My Shame List: Schindler's List (1993)

"You've never seen [fill in the blank]?!"

That's always the response. You mention you haven't seen whatever film has been brought up, and those who have seen it respond with a mixture of surprise and outrage. (The ones who also haven't seen it usually keep quiet, the cowards.)

Heavy-duty film buffs have a tendency to assume that any movie they've seen has been seen by all the other film buffs, while the more casual moviegoers figure that if they've seen something, then surely a film critic has. But that isn't true, obviously. Every movie lover, no matter how thorough or obsessive, has something that causes him secret shame, some title that would shock his friends to the core and make them question everything they believed in if they knew he hadn't seen it.

The threshold is different for everyone. One friend is astonished to learn I've never seen The French Connection -- but she's never seen Casablanca, which is one of my favorite movies! Another friend has seen both of those, and can't believe there's anyone who hasn't -- and yet he's never seen Toy Story! (Are you kidding me?? Who hasn't seen Toy Story?!) And none of us have seen Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, which makes the foreign-film enthusiast's head explode. But has that art-house snob seen Anchorman? NOPE. And so on.

I used to be self-conscious about the gaps in my movie experience, worrying that it damaged my credibility as a movie-writer-about if people perceived me as less informed than themselves. Then I got less self-conscious and more pro-active: "Yeah, yeah, I know, I should be ashamed of myself. It's on my list!" My "list" was figurative, though, a mental grouping of films I'd missed that it seemed like I ought to see, if only because everyone else had.

Now my Shame List is literal.

Also, I am no longer ashamed. Because you know what? Nobody has seen everything. Even if there were some hypothetical person who had seen literally every film ever made, there would have been a time in his life when he hadn't, unless he was born with everything already downloaded into his head. (Note to science: work on this.) Everybody sees everything for the first time sometime.

No, the shame for a self-professed movie buff would be in not having seen something significant and having no interest in doing so. There's no shame in ignorance -- only in being content to remain ignorant.

Well, I am not content! To compile my Shame List, I scoured the Internet for lists of notable movies, looking for reminders of titles I'd missed. My sources included the AFI's best 100 movies of all time, the IMDb top 250, the top box-office earners in history (plus the year-by-year box-office lists), Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" series, Best Picture winners and nominees, lists of cult favorites and underground classics, and more.

I didn't note everything I hadn't seen, though -- only the ones I hadn't seen that I felt like I should have seen, either for film-critic-history-scholarly reasons or cultural ones. For example, The Life of Emile Zola won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1937, but that's the only context in which I've ever heard it mentioned. Even hardcore movie nerds don't talk about it. The only reason you would watch that movie is if you were trying to watch all the Best Picture winners. So that's not on my list. But Dirty Dancing is there -- not because everyone should see it at some point in their lives, but because it seems like everyone has seen it.

My film-scholar friends are appalled that I haven't seen The Red Shoes or Brazil. My regular-movie-lover friends are horrified that I haven't seen Edward Scissorhands or Trading Places. Both varieties of shame are represented on the list.

To determine the order in which I should watch my Shame List, I put it online and let people rate each title on a scale of 1-10 according to how egregious it is that I haven't seen it. (You can still vote! Please do!) Unsurprisingly, the highest-ranked film, with an average Shame Score of 8.43, was Schindler's List. That omission surprises both the film historians and the regular joes: it's on all the lists of the greatest movies in history, plus it won Best Picture, plus it was a box-office hit, plus it came out less than 20 years ago.

"You've never seen Schindler's List?!"

I have now!

My Shame List #1: Schindler's List (1993)

The shaming.

(This week's guest scolder: Eugene Novikov, of Film Blather!)

Eric, I get that you're far from the only film aficionado who's back-burnered seeing Schindler's List for nearly two decades. What I don't understand is why. Is it that it's in black and white? Are you all Nazis? Do you fear Liam Neeson? What puzzles me most is that, leaving aside the fact that Schindler's List is a full-on masterpiece -- one of the all-time greatest dramatizations of history -- it's not a difficult film. The story is uplifting, a testament to selflessness, goodness, and humanity in the most inhuman imaginable circumstances. The movie is slick and straightforwardly entertaining, in typical Spielbergian fashion; its three hours fly by. John Williams provides a jaunty, Dixieland-inflected score. In short, unlike with Andrei Rublev or Berlin Alexanderplatz or something, you really have no excuse with this one. I insist that you remedy this omission at once.

Why hadn't I seen it before?

As I've discussed my Shame List with friends and colleagues and Twitter the past few weeks, I've noticed a recurring theme: Schindler's List is on a lot of people's lists. It makes sense, really. If you didn't see it when it was in theaters ... well, when would you see it? When's the right time to plop down on the ol' couch and pop in a DVD of Steven Spielberg's three-hour black-and-white Holocaust drama? On a date? Movie night with the guys? Lazy Sunday afternoon?

How much of it had I seen?

Not a bit, except for the brief clips you see in Oscar montages and Ralph Fiennes retrospectives and such.

What did I already know about it before I watched it?

- It stars Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, discrediting my theory that they are the same person.

- Schindler is a Nazi, but his list is the good kind of list, not the scary kind.

- It is in black-and-white except for one part where a little girl has a flower that's in color, for Symbolism. [This was wrong. It was the girl's dress. Wasn't there a black-and-white movie where a girl's flower was in color? Am I hallucinating?]

- It was released a few months after Spielberg's Jurassic Park, and used a similar mix of CGI and animatronics to bring the Nazis to life.

- It won the Academy Award for Best Picture, even though it came out the same year as Mrs. Doubtfire.

The watching.

Eugene's sentiments have been echoed by many others: Despite being a "Holocaust movie," Schindler's List is not a chore to watch. In fact, another friend of ours said he considers it "the most thoroughly entertaining thing Spielberg [has] ever made." Now, that's nonsense, obviously, if only because of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But I understand what he means. Instead of reading like a dry history lesson or a gruesome litany of the horrors of the Holocaust, Schindler's List has a rather straightforward good-man-in-trying-circumstances plot, with a never-better Liam Neeson at the center of it. The heroes and villains are clearly defined -- maybe a little too clearly, actually, with Ralph Fiennes doing what sounds like a Dr. Strangelove impersonation as main Nazi baddie -- and the story is simple. The violence is shocking, but realistically so, and not gratuitous.

I didn't know about the very end of the film, where the survivors from the list, accompanied by the actors who portrayed them, put stones on Oskar Schindler's grave. Already emotionally weakened by Schindler's breakdown at the end of the war ("I didn't do enough!") I became a sobbing wreck at this poignant sight. Knowing that all of this was based on a true story was one thing. To actually see the people whose lives he saved paying tribute to him was quite another. What an ennobling, inspiring message.

It seems to me that Spielberg is one of the very, very few directors who could have made this film. He's always respectful of the subject matter, yet not so reverential that it gets stuffy. Even though the movie is "entertaining" in the common sense (it has suspense, action, dramatic conflict, comic relief, and so forth), there's never a hint of crass commercialism. "In memory of the more than six million Jews murdered" -- that's what the final title card says, and you believe that that's why Spielberg made the movie, plain and simple.

And while many people who set out to make Important Films about Important Things often fall up their own butts and get heavy-handed and sanctimonious, Spielberg doesn't. The bit with the real survivors at the grave site could have easily come across as a cheap emotional gimmick, if it hadn't been preceded by three hours of serious, competent, respectable storytelling. Who else could have pulled off such a marvelous combination of social importance, triumphant themes, history lessons, and good old-fashioned movie-making? OK, Brett Ratner, sure. Obviously him. But who else?