with Spielberg, Fiennes, Neeson, and crew. The facial expressions range from pensive to grim. Fiennes, who played Goeth, called the filming at times “traumatic”:

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Updated Feb-12-2019 at 04:21 by Bellinilover

Tags: film, film scores
Classical Music , Other , Composers , Visual Arts