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"Schindler’s List": Telling a Story Through Editing and Cinematography

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The film's tagline: "Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire."

The film's tagline: "Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire."

Emotion Shines in Spielberg's "Schindler's List"

Steven Spielberg is arguably one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He's pretty much been one of the great pioneers of cinema since the 1970s. Spielberg is best known for presenting spectacle on the big screen with hits like Jaws, Raiders of The Ark, and Jurassic Park. But he shines in his craft in making the audience feel emotions with films like The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, and Amistad. Schindler's List easily fits in the latter category.

Based on the 1982 Booker Prize-winning novel Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally, the movie follows Oscar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German businessman in the midst of making a fortune after arriving in Krakow in 1939. He joins the Nazi Party for political reasons and staffs his factory with Jewish workers.

But when the SS begins exterminating Jews in the Krakow ghetto, Schindler has a change of heart and arranges protection for the workers to keep his factory in operation. But by doing this, he's also saving innocent lives in the process.

The year 1993 was big in Spielberg's career. He had already made two films during that time with Schindler's List and Jurassic Park. They are great films in their own right, but they're radically different in terms of tone.

Jurassic Park was an event film and is considered a popcorn classic that defined blockbuster filmmaking. Schindler's List is more of a serious movie that was a contender for Oscar season. Spielberg had done dramas with The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, but Schindler's List was different from those two because this was a film set in the Holocaust. Thankfully, Spielberg doesn't shy away from the horrors that took place during that time.

Schindler's List would gain international acclaim from critics, winning seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Director for Spielberg himself.

This essay will explore the editing and cinematography of the film. Some of the videos in this article contain material that is not suitable for young viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.

1. Cinematography

Let's break down the awarding-winning cinematography.

The most obvious thing about the cinematography is that the film was shot in black and white. For a movie set in the Holocaust, a traditional color palette wouldn't seem appropriate for the story. So Spielberg shot it in black and white and gave the film a documentary feel.

Apart from the opening and ending sequence, black and white give the movie a timeless feel. The film looks gorgeous from a visual standpoint.

But the film being shot in black and white is the cherry on top of the film's visual feast. Polish cinematographer Janusz Kamiński gave the film an epic feel. Every shot means something. And the framing of each scene has an impact. Let's look at three examples.

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Example 1: Wide Shot, Long Take, Close Up

In this scene, Commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Finnes) chooses Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz) to be his personal housekeeper. And after that, he executes the Jewish worker in charge of the construction of the barracks.

Around the 1:36 mark, we get a closeup on Amon's face, making the character more intimidating to the Jewish workers.

Then the Jewish worker argues with Amon about the barracks being torn down. And it is shot wide with everything else happening in the background. This shot lasts for one minute without cutting to different angles, making the scene feel organic as it progresses. While the argument is going on, the workers in the background are still doing their jobs. This implies that some of them are capable of standing up for the woman, but they can't. Because of Goeth and other officers being there, they can execute a worker for disobeying.

The argument ends with Amon ordering for the execution of the worker. The camera closes in on her face, signaling that she has accepted her fate.

In short, the visual elements in this scene work to establish three things:

  1. The ruthlessness of Amon Goeth's character
  2. The epic scope of the setting
  3. The unpredictable nature of working during the Holocaust

Example 2: Framing

Here's a shot enforcing Amon Goeth's character. In the labor camp, the Jewish workers line up to receive instructions for their jobs at the labor camp. But amidst all of that is Goeth preparing to shoot some of them. On the top of his villa, he is framed in front of the workers, making him a superior force to anyone who defies him.


Example 3: Establishing Shot

An establishing shot is a shot that sets the context for another scene coming up, giving the audience visual information as to where the action will be taking place later. In other words, it establishes the geography of a scene.

This shot takes place during the emotional train scene where the women board a train thinking they would work for Schindler, but they get on the wrong train.

But going back to the establishing shot of the mountains, it enforces the unpredictability of the situation.

If you follow these examples closely, the cinematography would mean something to your film.

2. Editing

Let's break down the editing. Editing can make or break a movie. If a film is too choppy or too long, then the audience will be frustrated. An editor has to know what footage to keep in and what to cut out.

Schindler's List has a runtime of three hours and 17 minutes. Editor Michael Khan was tasked to make sure the film didn't drag on for the shake of it. Thankfully, Khan and Spielberg made sure that the movie's run time was worth it.


Warning: the clip below can be difficult to watch.

Where the editing truly shines for me is its use of cross-cutting.

A perfect example of this is a scene in which Amon comforts Helen. While this is happening, there is a Jewish wedding at the labor camps, and Oscar Schindler is enjoying a party at Amons' villa. You can feel the tension in this scene because of the vileness of Amon's character. We have seen him shooting workers, including children, without rhyme or reason. And Helen has become his soul infatuation despite the abuse she's been taking from him.

In the scene's final moments, it cuts between the party and the conversation. The lightbulb being smashed is a transition to Amon hitting Helen. It then cuts to Schindler enjoying himself (unaware that Amons' abuse to Helen). Three things are happening in this: the wedding, the party, and the abuse. The abuse portion is the focus while the wedding and party are secondary.

This scene establishes that even in the happy times during the Holocaust, there can be a distraction from what's really going on under the surface.

Final Thoughts

Film editing and cinematography are important when making a movie. Editing holds the film together while the cinematography crafts the story visually. But for telling a story with much emotion and depth, both of those things have to work together to make it happen. And Schindler's List is a perfect example of how editing and cinematography are important in cinema.

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