Schindler's List

Dir: Steven Spielberg, 1993. Starring: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Embeth Davidtz. Drama.
Schindler's List
Can a film’s reputation for high quality and moral weightiness make the act of watching it a daunting experience? Actually no, 20 years later, Schindler’s List may have a high-hatted standing as an important event film that must be seen because of some kind of personal solemnity, but like Citizen Kane, it may sound like drudgery, but Schindler’s List isn’t homework. And though the subject matter is utterly disturbing and even depressing, it’s so well made, so well acted and so well crafted that for this viewer, my most recent experience watching it was completely dazzling, not to mention absorbing and even entertaining. The film also gets some undeserved contempt and jeers because Mr. Blockbuster himself, Steven Spielberg, was the director. Some see it as an attempt at self-seriousness from a guy who has prided himself on his Peter Pan complex (even making the worst Peter Pan flick of all time, Hook), but why can’t the little boy grow up and evolve? Not since The Beatles put out “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” has an artist’s evolutionary step been so massive. Back in 1993 Schindler’s List was screened during the Oscar friendly Christmas season, when just some months earlierSpielberg had released his live-action video game Jurassic Park. One film is a shallow CGI-created attempt at cheap thrills while the other is a painstakingly rendered and emotionally devastating nightmare. Dare I say it? No matter what you think or think you’ve heard Schindler’s List is a masterpiece, one of the best films of the last 25 years.

Though Spielberg made some truly great films:Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, all might be called pop-entertainment. His first forays into more adult-themed films were adaptations of great books by Alice Walker and J.G. Ballard; first, the overrated The Color Purple and then his underrated follow-up, the very good WWII Pacific prisoner of war flick Empire of the Sun. Meanwhile, he seemed to lose his magic, producing a lot of bad children’s television while his low points as a director included Always and Hook. And then ’93 happened; he re-found the mojo with his monster hit Jurassic Park and then his ultimate grown-up flick, the holocaust epic Schindler’s List.

Adapted from the 1982 book by Thomas Keneally, both Martin Scorsese and Billy Wilder had circled the book before Spielberg decided to take it on. Failed German businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) moves to Poland in the hopes of using the war to strike it rich. Completely amoral, he courts the local Nazis with bribes to get a factory contract using Jewish slave labor to build military cooking ware. He also finds the best local accountant, a Jew, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), to actually run the company and deal with Jewish investors and the black marketers while he wines and dines his Nazi pals and chases women. Meanwhile, the Polish Jews have been herded into the Krakow Ghetto and are randomly being shipped off to concentration camps. Working at Schindler’s factory makes them “essential” to the German war effort and assures they will be kept alive a little longer. 

The Ghetto is finally disintegrated with the creation of a concentration camp down the street. The place is run by one of the creepiest Nazi’s in film history, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), a deeply disturbed and wholly insecure man who kills at random and for no reason, other than as a show of power. To keep his workers and his factory going, Schindler befriends Goeth, even after being affected by the violence and abuse he sees. With Stern guiding him Schindler starts to have a conscious and continues to try and protect the people who work for him, while always trying to stay neutral to his Nazi benefactors.  As the German’s begin to lose the war they step up their effort to kill as many Jews as possible, the final solution. With the factory closing, Schindler is content to go home a rich man, but then has a change of heart and decides to relocate his factory and bring his workers with him. After negotiating with Goeth it is decided that he will have to pay substantially for each Jew he takes with him and is essentially saving from certain death. The list expands beyond just Schindler’s workers and even includes Goeth’s pretty maid, Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz), whom Goeth beats because of his sexual obsession for her. As the Russians liberate Poland the Jews who made Schindler’s list are part of a handful to survive, while Schindler knows he will be captured and tried as a member of the Nazi party and even a war criminal (for using forced labor). 

This Oskar Schindler has quite the dramatic character arc—from sinner to saint. You have to wonder if he is some kind of Spielberg creation, a sorta WWII E.T.? But in Israel he has officially been declared “righteous” and he became the only Nazi to ever be buried there. From my own investigation into what happened and how it went down it seems Schindler was portrayed pretty accurately (when I say investigation, I mean I watched the little documentary that came on the DVD and glanced at his Wikipedia page).

For the Northern Ireland born Neeson he had been floating around Hollywood for about a dozen years; some leads roles didn’t take his career to the next level (he played Darkman) but he was always solid in his portrayals of big lug types in supporting roles (Husbands and Wives, The Mission, and a memorable turn in a Miami Vice episode). Since “intensely wishy-washy” was always his trademark, who knew that he had such a charismatic power about him? It was kinda surprising that Spielberg cast him in what must’ve been a highly coveted role and he delivers the performance of his career. Less surprising is that Kingsley is also superb; continuing his march of diverse roles, Schindler’s List ranks up there with his other great performances in Gandhi, Bugsy, and Sexy Beast. Even more than Neeson, who was an already established actor, the most surprising and brilliant piece of “out of nowhere” casting was Fiennes whose monstrous Nazi steals the movie. Having seen him in a TV movie (playing T.E. Lawrence) and a little seen feature (as Heathcliff in a Wuthering Heights adaption), Spielberg took a gamble and the payoff was massive; with his Aryan good looks, Fiennes delivers the charm as well as the devilishness, but he infuses Goeth with more than just evil. Perhaps a killer Nazi doesn’t deserve such a rich, complex character, but any bad guy is always more interesting the more complicated he is.

Though film score composer John Williams is a certain hall-of-famer, his work had started to feel a little stale; besides all of Spielberg's films he’s also created giant scores for giant films like Star Wars, Superman, and Star Trek. He’s a legend for his big, loud Holst-esque iconic themes, but like Spielberg he may’ve needed to get off the blockbuster track and Schindler’s List proves to be one of his best scores. The music with a heavy Eastern Jewish flavor is hauntingly authentic and brings even more sadness to the film.

Authentic is the key word for all of Schindler’s List; cinematographer Janusz Kaminski based the look on Holocaust documentaries and war photography, and this might be as authentic a recreation of a period that’s ever been produced by Hollywood. Again, Spielberg was taking a chance; the biggest film on the young Pole’s filmography was the Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice. With a lot of handheld work in stunning black & white and employing many of the actual locations, Kaminski delivered and he’s shot almost all of Spielberg’s flicks since. 

With the tidal wave of critical love given to Schindler’s List, the world was again open to Spielberg, which continued to pull him in different directions. His adult fare has varied from excellent (Saving Private Ryan, Munich) to forgettable (Amistad, The Terminal). He made a couple unnecessary sequels (The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and the horrible Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), but he has excelled in science fiction from the enjoyable War of the Worlds to the more challenging and interesting Minority Report and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Nearing 70-years-old there looks to be no stopping Spielberg; the guy is just born to tell stories. Perhaps some snooty crowds prefer a Godard film or find some kind of magic in Harmony Korine’s junk, or others will embrace a crap filmmaker like Kevin Smith but still insist on pooh-poohing the populism of Spielberg. But the bottom line is none of these “cooler” filmmakers has made a movie that appealed to so many as E.T. did or shook up the world like Jaws did, or frankly is as amazingly crafted and realized as Schindler’s List. Maybe I shouldn’t say it too loud, but Mr. Spielberg, I for one think you are the closest thing to a genius the cinema has had since Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles; keep on making movies (but please not another Indiana Jones flick).
_________________

Schindler's List was nominated for 12 Oscars and won for 7 including Best Picture, Best Director (Spielberg), Best Film Editing (Michael Kahn), Best Original Score (John Williams), Best Adapted Screenplay (Steven Zaillian), Best Cinematography (Janusz Kaminski), Best Art Direction (Allan Starski, Ewa Braun)
Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 30, 2012 5:13pm
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