Sunday, April 19, 2009

Don't Make a Scene: Schindler's List

The Story: "Schindler's List" is such a profound statement that one worries that it might calcify into a monument, rather than be just an excellent movie to be watched and appreciated...a testament to Steven Spielberg's power as a mature film-maker, chameleon in nature, whose work can be cunning as well as bravura (but then, most observant people knew that from the beginning).

There are many, many great scenes—some shocking, some profound, great speeches, great set-pieces. But when it came down to picking a specific scene, I've always loved this one. Two men in a room: the one practical, the one completely impractical. The accountant and the salesman. Facts and Figments.

When Itzahk Stern enters that room he's thinking, as he always does, about the nuts and bolts and the reality of a situation. Solvency. Things are black and white. There's a situation and you act accordingly.

Schindler couldn't care less. For him, it's all opportunity. "Don't tell me about the road-blocks, give me the odds." "Suppose...." Where Stern is thinking reality, Schindler's dreaming dreams in a nightmare landscape. Schindler couldn't make it on a level playing field, but with the Nazi blitzkrieg, with so much getting lost in the shuffle, he can catch some of that loss. Do quite well.

To Stern, this is madness. And it is. But this is where the mystery comes in. And the magic. That same...showmanship and brio...that led Schindler to protect his assets...his workers...from the concentration camps, playing the Nazis to his own ends in a deadly game, has its spark in this scene (as well as the earlier longer, sequence when Schindler, eyeing his prey over a burning cigarette, snake-charms a room of Nazi's to his own ends). Here, Schindler audaciously spells out his plans to run a munitions plant without lifting a finger. "Not the work, not the work," he dismisses as nothing, as he sits up-right out of his stretched slouch and paints an image...."the presentation...." and the space between his hands is full of empty-air and the intensity of his eyes (Liam Neeson has never, ever been this good, and one looks forward to his "Lincoln" with Spielberg), which speaks of possibilities as certain and limitless as a clean-sheet of ledger-paper.

The presentation. "The sizzle." The charm. The possibilities. They dazzle Stern for an instant of incredulity. But, what neither man can know is that...chutzpah (if you will) shall intensify until it passes through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, bearing Life, eclipsing ephemeral dreams and rooting them in practicality as certain as one's typed name.

There we are, the man says. The simplest of statements, made enormous in impact in the shadow of crematorium smoke.

The Set-Up: Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrives in Berlin, eager to turn a profit with the Nazi's, their attention turned to battle and away from business details. He has already made his way around town becoming the life of every Nazi Party, and generously gifting the Generals who might sway business interests. Today, he's arrived unannounced at the jewish community office in the Warsaw Ghetto, and made himself loudly known, demanding to see one Itzahk Stern (Ben Kingsley). Fearing a scene (and not knowing what could happen next), Stern escorts Schindler to a back-room to private.


(Schindler and Stern walk into a private office to talk. Schindler pulls a flask from his jacket pocket.)

Oskar Schindler: There's a company you did the books for, on Leibowitz Street. Made what, pots and pans?
Itzhak Stern: By law, I have to tell you, sir, I am a Jew.
Schindler: Well, I'm a German. There we are. (Pours a drink, hands it to Stern who refuses) A good company you think?

Stern: Modestly successful.
Schindler: I know nothing about enamelware. Do you?

Stern: I was just the accountant. (He sits)
Schindler: Simple engineering, though, wouldn't you think? Change the machines around so whatever you do, you could make other things, couldn't you?
(Stern looks towards the door, nervously)

Schindler: Field kits. Mess kits. Army contracts. Once the war ends, forget it. But for now, it's great. You can make a fortune, don't you think?

Stern: I think...right now, people have other priorities.

Schindler: Like what?
(Stern scoffs)
Stern: I'm sure you'll do just fine once you get the contracts. In fact, the worse things get, the better you'll do.
Schindler: Oh, I can get the signatures I need. That's the easy part! Finding the money to buy the company (hah) that's hard.
Stern: You don't have any money.

Schindler: Not that kind of money. You know anybody? Jews, yeah. Investors. You must have contacts in the Jewish community, working here.
Stern: What community? Jews can no longer own businesses. That's why this one's in recievership!
Schindler: Ah, but they wouldn't own it. I'd own it. I'd pay them back in product--pots and pans.
Stern: Pots and pans.

Schindler: Something they can use. Something they can feel in their hands. They can trade it in the black market, do whatever they want. Everybody's happy.

Schindler: If you want, you could run the company for me.

Stern: Let me understand. They put up the money. I do all the work. What, if you don't mind my asking, would you do?

Schindler: I'd make sure it's known the company's in business. I'd see that it had a certain panache. That's what I'm good at. Not the work. Not the work. The presentation.

(A beat. Two)

Stern: I'm sure I wouldn't know anybody who'll be interested in this.

Schindler: Well, they should be, Itzhak Stern. Tell them they should be.

"Schindler's List"

Words by Steven Zaillian

Pictures by Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg

"Schindler's List" is available on DVD from Universal Home Video.

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