Film fanatics and friends Fred Sullivan and Yasser Akram are on a mission to watch 25 of one another’s favourite movies. Each week they will watch one movie each and then get together to discuss what they have seen. There has been a few disagreements, some indifference but plenty of mutual appreciation. Will it last as the countdown continues?
After seeing one of his choices receive the lowest score of ‘Film Club’ so far last week, Yasser is hoping that this week’s pick, an all-time classic, will be more to Fred’s taste.
You can read the entries from previous week by checking out the archives on the left of the screen.
To have a look at what Fred has picked so far, click here.
Likewise, for Yasser’s choices, click here.
Fred: So we start, as always, with your choice, which this week is ‘Schindler’s List‘. It’s the second holocaust movie on your list, so I have to ask what is it that gets it in to your 25, and why does it rank higher than ‘The Pianist‘?
Yasser: It’s a much more powerful story
FS: How so?
YA: See, ‘The Pianist’ is a survival story. ‘Schindler’s List’ has much more depth to it. More dimensions, different story lines…
FS: Stanley Kubrick criticised the film for telling the story of 1000 survivors, not the millions who died
YA: I think that’s a daft criticism
FS: I thought it was quite a clever point
YA: Oh dear! (laughs)
YA: Not at all. The reason it isn’t is the superb Ralph Fiennes
FS: Yes. He is excellent
YA: He brings such a menacing persona to the screen that feels threatening even when he’s calm
FS: I think it’s an incredible performance. There is so much to it
YA: Yeah. It’s one of the main reasons why I picked the movie
FS: He’s absolutely awful and evil, but in some scenes he is docile, and in others playful. He’s not a stock villain
FS: Schindler (Liam Neeson) has him in the palm of his hand, which is so at odds with how Goeth behaves around others. The more I think back over Fiennes’ performance, the better it gets. There is one bit that is so amazing, even though you’d miss it if you blinked
YA: What’s that?
FS: He’s picking a maid, and he says to Helena (Embeth Davidtz) that she should stand back as he doesn’t want to give her his cold. So innocuous, yet it sets up Goeth as human. He would slaughter the whole Jewish race in a heartbeat, yet he’s worried that one of them will catch his cold
FS: Yes, it’s like he’s desperate for approval from everyone – his superiors, Schindler, even Helena.
YA: That’s how Schindler plays him. He realises that when Goeth opens up to him and reveals his insecurities
FS: I think it’s important that evil is shown to be human. To have a cardboard, moustache twirling villain is easy. What’s harder is showing an ordinary man performing unspeakable acts and not bat an eyelid.
YA: To go back to your original question about why ‘Schindler’s List’ is in my list, there are so many factors. I know it doesn’t explain the Holocaust, but it does tell a very specific story of an event in one of the most brutal times in documented human history and tried to find light
FS: It does an excellent job of portraying some of the real horrors – the mass graves, the conditions in the ghettos, the dehumanisation of the Jews – and it’s uncomfortable viewing, which it should be. I think it’s superior to ‘The Pianist’ in every way, though the last scene at Schindler’s grave I find a bit ‘Hollywood’
YA: I think that reaffirms that the events we’ve seen in the film are real. This happened and this man saved all these lives
FS: Good point, sir!
YA: Let’s talk about Spielberg. He’s brilliant, even if he has lost his touch of late
FS: I’m not sure if this was a one-off, as he’s never really matched this with his other ‘serious’ movies. It’s almost as if he knew he had to get this right and it took everything he had to give to get it bang-on. You have to give it to him though. Anyone who can make ‘Jurassic Park‘ and this back-to back is an incredibly gifted film-maker
YA: You couldn’t see Michael Bay make a ‘Transformers‘ movie and then make something as solemn as this
FS: He’s made some shit, but he’s also made more truly great movies than 99.9% of directors.
YA: Was there anything you didn’t like about the film?
FS: Not much. It’s a compelling film. Hard to watch because of the subject, but not a slog, even at three hours. It handles the subject with the right amount of solemnity but it’s not a slow film
FS: If I am being picky, and you know I am…
FS: …whilst I think Neeson is terrific, there are some key moments where he’s a bit wooden. The scene where he breaks down at the end is the prime example. It’s a great shame as he is excellent prior to that, holding his own against Fiennes’ towering performance and the heart-breaking brilliance of Ben Kingsley
YA: Yeah, I agree with you there. Even Kingsley started to mirror Neeson’s wooden form, like he didn’t know how to act opposite it
FS: Hmmm… I don’t agree with that. Stern (Kingsley) is quite stiff all through the film and his reaction seems in keeping with that. However, it is an awkward moment for the wrong reasons. Shame
FS: There is another popular criticism of the movie in that it shows the Holocaust through the eyes of a German. Do you think having Stern as the main focus of the film instead would have improved the movie?
YA: I don’t think it would have been as good. Spielberg is a Jew and the subject is close to his heart
FS: Do you think Spielberg is the ‘Jewish heart’ of the picture, so the focal point on-screen is immaterial?
YA: That’s the brilliance of the film
FS: Okay, so there is very little to criticise. Shall I talk about the good stuff?
YA: Yeah. Tell me how amazing my choice is…
FS: (laughs) Acting-wise, as I’ve said, there is three really strong performances. The script is fantastic as for the most part the dialogue is very natural when the temptation must have been to make the characters talk in meaningful platitudes and long, intense speeches.
YA: I don’t really rate Kingsley, from what I’ve seen of him, but he plays Stern very, very well
FS: Fiennes was robbed of the Oscar that year, but for Kingsley not to be nominated astounds me. I think I might like his performance the best, if I’m honest
FS: There are times when his barely concealed desperation really convey something of what the experience must have been like. The moment where Schindler says he will have a drink with him after the war, and he looks at him and says “I think I better have it now“… that makes me well up
YA: Do you want to talk about John Williams’ music?
FS: Yeah. What can I say? It’s absolutely perfect for the film
YA: He’s a master
YA: Normally he has a big orchestra, but he brought in Itzhak Perlman and had a lot of violin-driven themes
FS: Yes, it’s all so simple. Perfect
YA: What about the imagery of the film?
FS: The black and white cinematography is a plus point. Just putting it in black and white is not enough, though, and they did a great job. It looks cold when it’s supposed to be cold and there is a richness in the shots within Goth’s villa or the nightclub at the beginning
YA: It’s sharp and modern and helped the bleak moments stand out, like the horror in Neeson’s face when he sees the corpse of the girl in the red coat
FS: The real footage we have of the mass graves is in black and white so in a way it wouldn’t seem right to see them in colour, but also I think Spielberg was able to show more harrowing sights than he might have dared in colour, as it gives a certain distance to what you see
YA: Exactly. I’m glad we are on the same page. Is there anything else?
FS: I just want to say that the most important thing about the film, for me, is preserving the memory of what happened. The last survivors will be dead in a generation and when there is no-one left who actually lived through events like the Holocaust we lose that physical connection to it, which is significant.
YA: It’s important to have something through modern media as well
FS: Yes. A lot of people won’t watch a documentary or read a book about this sort of thing, but they might watch a movie made by one of Hollywood’s biggest directors. They will then realise that the war wasn’t like ‘Medal of Honour‘ or ‘The Dirty Dozen‘
YA: I think we’ve covered it all, bro
FS: What a contrast to last week! After ‘Kingdom of Heaven‘, which was comfortably your worst choice so far, we have one of the best. ‘Schindler’s List’ is a great choice on a number of levels. Technically, the cinematography, lighting and sets are all first class. From an interpretive point of view, the script is very good and the acting is of a uniformly high standard, with the three main actors particularly impressive. The direction is virtually flawless. The film’s pitched exactly right and what could have been a relentlessly depressing slog is just fascinating. The music couldn’t have been bettered either, so it’s a really excellent film. I have some minor issues with the more ‘biblical’ sections of the screenplay, and the final scene is unecessary, though I do take your point about anchoring the film in reality. Most disappointingly, after three hours of sustained excellence, Neeson can’t quite get his big scene right. It’s a real shame. All in all, it gets 9/10. Very, very close to full marks, but not quite there.
Later this week: ‘A Night at the Opera’