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Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List is indeed one of the best films about the holocaust, and one of the director's best movies. Breaking free of twenty years of lucrative lightweight blockbusters, interrupted several times by bald tries at snaring an Academy Award, Spielberg made the grade and more with this worthy historical document. The mind-numbing subject of the organized murder of millions of people was too disturbing for decades after WW2 ended; official film footage of the liberation of the camps was considered unwatchable before it began showing up piecemeal in 1950s documentaries. Alain Resnais' Night and Fog is still the most humane and respectful short docu on the death camps, while Stanley Kramer's bloated all-star ordeal Judgment at Nuremberg grinds out hours of noisy, over-acted outrage. Most other treatments of the subject are tangential escape stories or to some degree exploitative. In the middle '70s a quality TV miniseries called Holocaust revealed what social researchers had feared for some time, that the new TV-raised American public was largely ignorant about recent history, even something as enormous as the murder of millions.
That's one reason that holocaust films need to be made and reinvented. If the true story is not passed on, the public consciousness will be swayed by the bigots, racists and deniers that would like to revise history. Thomas Keneally's book found the perfect story hook for 1993, much of which was news even to WW2 buffs. It profiles the intriguingly self-contradictory German Oskar Schindler. A Nazi party member and ambitious war profiteer, Schindler used his privileges as an employer of slave labor to save a goodly number of ghettoized Polish Jews from extermination. Schindler is a fascinating subject because of his apparent change of heart: he was in the right place at the right time with the right talents to make a positive impact and save lives. His story is a rare example of undeniably real, quantifiable good. Voice what doubts one may about the accuracy of Spielberg's movie, if Schindler really saved those 1200 Jews very little else matters.
The true story places the slick businessman and entrepreneur Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson in a star-making performance) as a bloodsucker profiting from the appalling fate of Poland's Jewish population. With salesmanship as his only asset, Schindler sidles into Krakow as the Ghetto fills. He solicits imprisoned Jews for the start-up money for an enameled cookware company. He schmoozes his way into the good graces of the Nazi brass responsible for buying supplies, and hires Ghetto Jews as workers -- their wages go to the SS but they receive decent food and other privileges. Accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) becomes Schindler's business manager, reluctantly at first. Stern's distaste for Oscar's decadent lifestyle and rapacious opportunism abate somewhat as he realizes that working in Schindler's factory is a possible route to survival. When the Ghetto prisoners are sent to various work lagers -- or to extermination camps -- Oskar befriends the local SS work camp commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), a psychotic who enjoys terrorizing his helpless inmates. The longer Schindler fights to retain his workforce, the more attached to them he becomes. But Goeth and the other Nazis insist that all will have to take their places on the extermination trains.
Schindler's List does almost everything 100% right. It examines the story from two sides. Oskar Schindler is an utterly selfish bastard, distinguished from his less cultured Nazi clients only by his sense of style. He glad-hands clerks and distributes gift baskets packed with hard to find goodies. He's an unregenerate womanizer and a lousy husband; his wife has long ago given up trying to reform him. Schindler is presented as an attractive fellow by default. His German clients are at best just cogs in a horrible, inhuman system. Choice or no choice, any rational viewer will side with the Russian attitude that the SS all deserve to die with the greatest dispatch. At their worst, the Nazis are extraordinary monsters. Amon Goeth is a dangerous maniac, frustrated because he cannot obtain affection from his whores or his frozen-in-fear Jewish slave Helen (Embeth Davidtz). Goeth indulges his violent (sex?) fantasies, randomly killing his prisoners through the 'scope of a high-powered rifle. 1
At the Heart of Darkness is the commandant of Auschwitz himself, who has become an immobile demon beyond any thought except murderous calculation and self-preservation. The pinnacle of Schindler's influence is this interview with the commandant... who else could possibly muster the required bluff to convince that man to do anything? Only Schindler knows what sales approach might appeal to such a depraved maggot. No ordinary mortal is equipped to negotiate with Satan. 2
To its credit Schindler's List does not cast the Jewish victims as supporting players in their own story. The movie begins with a simple religious ceremony and ends by breaking format to present a moving real-life testimonial to Schindler's memory. In between we witness what the Jewish Poles endured by loosely following dozens of individuals and family members. Their homes are stolen and they're jammed into the Krakow Ghetto, where extraordinary ingenuity is required to avoid starvation. German soldiers can shoot them for simple infractions, like forgetting one's papers. Young men become black marketeers or collaborate as Ghetto police. When the time comes for 'relocation', all pretense of civility is dropped. The old and infirm are weeded out for killing, all possessions are stolen and men, women and children are separated. The brutality is appalling. Under such conditions being a Schindler Factory worker (a "Schindler Jew") is a blessing. Itzhak Stern waves a list of roughly a thousand names Schindler appropriates for his plant, and declares it to be "the ultimate good."
I believe Schindler's List was Steven Spielberg's first collaboration with his frequent cameraman Janusz Kaminsky. The luminous B&W images were a revelation to audiences in 1993... Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen had by this time dropped the monochrome format. The theater where I saw the film had trouble projecting it, as the B&W print stock was thinner than color stock and it was too loose in the film gate. Spielberg did not build an intermission into his 3-hour, 15-minute movie, so the theater owner stopped the show half way for a bathroom break.
The film pulls off a controversial color experiment that I believe works. Besides a candle flame at the beginning and a color sequence at the end, all of Schindler's List is in B&W -- except for several scenes in which a particular girl's coat is selectively tinted red. This calls attention to her not only in medium shots but also in lengthy, wide scenes where she is one tiny figure among dozens. On the day that the Ghetto is emptied amid chaos and slaughter, this little lost girl wanders through the street on her own. What's the color all about?
I believe the selective coloring of the girl's coat allows us to regard the killing of a million innocent children without doing what holocaust films always do, losing the big picture to concentrate on a few charismatic individuals. Sophie's Choice is about the experience of a particular woman losing her children. It's a fine drama but has problems communicating as a holocaust film. The average viewer could very well emerge caring only about Meryl Streep and her little boy and girl. We concentrate on the individual heroes of Escape from Sobibor and are given little in the way of a broad appreciation of the horror. If Spielberg kept the Little Red Girl front and center, I believe that a "Shirley Temple Effect" would cause much of the audience to fixate on her survival. Instead, the Red Girl is several times just seen as a dot among other terrorized victims, reduced to the same level of jeopardy. We care about her, but we're forced to regard her at a remove, as just one among many. She's not a star player, in the same way that the actors playing the Jews are not recognizable stars.
Schindler's List presents many unforgettable visuals, like the road made of Jewish graveyard headstones that seems an echo of the Roman road with the crucified slaves in Spartacus. At one point someone says that "Good old-fashioned Jew Hating is policy now", whereupon Spielberg cuts to the rain of smoke and ashes as the crematoria begin working. The staging of violent scenes does not overplay the shock value, and the nudity does not seem exploitative. The German SS are not inadvertently admired for the cut of their uniforms and the "law and order" appeal of their storm troopers. A frigging automatic pistol refuses to fire during an impromptu execution, ruining Amon Goeth's murderous fun.
The film is so good, and (yes) so socially instructive that its plusses outweigh what must be conceded is a ridiculous storytelling stumble in the last act. Spielberg and/or his screenwriter have resolutely kept Schindler's transformation into a "good guy" a mystery. Oskar gets in hot water for kissing a Jewish girl at a party, and raises suspicions when he goads some SS goons into hosing down a train packed with overheated Jews. As the Nazi's oversight crumbles, Shindler makes bad artillery shells, plays the humanitarian and even jokingly encourages a Rabbi to hold a Sabbath ritual. So far, so good. But then the movie hits us with several alarmingly fake and cloying scenes. Schindler grandstands to his workers, shaming the guards into making a non-violent exit. He then completely breaks character to collapse into emotional hysteria as he exits (actually, escapes Russian vengeance), wailing like a baby and bemoaning the thousands more victims he says he could have saved. It's an embarrassing mess, the kind of pitch that Spielberg seemingly often throws at the end of movies to "get the audience to like the movie and its characters".
It's no sale: Schindler did an extraordinary feat of goodness, but he's still someone we wouldn't like to know. One cannot live down years of profiting from slave labor and aiding and abetting Nazis in war crimes. Had Schindler emerged from the war a wealthy man, we'd not be wrong to at least theorize that his turn of heart could have been yet another dodge, a clever move to avoid the post-war hammer of retribution. In the end, we must judge him by his actions. Nazis that took up the cause of Jews are too rare as it is. 3
As I say, the film is so good, I try to ignore these scenes and skip to the beautiful ending, the chorus and 'generations of Schindler Jews' finish, which is lovely. In an improvement on John Ford-style cast recaps, the actors are accompanied by their real life counterparts, paying homage at Schindler's grave.
Universal's 20th Anniversary Blu-ray of Schindler's List also contains a DVD disc plus instructions to download a Digital Copy or connect with an UltraViolet cloud encoding. The transfer quality is marvelous; not only are the B&W images perfect, but the color embellishments are accurate as well.
The DVD version is spread across two discs, with the extras on the second disc. Some of the extras relate to the USC Shoah Foundation. It began as an all-inclusive audio-visual archive of testimony, and will surely be a useful research resource as well as lasting proof of the reality of the Holocaust. The Foundation Story is hosted by Spielberg, who explains how the filming of Schindler's List inspired the program. Voices from the List is a full-length feature docu that uses some of the Foundation's testimony in conjunction with archive footage. An insert flyer explains Witness an educational website associated with the Foundation: eyewitness.usc.edu
Twenty years have only added to the aura around this picture, which won a 1993 Best Directing Oscar in addition to Best Picture. The packaging and presentation is put together in good taste. Spielberg personally supervised the film's restoration. It's the best-looking B&W disc that's gone through my player this year.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Schindler's List Blu-ray rates:
1. Spielberg here connects with, of all directors, Pier Paolo Pasolini in Salo. The human filth in that movie observes their mutilation killings from a distance, with telescopes, removed from the immediate consequences of their orders. Amon Goeth also kills from afar. It's like watching killings on TV, or perhaps monitoring the visual screen of an unmanned drone aircraft. Killing is immoral, but remote-control killing is evil.
2. Another point. Schindler's personality isn't inhibited by conventional ethics or morals. A decent, good man would never be able to find common ground to make a deal with the Auschwitz commandant. A comparable moment to this is (honestly) in Sam Peckinpah's moral meditation Ride the High Country. An innocent girl has foolishly married a brute. The upstanding hero (Joel McCrea) is prevented from helping her because the brute has a legal wedding license. The hero's corrupt partner isn't intimidated by legalities. He holds up the Judge and forces him at gunpoint to tear up the license. It takes a 'bad man' to save the innocent girl. Where is conventional morality in this situation?
3. I've heard attempts to compare Schindler's tearful breakdown scene to Murnau's The Last Laugh, where Murnau's tragic character returns for a lighthearted epilogue completely out of keeping with what has gone before. The two films do not really have anything in common. The way Spielberg plays the Schindler Exit scenes, it is almost as if Oscar is grandstanding fake remorse to the Jews he has saved, as insurance should he need them to save him later on.
I don't see anybody making a movie about the Hollywood leftists that raised money to help Jews trapped in the "Ship of Fools" bind just before WW2. The relief effort was organized in part by actor Lionel Stander. When no country would accept the refugees, not even the isolationist United States, The Dominican Republic offered to allow them to land for a sizeable bounty per head. Hollywood liberals saved just as many Jewish refugees as Schindler saved. I like to trot out this true story whenever acquaintances try to disparage the ethics of "those disloyal Hollywood radicals" of the '30s and '40s.
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