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Color Experiments Part Two: SCHINDLER'S LIST

The controversial color: a tiny girl in a red coat.

The difference between a gimmick and real cinematic excellence.

One of the intriguing surprises that viewers of SCHLINDER'S LIST noted in 1993 was Spielberg's interesting use of selective color. A black-and-white movie, LIST opens on a color scene of candles being lit, and concludes in a documentary sequence with the actors in the film appearing with the actual people they portrayed. When the color appeared, near the end, the change announced that an appendix of sorts was beginning, and probably kept a lot of confusion from occurring in audiences.

But the color that got the most attention in LIST involved the little girl in the traumatic 'liquidating the ghetto' sequence. A little blonde tot, overlooked by the German troops, wanders alone amid the horror and panic. In many of her shots, however, she is selectively tinted red, which draws the viewer to her even when she is but one of a hundred people in a wide shot. It's an arresting effect: even in a telephoto view, representing Oscar Schlindler POV from a mile away, the viewer cannot take his eyes off the little red-tinted girl strolling unscathed while murder and brutality happen all around her.

Some reviewers called the tinting an unsuccessful idea. Savant thought it was brilliant, a prime example of the kind of subtle genius Spielberg comes up with when he really applies himself. Instead of being a gimmick, the tinting said things about the scene, and our relationship to extreme subject matter like the Holocaust, that are difficult to convey on film.

The tinting keeps emotions in perspective. SCHLINDER'S LIST succeeds because it refuses to tell its story through a few individuals selected for audience identification. Dozens of individual stories make their statements of passion or irony, each adding to the tale but none dominating it. Before LIST, my impression of the Holocaust was influenced by individuals like Anne Frank. No movie 'entertainment' could encompass the enormity of the suffering, because as a rule people identify emotionally with individuals, not masses. The failing of most movies is that particularizing the Holcaust cannot help but trivialize it. A perfectly honest and worthy film like SOPHIE'S CHOICE, because one cares so much for the plight of Meryl Streep and her children, ends up (for Savant) with the difficult-to-pin-down taint of exploitation about it. When all is said and done, it seems too much like a 'great acting opportunity' for its award-winning actress. This in a film which is obviously sincere, and which Savant hesitates to criticize at all.

So why not present the subplot of the little girl normally, showing her in closeups and medium shots? The emotional balance of the scene would be affected. Millions of stricken viewers would worry only about the little girl. Many would even 'invest' their emotional reaction in the girl as a way of avoiding coming to grips with the concept of mass victimization. Spielberg's effort to communicate the Larger Horror, would be lost.

Spielberg had learned the lesson of Alfred Hitchcock's error in SABOTAGE, where the Master of Suspense allowed an adorable little boy to be killed, against audience expectations. The death of the child was so traumatic, it outweighed the spy drama around it. Audiences recoiled right out of SABOTAGE, which ceased to be 'entertaining', and resented Hitchcock's brutality. To show the girl, Spielberg needed to find an endistancing style that would not allow his audience to concentrate too much on her.

When seen from far away, the little red girl grabs attention, yet remains only one victim in a screen full of victims. A more complex reaction is forced upon the viewer, who fixates on the girl yet can see that no one victim is more significant than any other. The Holocaust is no vague statistic, but an infinity of individual horrors that must be absorbed in context to be understood. By the time the little girl is shown running into a room and hiding under a bed, the subliminal message has already been delivered: this isn't Shirley Temple here, so don't get your hopes up. She's precious, but no more so than the thousands of other victims in the street outside.

The tinting effect works so well that, even though the immediate fate of the little girl goes unshown, audiences are not alienated, as they were in SABOTAGE. When, much later, Schindler sees a red-tinted rag of a corpse thrown onto a fire, the issue is revisited and the horror brought to a new level of understanding. With all this killing going on, the fate of just one innocent can be forgotten as if it were unimportant. All Schindler really has to go on is the coat (was it red?) that reminds him of the girl he saw through binoculars months or years earlier. For his selfish purposes Schindler has attempted to keep the slaughter at an emotional remove. When he connects with the corpse on the fire, we see his unconscious commitment taking shape.

Far from being a gimmick, Spielberg has used the tinting to cinematically convey a difficult and complex concept. The triumph of SCHINDLER'S LIST is its avoidance of standard atrocity shock effects, and (for the most part) equally cheap emotional effects. Much of SCHINDLER is the best kind of message film, one where the message is unspoken, yet understood.

Text © Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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