Heart of Darkness

Ghosts in their millions haunt Steven Spielberg's powerful Schindler's List

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By contrast, the scenes in which Schindler befriends the German command, the better to suborn them with bribes and favors, first to advance his own interests, later to protect his workers, are filmed in the high formal style of the 1930s and '40s. The style is as cool and calculated as Schindler himself, played with a kind of impenetrable bonhomie by Liam Neeson. The work here comes close to satirizing the antique conventions of espionage dramas.

Its function is also to set the stage for the savagery of Schindler's dark double and most dangerous antagonist, Amon Goeth, commandant of the nearby labor camp, played by Ralph Fiennes in the film's most compelling performance. A man of Schindler's own age and background, he likes to sit on the balcony of his house idly shooting prisoners who happen to wander into his gunsight. He keeps as a servant a Jewish woman named Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz), whom he constantly beats and humiliates precisely because against all dictates of ideology, he loves her. The point about this man is that like Nazism itself, his irrationality cannot be contained by any appeal to civility, any system of legal or moral constraint. He is evil in all its banality, all its primal ferocity.

To re-create evil, especially in situ, and especially on this scale and at this length (3 hr., 15 min.), is of course to confront it. And the experience was shattering. As Spielberg walked through his crowds of extras, gesturing people this way and that because he did not speak their language, it suddenly occurred to him that Josef Mengele, the notorious concentration-camp physician, "gestured people to the left or the right. One direction was death; the other was one more day of life. I felt like a Nazi."

For Spielberg, "the worst days came any time I had to have people take their clothes off and be humiliated and reduce themselves down to livestock. That's what tore me up the most. It was the worst experience in my life." Embeth Davidtz agrees. She was in one of these scenes, nude, her head shaved. "It's not like a love scene where you disrobe and there's something in the moment. Here I'm standing there like a plucked chicken, nothing but skin and bone." That is to say, stripped of human dignity.

And there was no surcease. Leaden skies poured rain and snow almost every day of the company's three-month stay in Poland. "I went in there thinking you separate work from life," says Davidtz. "It's the first time that didn't happen." The goofing around that usually makes the boredom and hardships of difficult movie locations bearable was not available to this company. "The ghosts were on the set every day in their millions," says Kingsley. As Spielberg recalls, "There was no break in the tension. Nobody felt there was any room for levity," and people were always "breaking down or cracking up." This he had anticipated, he says, "but I didn't expect so much sadness every day."

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