1993’s Schindler’s List serves as a major achievement in both film making and compositional music design. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, Schinder’s List has become the definitive motion picture account of the sheer horrors that embody the Holocaust. John William’s Academy-Award winning score played an imperative role in the film’s success and wide-spread resonance with audiences across the globe. William’s sorrowful melodies and haunting harmonies accompanied innumerable moments throughout the film, though perhaps most effectively in the Immolation Scene. Through exploring the style of music behind this scene, it’s accompanying sound effects, it’s mise-en-scene, and it’s transition into a subsequent dialogue, an understanding of the Holocaust much deeper than that present visually in a book or lecture is gained.
At the 2hr:13min mark in the film, a strange form of precipitation begins to fall over the city of Krakow, Poland. A non-diegetic orchestral theme slowly begins to play as civilians of the town confusedly try to identify what is falling on them. The theme immediately evokes an immense sense of dread and sadness, as the audience viewing the film most likely possesses the knowledge as to what the substance is. The peculiar substance is ash, as Oskar Schindler discovers upon close examination (2:14:02). The mise-en-scene of a mass immolation of “more than 10,000 Jews” comes into view accompanied by a historical footnote of the event known as the Krakow Ghetto massacre. The theme intensifies as the camera pans the thick black smoke pouring from the massive piles of burning flesh. Diegetic sounds of Nazi anti-Semitic shouts, roaring flames, the clangs of shovels, and sporadic gunfire add to the mise-en-scene of utter human-induced evil.
As the camera pans Jewish workers literally digging their own graves, a Jewish harmonic choir joins the Immolation Theme, perhaps illustrating the senseless loss of not only their lives, but of their culture. The poignant choir accompaniment is delivered in the Hebrew language, further personifying this senseless loss of life and culture. At the 2:15:50 mark, the Immolation theme fades in intensity a bit as Schindler and Commandant Goeth casually discuss the “inconvenience” of liquidating the entire Krakow Ghetto in this fashion. The theme and accompanying choir takes precedent of the narrative again around the 2:16:20 mark, where Oskar observes the red coat of a perished Jewish child being wheeled into the flames. As the film was shot entirely in black and white, it’s worth pointing out that this is the only scene in which color is used to dramatic effect. A close-up shot of the clearly horrified and disgusted Schindler in response to this harrowing scene, brings the Immolation Theme to a measured close. (2:16:18). Standalone, the scene is that of pure human tragedy and senseless violence.
However, with John William’s brilliant use of a culturally-driven, hymnal-like Immolation Theme accompanying the horrific actions of the mise-en-scene, deeper meaning is added to the scene. The audience, while perhaps not understanding the words sung, is still emotionally gripped by the intense nature of the choir and its effect of further humanizing the Jewish people being slaughtered in the scene, in lieu of the Nazi’s best attempt to strip that of them. A lyric delivered by the choir in the Immolation Scene is translated to mean “With Our Lives, We Give Life,” illustrating the resolve of these individuals in combating the brutality enacted upon them.
Upon the fading of the Immolation Scene, a direct musical transition initiates the powerful dialogue exchanged between Schindler and his Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern. Schindler discusses his tearful wishes of “this all to end” with Stern, of whom is destined to be deported to the Auschwitz death camp. A quiet, flute rendition of the main theme of entire film (Schindler’s List Theme) is delivered during the dialogue; a quite noticeable juxtaposition of the previously intense Immolation Theme (2:17:20 – 2:18:40). The unobtrusive, yet somber melody of the flute during this scene allows the audience to focus on the emotional dialogue between the two characters, while still complimenting the despondency of the scene.
The analysis of these two continuous, yet very different scenes, instill both a deep understanding and appreciation of the complete tragedy inherent in a film of this nature. Through close observation of the style of the non-diegetic music driving a scene, its diegetic sound effects, and its overall mise-en-scene, the audience gains an emotional connection they may not have had through just the shocking visual images alone. Though this point is perhaps illustrated best in William’s work in Schindler’s List, it is typically the case in all of film. The Holocaust is an event that cannot be fully comprehended through pictures or statistics, rather, must be felt through human culture, emotion, and personal identification.