There is an overwhelming consensus that the greatest film of all time is Citizen Kane. Now, while I do agree that Citizen Kane is well-made, and for a 40s movie had some amazing visual effects, I do not agree that it is the greatest of all time. The greatness of a film is in the eye of the beholder. Since it’s physically impossible for anyone to see every single film ever made, let alone carefully analyze every film ever made, we all have to go by the movies we have seen. In my opinion, the greatest film of all time, is Schindler’s List.
Now, some might think this film’s greatness doesn’t really count because it’s based on a true story about one of the most horrific time periods in human history. It’s hard to screw that up, and if you did it screw it up, everyone would find it offensive and hate you for it.
Except, even with a true story about such a serious topic, there are still plenty of ways to fail in its depiction. Horrific events depicted on screen don’t automatically make a film great. Sometimes, filmmakers add shocking imagery for the sake of shock and nothing else. It’s like they are a sitcom, only instead of having laughing cues, the audience is told to have gasping cues. For example, at the beginning of The Butler, which was loosely based on a true story, we see slaves getting shot and raped by their owners….. in the 1920s… You know, 60+ years after slavery was abolished. That was undoubtedly shock for shock’s sake, which annoyed me greatly. We all already know slavery was bad, movie! Or take the movie Shelter, which was made by Paul Bettany and starred his wife. That movie was almost nothing but shocking imagery, from drug use, to overly-explicit sex scenes, to murder. And all throughout Shelter there are huge gaps in logic just to make way for the next shocking thing.
So, no, I disagree that subject matter alone, or shocking imagery alone, makes a film good. In fact, most of the time, it ruins a film.
I’ve seen Schindler’s List several times and honestly don’t think it needs any kind of pass. It’s not great because it’s a movie about the Holocaust. It’s not a film that beats you over the head with, “Nazis bad! Nazis did bad things!” It’s simply a great movie.
I think Schindler’s List is so great because of its nuance. Think about it. It’s a movie about a Nazi, an actual, literal Nazi, who risks his wealth and his life to protect over a thousand Jews. Even the bad guy, Amon Goeth, who killed Jews leisurely without a second thought, was depicted accurately as a manager of a camp stressed with schedules and routines and having to deal with supervising thousands of people. He was a heartless killer, yes, and his crimes are absolutely inexcusable, but doesn’t everyone get that attitude of “I’m too stressed and overworked to even care anymore” when they are put in charge of so much? So, even with a sociopath like Amon Goeth, the film’s nuance still makes us try to understand that perhaps, just perhaps, Goeth was a product of his circumstances. Even Schindler tells him in the film to stop drinking so much or his liver will explode like a hand grenade. Most people who drink that much are trying to make their life not suck so much.
To add to the nuance (which I could talk about all day), we see Schindler not really care about Jews for half the movie, and not being faithful to his wife. He wasn’t depicted as a flawless good guy; he was shown to be just as flawed as anyone. He truly just wanted to start a business and profit from slave labor, until the turning point when he sees the liquidation of the ghetto, and the reality of what was being done to the Jews hit him full-force. And at the end of the movie, he wasn’t depicted as the hero that saved the day, he was simply a man who did all he could, saving hundreds of people, and yet he was filled with remorse for not doing more.
The word “Nazi” has become synonymous with “evil,” but most people seem to forget that the Nazis were a political party. They had policies that involved things like the environment and even animals. Hitler was an animal-lover, and if you do a simple Google search, you can find plenty of images with Hitler smiling around animals. My point is, not everyone who joined the Nazi party simply joined because they hated Jews. In fact, many joined for reasons that had nothing to do with Jews. Many Nazis found Hitler’s hatred of Jews and policies against them to be too much and actually tried to kill him several times.
I think (and I could be very wrong) the message of Schindler’s List is that humans are complicated creatures. We are capable of good, and we are certainly capable of evil.
This film makes me cry every time I see it, because it’s heartbreaking that all of this happened, but at the same time it’s so amazing what the human spirit can accomplish. I love this film and would recommend it to anyone. I do believe it’s the greatest film of all time.