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Bill Clinton and the Schindler's List effect

The release of Spielberg's critically-acclaimed movie came at a telling moment during the Balkan Civil Wars.

Steven Spielberg shooting Schindler's List.
A lighter moment on the set of Schindler's List.

On 1 December 1993 President Bill Clinton, at the time giving a speech about AIDS, said to his audience, "I went to see Schindler's List….I implore every one of you to go see it." Clinton was speaking the morning after he had viewed Steven Spielberg's movie during an invitation-only screening at the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

It is difficult today to appreciate the impact of Spielberg's movie version of Schindler's Ark on its release. Written by Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, the novel Schindler's Ark had become a Booker Prize-winner and was also awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction in 1983.

The novel tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party who becomes an unlikely hero by saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. It follows actual people and events, with fictional dialogue and scenes added by the author where exact details are unclear.

Steven Spielberg's 1993 movie adaptation of Keneally's book was an immediate box office and critical success and was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, of which it would win seven, including Best Picture (in itself a major achievement for Spielberg), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score.

Coming off the back of his heavily criticised 1987 adaptation of J. G. Ballard's acclaimed 1984 novel Empire of the Sun, Spielberg seemed at the time to be particularly focused on delivering a cinematic masterpiece that would wow the critics, whilst winning the key award (Best Picture) which had been evading him throughout his hugely successful cinematic career.

This was not Spielberg's first stab at respectable, potentially award-winning moviemaking. That came with his 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker's even more critically-acclaimed novel The Colour Purple, which, in Spielberg's big-screen version saw the pictorial and humanistic elements from walker's much loved gothic masterpiece played up, whilst its more challenging psycho-sexual elements were very much played down. The result was a movie that sweeps and emotes, but which fails to affect the (critical) audience in a meaningful or lasting way.

This is a charge that cannot be levelled at Schindler's List, which would, after Spielberg's unconfident missteps six years earlier with Empire of the Sun, hit its target with critics, audiences and politicians alike in 1993.

The movie, for those who have not seen it, is a searing combination of the Jewish experience in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, the lived reality by inmates of the concentration camps of Eastern Europe and the inhumanity of the German military forces (particularly the SS), as they embarked on the crazed violence involved in enacting the Final Solution.

Shot in stark black and white (somewhat in contrast to the lush colours of both Empire of the Sun and The Colour Purple), Schindler's List embraces, at its heart, an unflinching depiction of the violence unleashed on the Jews by the Nazis, the fatally compromised political morality that led to it, and how evil can manifest itself and be personified in the modern era. Watching Schindler's List today as on its release is a harrowing and challenging experience, something that Clinton touched upon after he viewed the movie in 1993.

Much commented upon at the time of its original release, is the portrayal in the movie by Ralph Fiennes of SS officer Amon Göth, who served as the Commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp in German-occupied Poland for most of the camp's existence.

Göth would be hanged after the war near the former camp site and Schindler's List depicts Göth's running of the Płaszów concentration camp and the authority he had over its inmates and his Nazi contemporaries.

Fiennes would go on to win a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the movie and was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (losing out to Tommy Lee Jones for his role as US Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive). Fiennes gives a nuanced performance as Göth that comes close to derailing the moral narrative in Schindler's List and which easily dominates the performances of Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley, playing Oskar Schindler and Schindler's Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern in the movie.

In Fiennes' portrayal of the man, Göth is presented as educated, charismatic and attractive, and as someone who has made peace with his genocidal responsibilities. It is a disturbing performance, bravely delivered, particularly within the thematic context of the movie.

At the time that Clinton was viewing and responding to Schindler's List, the US government, together with the United Nations and the countries of the European Union, was struggling with an effective policy response to the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, and particularly with what appeared at the time to be the roles of Serbia and Croatia is driving the violence that was shocking television viewers on an almost daily basis.