Many years from now when the history books are written on movie legends from the latter half of the twentieth century, one name in particular should typify with distinction between merely ‘working in the business’ and ‘creating true movie art’, and that name is undeniably Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s gifts as a storyteller are so immense, so comprehensive and so consistently satisfying that he remains the enduring master craftsman of his generation. Hollywood has had a curious love/hate relationship with the man; beloved because his movies always ring registers around the world, yet perhaps quietly reviled by his contemporaries who cannot begin to challenge his success, popularity or the diversity within his body of work.
Like Cecil B. DeMille, Spielberg encompasses that rare intuitiveness in knowing what the public wants to see even before they know they want to see it for themselves. Such undiluted clairvoyance alone is mindboggling. But let the record also show that Spielberg has consistently delivered the goods. Now, Spielberg’s pundits will argue that he is little more than a popcorn salesman, catering to the masses with homogenized mainstream pabulum guaranteed to fit most any commercial taste. But this argument is only well placed if one attempts to critique Spielberg’s art as simply that – Saturday matinee drivel. Certainly, not all of his projects have adhered to that rich tapestry classified as cinema art. Still, a remarkable selection of his films has endured both the test of time and the snarl of criticism always afforded burgeoning genius.
Lest we forget that this is the man who redefined the term ‘blockbuster’ with the release of Jaws in 1975; the director who gave us thought provoking and emotionally sensitive sci-fi melodramas like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, who debuted Indiana Jones, astonished his fans and naysayers alike by breaking away from the sci-fi adventure mold at the height of his own popularity in it to startle with introspective and heartfelt dramas like The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and Saving Private Ryan; dazzled with such technological breakthroughs as Jurassic Park. Amidst this weighty directorial career – currently totaling 51 features - Spielberg has also either written or executive produced such eclectic box office dynamos as The Goonies, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Band of Brothers.
No, when Spielberg’s time on earth has ended he will have left behind an indelible legacy of showmanship; compelling, heartfelt, astonishingly clairvoyant, and, utterly memorable. The industry indeed owes him a great debt. Yet, Hollywood has honored Spielberg – the director – but once; arguably for his most thought-provoking and passionate work to date: Schindler’s List (1993). In retrospect the honor is well deserved. But is it also too little too late? Relying on the historical record and a sprinkling of artistic license Schindler’s List accounts one of the darkest chapters in human history; beginning with the Nazi occupation of Poland and one industrialist’s manifesto to save as many Jewish exiles as he can from certain death in their concentration camps. Spielberg’s attention to detail is impeccable; Allan Starski’s production design and Janusz Kaminski’s elegantly stark cinematography resurrecting the period in all its terrorizing moral ambiguity.
Schindler's List is often erroneously and rather unfairly compared to Shoah (1985); the French documentary account of the holocaust. The comparison is moot. One should no more attempt to understand Spielberg’s movie as a companion piece, or even a rebuttal to Shoah than say, mark an association between Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Those seeking to draw out such a parallel ought first to appreciate Schindler’s List – despite its historical content – as a work of ‘fiction’; meaning that it attempts through dramatization to create an artistic milieu standing alongside with history without actually reporting to be history itself.
Spielberg's greatest gift as a film maker has always been his ability to be frankly honest and sincere with the audience without becoming preachy or coy. His best films entertain in unexpected ways with a candor and charm that quietly sneaks in the unvarnished truths about humanity and life. From this perspective alone Schindler’s List is a marvel, its educative qualities never impugning the film’s ability to entertain. The art in the exercise effectively blurs, though never obfuscates the line between fact and fiction, each in tandem with the other. Perhaps owing to the severity of his subject matter, as well as his own moral investment on the project Spielberg tends to tread exceptionally lightly on his artistic license.
Based on Thomas Keneally’s book, Steven Zallian’s screenplay begins in 1939 with the relocation of Polish Jews to the Krakow ghetto. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a roguish playboy and businessman from Moravia with a devil-may-care penchant for high living. A member of the Nazi party, Oskar latches onto the idea of establishing a manufacturing plant to make army mess kits during the war. Knowing absolutely nothing of how to begin this entrepreneurial venture Oskar hires an official from Krakow’s Judenrat to broker a relationship with Jewish laborers; exploiting them for his pure profit. Oskar also embarks on a campaign of lavish bribes. His rouse works and he is afforded the status of ‘Herrr Direktor’ – an appointment that suggests a certain level of autonomy to operate precisely as he wants right under the noses of Nazi officials.
By his nature Schindler is a rather lazy man who would rather carouse with cabaret girls than put in an honest day’s work. However, what he ends up doing, thanks in part to his bookkeeper Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) is to save many otherwise slated for extermination in the camps by having them listed as ‘essential workers’ for the German war machine. To procure his favors while pretending to be on the side of the Reich, Oskar befriends S.S. Lieutenant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) – a brutal borderline psychotic who derives a warped strength and purpose from the most perverse pleasures; inflicting pain, fear and death on his Jewish prisoners. Goeth has come to Kraków to oversee construction of the Płaszów concentration camp. Upon its completion the ghettos are liquidated by the Nazis who arbitrarily murder anyone uncooperative and foolish enough to defy them. This massacre, observed by Schindler and his latest paramour from a hilltop on horseback, has a profound effect on Oskar.
Yet Spielberg does the film a great service by creating an even more conflicted crisis of conscience in Amon Goeth. He suffers from a distorted sense of self, a misguided fury directed at the Jews and a warped sexual frustration that at once draws him to desire a Jewish peasant from his camp to become his lover. Yet, this strange addiction also compels him to terrorize and beat her into submission after suffering a nervous breakdown. What makes the madman…well…mad is at the heart of this character critique and Spielberg and Fiennes amply flesh out Goeth’s abused logic that could so completely disintegrate a man into a beast.
Oskar goads Goeth with his own philosophy; imparting that the greatest power afforded any man is in his ability to pardon or forgive another for his indiscretions. Goeth is confounded by this mantra, but tests it on the young Jewish manservant he has employed to look after his house. But when the servant slips up, Goeth first pardons, then cold-bloodedly shoots him dead in the yard with his high powered rifle.
At first, Goeth is easily won over by Schindler’s aggressive charm which he misperceives as sycophantically loyal, if manipulative. However, soon Goeth begins to suspect that Oskar’s performance may be just that – a trick to keep the Nazis at bay. For his part Oskar pretends not to care about the byproduct of his philanthropy - the Jews. But along the way he slowly begins to rediscovers his own humanity - briefly reconciling with his estranged wife, Emilie (Caroline Goodall). Oskar's penultimate realization comes too late, though nevertheless profound: that in his pursuit for riches he becomes an honorable man - his silent objection speaking in defense of the defenseless.
As it becomes increasingly apparent that the balance of power during the war has shifted against Germany Oskar makes ready to leave Kraków with a small fortune. Barring his conscience Oskar, together with Stern’s help, finagles an agreement with Goeth that will allow him the relocation of his workers to a factory in Zwittau-Brinnlitz far away from the Final Solution. The cost of this bribe however, and another made to spare a train car of women inadvertently shipped to Auschwitz, financially cripples Oskar. At war’s end, as a member of the Nazi party and ‘profiteer of slave labor’ Oskar and his wife are forced to feel Germany or face execution by the advancing Red Army. Oskar’s last bit of philanthropy narrowly averts a catastrophe; instructing the SS officers who have been told to open fire on the Jewish factory workers, to go home instead to their families as men and not murderers.
As he packs his car to escape the factory workers assemble around Oskar, giving him a letter that explains he is not a criminal to them. Their parting gift is even more heartfelt; a gold band forged from one worker’s gold dental bridge, inscribed with “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” This penultimate farewell is fraught with contradictions. Only now does a very humble and tear-stained Oskar suddenly realize how little he has accomplished and how much more he might have done with just a little more personal sacrifice. Stern tenderly assures Oskar that history will be no harsher a critic of his motives than his own conscience. The factory workers are awakened the next morning to discover they have been liberated by a Soviet dragoon.
In the film’s extended epilogue we witness the hanging of Amon Goeth and see the survivors of Schindler’s philanthropy gather around his tombstone in Jerusalem; the B&W footage changing over to color as the cast from the film joins in placing stones upon Schindler’s grave. Ben Kingsley is accompanied by the real life widow of Itzhak Stern who died in 1969. A title card reveals that although fewer than 4,000 Jews were left alive in Poland at war’s end more than 6,000 descendants of Schindler’s Jews remain active around the world. In the penultimate moment, Liam Neeson is the last man to place roses on Oskar Schindler’s grave.
Schindler's List remains an undeniably unsettling and extremely emotional movie going experience. Liam Neeson's clever take on Oskar Schindler, as the genuinely reformed opportunist, is heartbreaking and heartfelt. Clearly, the actor and his alter ego have undergone a transformation. Yet, in retrospect we tend to focus more on Ralph Fiennes as the chillingly vial, yet strangely charismatic and utterly tragic demigod whose inner horrors eventually devour his soul. Ben Kingsley's bookish keeper of the faith and tally of survivors adds yet another impeccable performance to the film’s repertory. A finer cast could not have been assembled. Except for its brief bookends and the sudden appearance of a young girl streaking through the ghetto in her lurid pink top coat – a symbol of innocence lost and/or destroyed - the rest of the film has been brilliantly conceived in B&W. The results are more like viewing an extended vintage newsreel rather than a Hollywood retelling some 50 years removed from the actual events.
Powerful and affecting in most every way Schindler's List arguably remains the high water mark in Steven Spielberg's career - a culmination of all that his years as a distinguished film maker had become. There is an economy, yet depth, to his story telling. Not a single shot is wasted. Not a moment comes across as false or strained. In the final analysis, Schindler's List is a great movie for the most obvious reasons - not simply because of its subject matter, but because Spielberg has mastered the integrity to tell a truth truthfully and yet artistically – treading that fine line of distinction to elevate both to the rarest vintage and quality. It’s hard to argue with the results; more difficult still for the Academy to deny Spielberg his long overdue Best Director/Best Picture Oscars for this monumental undertaking.
When Universal Home Video initially released Schindler’s List on DVD the results were anything but gratifying. In the first place, the film was spread across two sides of a flipper disc. For another, the extras were grossly limited. Schindler’s List on Blu-ray at long last represents the film as it should have been all along. The B&W 1080p image takes a quantum leap forward in all respects. Visual tonality and textures in skin, hair and clothing snap to life and the film’s grain structure finally appears as grain rather than digitized grit. Close ups astound in their clarity and sharpness. The wow factor is definitely here. John William’s iconic theme is breathtaking in 5.1 DTS.
Don’t be fooled by the ‘3 disc’ advertised 20th Anniversary Edition. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD, including the hour long ‘Voices from the List’ featurette and eleven minutes on the Shoah Foundation. Discs 2 and 3 are nothing more than the film in DVD format split across two discs to pad out the packaging. Frankly, I cannot understand Universal and Spielberg not conspiring on a new audio commentary for this release, but there it is. None! Bottom line: Universal has done an exceptional job remastering Schindler’s List for hi-def. While much more could have been done with additional content to round out the experience, I have to recommend this one very highly for visually improving on the very flawed DVD from 2004. Highly recommended, indeed.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)