It's rare that the photography of a film is quite as moving as what you will find in "Schindler's List." Of course this film tackles one of the most harrowing events in modern history, so it's only fitting that the images would be impactful. Yet, Spielberg and Kaminski offer such incredible sensitivity toward the subject matter while painting a visceral picture of the Holocaust in a precarious balancing act that only these two masters could accomplish.
It's easy to imagine how a film that unabashedly addresses the Holocaust could alienate many viewers. Especially when you consider that this film was released less than fifty years after the end of WWII and many survivors were able to watch it. There wasn't the sense of distance that you would have in a film like "12 Years a Slave" (2013), which took place over 150 years before its release or "Exodus: Gods and Kings" (2014), which is set in Biblical times. That proximity to the material puts an awful lot of pressure on the choices of imagery that goes into the film. Spike Lee talks about how he had to go through a similar process of decision-making for his 1997 documentary "4 Little Girls" about a group of black girls who were killed in an explosion in a church during the Civil Rights Movement. He explains how he went back and forth on whether to show the images of the girls' bodies in the film and whether it would add or detract from the overall message. I'd bet the question of how much to show frequently came up in the making of "Schindler's List" and even after they decide to shoot something, the follow-up question of how exactly to do it still presents itself. The film could have easily become a Tarantino-style blood bath, and I don't think anyone would have appreciated that.
The first great decision they made in photographing the film was to choose the semi-documentary look. Right off the bat, it gives everything on screen a sense of authenticity, which is so key to avoiding alienating the audience. The black and white handheld cinematography makes it feel like they went back into the 1940's to shoot the film. This is coming from the person who made "E.T." (1982) and "Jurassic Park" (1993), so you know it's within his ability to shoot in a pristine classic Hollywood aesthetic, but he chooses to embrace every flaw and shake of the camera instead. It's important to note, however, that they didn’t shoot the entire film that way. In general, there's a pattern that doc-style camera work is reserved for scenes when we're right there with the Jews, experiencing the terrors of Nazism with them. When the narrative turns to Schindler and Goeth more isolated from the masses of people under their control, there's a tendency toward reservation with the camera. We see more shots on tripod and dolly. The camera doesn't simply swing around to follow the constantly moving action. It feels more precise. That's not to say the handheld parts aren't thought out, but rather, they don't feel like they are. What this dichotomy of styles offers the filmmakers is that they can use each one to emphasize distinct moments. The run and gun style offers an earnest mood to much of the film. On the other hand, there's a moment when Schindler speaks to Itzhak Stern just before they are slated to separate. He tells Stern that they should have a drink once the war is over, but Stern, unsure of his future, decides to have his drink right then and there. Spielberg and Kaminski shoot this in a very minimalistic close up and it's by far the most powerful choice they could have made. With all the hectic camera moves that precede that scene, to slow it down and emphasize how Stern is quietly powerless over his fate makes all the difference.
Throughout the film they shoot the brutality that ensues in a very objective and matter of fact way. They move quickly from one person to the next, highlighting the reality of how cavalier the Nazis were with Jewish lives, and they rarely hold on graphic image of a single individual for long. In comparison "12 Years" practically luxuriates in the violence conducted by slave owners. In that film, Steve McQueen forces you to spend time watching the main character just inches from hanging by his neck and later depicts a long scene of another slave being relentlessly whipped in graphic detail. If Spielberg had employed a similar style of photography for "Schindler's List," he likely would've been met with a great deal of criticism over the gratuity of the violence. In photographing this film, they showed a strong understanding of the reality of the situation, which was integral to making it come to life. One can only imagine how another team of filmmakers could have botched this story with unfounded sentiment and an over-indulgence in graphic imagery.
Unlike many of his later collaborations with Spielberg, Kaminski maintains a very naturalistic look for almost all of the lighting in the film. One of the instances in which he diverges from that norm is in a scene when Schindler goes to visit Helen Hirsch and he motivates the light from a single practical source directly above her. In multiple scenes in Helen’s semi-private basement area we can see the harsh illumination from that light beaming down over the characters in the room. In this scene in particular, the light sways around and Kaminski even allows it to blow out at times, heightening the tension. To Goeth Helen was different from all of the other Jews, so it was really a strong choice to put her in her own environment, and light her differently from everyone else in the entire film. It becomes clear before long, that the cinematographic choices are doing a lot to make this film the masterpiece that it is known to be.