There’s really no questioning the fact that Schindler’s List is one of the greatest American films ever made. It’s a piece that's chock full of emotionally powerful moments that stay with you long after the lights have come up. One image in particular, however, stands out for me as a truly iconic and haunting at the same time… the little girl in the red coat.
As with most great scenes, you really need to understand its context to truly appreciate it. The film opens up during the early stages of World War 2 after Nazi Germany has invaded Poland and is in the process of relocating Polish Jews to the Kraków Ghetto. A German businessman by the name of Oskar Schindler intends to profit off of the war effort and bribes Nazi officials in order to win military contracts. With the help of Jewish businessmen, Schindler is able to procure funds to start a factory and hires Polish Jews to work in his factory for wages that are in turn given to the Germany army. Although Schindler’s workers are allowed to leave the Ghetto and are somewhat protected from the horrors other Jews face, Schindler himself is still doing all of this for his own personal benefit rather than out of some altruistic intention. The sequence with the little girl in the red coat marks a turning point in the story for Schindler, which only adds to the emotional complexity of the piece. Check out the scene:
The first thing you notice, of course, is that the film was shot in black-and-white. This choice was made to heighten the documentary style feel of the cinematography. It also makes the introduction of color in this scene an extremely powerful moment. The girl’s red coat is the only time (not including the credits sequence and Shabat candles) that color appears in the film. Before I delve any deeper, here’s a quote from Spielberg himself about the image:
America and Russia and England all knew about the Holocaust when it was happening, and yet we did nothing about it. We didn't assign any of our forces to stopping the march toward death, the inexorable march toward death. It was a large bloodstain, primary red color on everyone's radar, but no one did anything about it. And that's why I wanted to bring the color red in.
Spielberg has stated many times that shooting this film was a deeply emotional process for him, and you definitely get a sense of that from the quote above. Using Spielberg’s quote as a jumping off point, the girl in the red coat is the most obvious symbol in the entire film. In this scene, she walks around seemingly oblivious to the horrors unfolding around her. In a way, she represents Spielberg’s own feelings on the inaction of world powers in stopping this genocide from unfolding. They were blind to the horrors unfolding right before their very eyes. And, as Spielberg mentions, red is symbolic of a “bloodstain”. By bringing in such a distinct color over a relatively small area in a black-and-white film, you really feel that this is a stain you can never wash away.
Children are associated with innocence and, in this scene, the little girl also represents the innocence of the Jews being rounded up and murdered in the streets of the Ghetto. Getting back to Oskar Schindler for a moment, this scene is a literal representation of what his character is starting to understand and finally accept. He sees the innocence and purity in this young girl in the midst of all this chaos (which is a very striking contrast) and realizes that these people are just as innocent as her. It’s a horrible reality that’s made all the worse for him a later in the film as he sees the girl’s dead body being carted off. For Schindler, these are not merely strangers or workers in his factory anymore, they’re human beings who are being murdered by a truly sinister force. His internal conflict is playing out right before his eyes in the external conflict taking place below him.
The cinematography seen here beautifully heightens these emotions. Much of the scene is filmed in long shots. We as an audience are seeing things unfold from Schindler’s POV atop the overlook. We view action unfolding, but are never directly in the middle of them. It quite literally turns us into onlookers as these unspeakable horrors unfold and we feel as Schindler does in this very moment… completely helpless. It also makes a very bold statement to the audience. It's as if the camera is asking what you would do at the moment? In an indirect way, it makes us take on a level of guilt as we stand there and watch with Schindler. Again, it's the exact emotion our main character is felling as well. Schindler’s POV is also from an elevated position, which mirrors his feelings prior to this point. He’s a businessman and turning a profit is his sole concern. He’s above all of the conflict and bloodshed going on with this war, because he’s merely an opportunist. The use of the camera here directly serves his dramatic character shift.
You also can’t ignore the music played throughout the scene. Like the little girl, it’s in sharp contrast to the brutality of the images displayed onscreen. It’s also not an accident that children are singing the song. It really hammers home the theme of innocence that the little girl encapsulates. The somber tune also sets the tragic tone of the scene and creates a very haunting mood. It’s definitely designed to work together with the other elements at play here to make the moment stick with you long after the credits roll.
Another interesting note is that the little girl in the red coat is based on an actual person named Roma Ligocka, who, unlike the character, survived the Holocaust. She, however, was not actually involved in the making of the film. Instead, the character was constructed from the memories of Holocaust survivors Spielberg had interviewed prior to filming. Roma was known around the Ghetto for her unmistakable red coat. She actually saw the film without knowing she was in it and was shocked to see "herself" on the big screen. All of this happened purely by accident, since Spielberg was piecing bits and pieces together from many sources.
Schindler's List is a monumental piece of filmmaking. It's a harrowing and extremely powerful film that has brought many grown men to tears. Seriously, the final scene with Oskar is one of the most moving endings I have ever seen. Schindler's List a testament to just how great of a filmmaker Steven Spielberg truly is. It's one that I think everyone should watch at least once.