On SCHINDLER’S LIST And The Power Of Desaturating Tragedy

How Steven Spielberg's use of black and white enhances our empathy.

The very idea that Steven Spielberg could - and did - release both Schindler's List and Jurassic Park in the same year is an incredible display of his diversity and talent. Spielberg gave us one of the biggest, most exciting blockbusters of all time the same year that he delivered one of the most poignant and meaningful films of all time - neither feels as though it suffered for the existence of the other, and both films have endured as timeless classics in their own ways.

Spielberg's three-hour Holocaust drama is exceptionally stunning, not only in its striking black and white presentation, but in its emotional weight. The director's decision to present Schindler's List in black and white does the story a service no amount of acclaimed actors or elegant scripting ever could - the very nature of desaturating the tragedy of the Holocaust is viscerally confrontational, forcing us to examine the specific actions, emotions, and horrors of this time period for what they were and continue to be. Removing the element of color enhances the details and feelings, thus creating a startling marriage between what it is about and how it is about. That particular visual choice subtly dismisses the how, encouraging us to focus on the importance of the narrative without the fuss of color. In fact, to present Schindler's List in color would do this piece of history a disservice, lending this terrible moment in time a vividness that would undermine the pain, horror, and sorrow felt by the victims and survivors - and thus it would rob us of experiencing empathy for their plight.

Spielberg's use of black and white isn't merely a psychological tactic, either - the gorgeous look and feel of the film is on display from the opening sequence, in which Liam Neeson's Oskar Schindler sits in a nightclub, casually enjoying a cigarette the way only people in the '40s and '50s can, obscuring the bottom of his face with his hand and evoking classic Hollywood cinema. That specific visual idea works in direct contrast to the unnervingly joyful evening that follows, as Schindler courts the SS with food and drink and women, building connections for his own profit - and that very profiteering is what makes Schindler a complex protagonist. Like Ava DuVernay would much later with her depiction of LBJ in Selma, Spielberg's version of Schindler does not hail him as a flawless and selfless Jewish savior - he is an actual human being with all the natural flaws that entails. He is self-serving, egotistical, and ambitious, and understands the worth of other people only through their monetary value or how he can personally benefit from them.

As Schindler grows his business, that perception of value in his Jewish workers extends to an understanding of the value of their lives, and while he continues to cavort with the SS and the monstrous Amon Goeth, there is an underlying aim taking root in his conscience - a desire to manipulate the SS not only to his benefit, but to protect the lives of his Jewish workers. The more time he spends with his accountant, Itzhak Stern, and his devoted employees, the more he begins to see them as sympathetic people - when generalized as a mass group, the Nazis perceive the Jews in abstract, and thus they find it easy to stereotype and hate and objectively dismiss them. But a true appreciation for any person comes from intimate knowledge - the more time Schindler spends in his offices and interacting with his workers, the more he is able to perceive them as fellow human beings, each with their individual emotional spectrums, each just trying to survive.

Still, his daily interactions with the factory works and Stern aren't enough to fully sway his sympathies - much has been said and written about the little girl in the red coat, one of the only pieces of color throughout the three-hour film. The little girl is, like the rest of Schindler's List, rooted in reality. As Schindler watches the liquidation of the ghetto from his literal high horse on the hill above, he sees the SS slaughtering people indiscriminately, people who are only following their instinct to survive. One false move, one look to the left or the right, any vocal response at all, nothing and anything - it's all a death warrant to the SS. Again, Schindler perceives the Jews in a large, abstract group. It's easier to watch them die this way. But a tiny girl in a red coat catches his eye and he follows her as she's shuffled into line and then breaks free, unnoticed, fleeing to an empty house to hide under a bed. She disappears.

But it's that one life that forces Schindler to appreciate the true, human value of so many. All it takes is for us - any of us - to identify with one person among millions stricken with tragedy to inspire sympathy and incite change. Schindler was one man, and the little girl in the red coat was one girl, but in that moment a seed is planted and a man is called to action. The little girl in the red coat represents not only the millions of lives lost and the atrocities of the Holocaust, but in Spielberg's film she is a visual metaphor for empathy and the inspiration to act - she is a metaphor for the way a fleeting thought takes hold. We make choices every second of every day of every year, choices instigated by a split-second of thought - a decision is the moment when we embrace the memory of a fleeting thought and acknowledge that we had that thought for a reason.

Without the black and white presentation of Schindler's List, the little girl in the red coat might pass us by entirely, but this way we are forced to witness one victim among millions just as Schindler is compelled to see her. She is representative of those who survived and those who were lost, a strong idea embraced among the millions of thoughts we have each day. It's a moment so brief, a person so small - but it means everything.