Compare and contrast the lavish costumes used in Steven Spielberg's movies Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List to create not only an entertaining product of visual extremes, but also an explanation of human conscience.
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Given the subject matter and locales used in the filming of both "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," one would be hard pressed to use the description "lavish" to describe the costumes Steven Spielberg and his costume designes, Anna Biedzycka Sheppard for "Schindler" and Joana Johnston for "Saving," designed for those two films. One, a wrenching story about the Holocaust, the other about a squad of American soldiers in World War II, hardly qualify as "lavish" in the sense that a film about Elizabethan England might.
When designing costumes for a film, especially a "period" film that takes place in a different place and time, the costume designer paintstakingly researches photographs, paintings and written descriptions of the clothes worn in the time portrayed. In the case of Spielberg's two films, the research involved photographs from one of the most horrific periods in human history. To the extent possible, film directors, including Spielberg, will have "technical advisors" on hand to point out inaccuracies or to make suggestions on how to make a scene look more authentic. That role extends to the apparel worn by the actors.
In a recent book on costume design in films, Deborah Nadoolman Landis interviewed prominent costume designers from the film industry. One of those interviewed was Joana Johnston about her experience designing costumes for "Saving Private Ryan":
"On 'Saving Private Ryan,' my [Johnston's] father -- who fought at the end of World War II aged 19 -- came to the set a few times and managed to tell Steven Spielberg that the scenes were totally realistic; it was really sweet the bridging of the worlds."
Costime design is only component of filmmaking that can be used to convey information intended to have a visceral reaction on the part of the audience. It is, however, an important one. The scenes in "Schindler's List" depicting the once middle class, now destitute Jews being marched to the concentration camps shows the victims attired in clothes clearly more suited to their once comfortable lifestyle. The contrast of middle class clothes and the now wretched conditions under which these people are now subjected is striking. More imposing is the use of concentration camp attire to illustrate the depths to which these people have descended at the hands of the Nazis. Contrast the ragged clothes of the Jews with the opulent attire and surroundings of the German Army officers and their wives and girlfriends; the difference in their relative lives is no more stark than they could have imagined.
In "Saving Private Ryan," the costumes are overwhelmingly confined to military uniforms worn by American and German soldiers. Besides the obvious attention to detail on the part of Johnston, one cannot miss the symbolism of the German uniforms with their Nazi era adornments. The mere visibility of such symbols has a visceral reaction on many people, especially those who survived the war.
A major contrast between the costumes designed for the two films is the civilian nature of the Holocaust -- in effect, German uniforms versus Jewish civilian attire -- as opposed to U.S. versus German military uniforms. There is no question on which side of the fight lies virtue and on which lies evil.
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