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Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List is a story set during the Holocaust which happened in World War II. Though the plight of the Jews at this time is generally known and understood by most of us, we really can only imagine the horrors of living amid such awful violence and experiencing such fear.
Spielberg's choice to film all but four scenes in black and white rather than color is obviously a deliberate one, and there seem to me to be many good reasons for it.
First, as the opening, full-color scene fades into black and white, the audience makes the dramatic transition to the story's setting. We are immersed in 1939 both visually and through the events unfolding on the screen. Black-and-white images just seem more realistic for that time and that place; they evoke a past time, which is exactly where the movie takes us.
In fact, the primary images we are familiar with, or at least have seen, from this era look just like the screen we are watching. The photographs and film footage of this era are in black and white, so it is fitting that we experience this story the same way. It gives a certain sense of gritty realism to an already gritty setting. Obviously we live our lives in a full-color world, but we are immersed in a different world when color is removed from it.
Another reason Spielberg may have used black-and-white film is that it serves as a kind of underlying commentary on good and evil. Clearly these two things are vividly portrayed in this film, and this decision makes the choices quite clear. In one scene, blood runs from a man's head and into the snow. The blood, of course, looks black, and the contrast it makes on the white snow is compelling without being repulsive, as pools of red blood can sometimes be. This image is a clear contrast between life and death, as well.
When victims are about to die in the showers, their faces are illuminated; they are terrified, but the purity of their innocence is highlighted by the whiteness which shines on them. In contrast, whenever there are scenes of confusion and chaos there is also shadow and darkness. Dead faces and skulls are white, a stark contrast to the darkness of their surroundings. Even Schindler's face is often rather shadowed, indicating both sides of himself; as he makes the transition from selfishness to selflessness, those shadows lift and his face is shown in the light rather than in the shadows.
Third, at the end of the full-color opening scene, the Sabbath candle fades from the colors of flame into black and white. Symbolically, this extinguishing is not just the end of a ceremony but an end to the Jewish faith, at least for a time. We have countless accounts of Jews during this awful torment who believed God had forsaken them, had forgotten that they were His chosen people, and we understand. The extinguished flame represents that.
Later, in Schindler's warehouse, the Jews are able to relight the candle both of the Sabbath and of their faith, and that scene is filmed in color. Symbolically, then, color is hope and faith, and the lack of color is hopelessness and loss of faith.
In the end, Spielberg's use of black and white film is effective in transporting the audience to the time of these atrocities, delivering a clear and visual message about good and evil, and symbolically depicting the hopelessness and despair of the Jews and others during this time.
For more interesting insights and analysis on this story, be sure to visit the excellent eNotes sites attached below.
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