In movies set in modern times, a director’s choice to use black and white might seem trite and artistically showy. In Schindler’s List, however, the black-and-white presentation effectively evokes the World War II era and deepens the impact of the story. Black and white also presents the filmmaker with the opportunity to use sparing color to highlight key scenes and signal shifts in time. For example, the opening full-color scene, one of only a handful of color scenes in the movie, fades into the next scene, in black and white. The shift plunges viewers into 1939, bringing them symbolically closer to the events and characters in the story. This artistic and psychological convention of bringing the audience back in time works well partly because it captures the way many people visualize World War II—through black-and-white images and film footage of the 1930s and 1940s. Although contemporary viewers are accustomed to full-color images and tend to consider such images to be more realistic than those in black and white, the black and white in Schindler’s List conveys an alternate but no less realistic version of life. The movie presents an eclectic mix of styles, such as film noir, which is associated with the great detective stories of the 1940s. The style links the film to that time period and serves to deepen viewers’ immersion in the historical setting.
The artistic advantage of black and white is that it heightens the impact of the film’s violence and highlights the duality of good and evil. The lighting and contrast in the film noir style enhance the brutality of each violent scene. For instance, when the one-armed man is shot in the head in the snowy streets of Kraków, his seemingly black blood spreads through the pure white snow, and the stark contrast in colors emphasizes the split between life and death, good and evil. In some terrifying scenes, such as the evacuation of the Kraków ghetto, the lighting is kept dark, conveying a sense of panic and confusion. The white faces of the dead in the streets contrast starkly against the murky background. The same contrast marks the pile of burning bodies in the Plaszów work camp: the white skulls stand out in the pile of ashes. The women’s faces in the shower scene at Auschwitz are bathed in white light as they stare up in terror at the showerheads. The contrast of light and dark also marks Schindler’s face, which is often half in shadow, reflecting his selfish dark side. His face becomes more fully lighted as he makes the transformation from war profiteer to savior. Schindler’s List might not have had the same visual and emotional impact had Spielberg made the film in color.