After several attempts at making a fully realized, mature film, Steven Spielberg has finally put it all together in “Schindler’s List.” A remarkable work by any standard, this searing historical and biographical drama, about a Nazi industrialist who saved some 1,100 Jews from certain death in the concentration camps, evinces an artistic rigor and unsentimental intelligence unlike anything the world’s most successful filmmaker has demonstrated before. Marked by a brilliant screenplay, exceptionally supple technique, three staggeringly good lead performances and an attitude toward the traumatic subject matter that is both passionately felt and impressively restrained, this is the film to win over Spielberg skeptics.
How the general public will take to a three-hour, fifteen-minute, black-and-white epic about the Holocaust with no major stars is another matter. Even with the cards of conventional wisdom stacked against it, top reviews, off-entertainment page coverage, possible awards and the Spielberg name should stir enough interest to turn release into an event, elevating it to must-see status for discerning audiences worldwide. The gamble should pay off financially as well as artistically.
Besides being familiar, the Nazi persecution of the Jews is perilous subject matter since it can so easily elicit automatic reactions of moral outrage, personal horror, religious self-righteousness and dramatic extremes, not to mention severe depression.
Taking their cue from Australian writer Thomas Keneally’s 1982 book of the same name, Spielberg and scenarist Stephen Zaillian have overcome the problem of familiarity by presenting innumerable details of this grim history that are utterly fresh and previously unexplored, at least in mainstream films. And they have triumphed over the most obvious potential pitfalls by keeping as their main focus a man whose mercenary instincts only gradually turned him into an unlikely hero and savior.
Oskar Schindler (the imposing, impeccably groomed Liam Neeson) is masterfully introduced in a rowdy nightclub sequence that instantly builds interest and mystique around him as he curries favor with the Nazis, who have completed their lightning conquest of Poland in September 1939.
With Jews being registered and entering Krakow at the rate of 10,000 per week , Nazi Party member Schindler arranges to run a major company that will be staffed by unpaid Jews. Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) becomes his accountant and right-hand man and helps build the concern into a major supplier of pots, pans and cookware for troops at the front.
In near-documentary fashion and often using a dizzyingly mobile, hand-held camera, Spielberg (who operated his own camera for many of these sequences) deftly sketches the descent of the Jews from refugee settlers in Krakow to their confinement within 16 square blocks by 1941, to the creation of a Plaszow Forced Labor Camp in 1942, to the brutal liquidation of the ghetto the following year. In fascinating detail, and using a plethora of vivid characters, the film shows how the black market worked, how previously well-to-do families were forced into miserable dwellings, how the Judenrat — Jews nominally empowered by the Germans — oversaw and carried out Nazi law, how some managed to survive and others didn’t.
In these sequences, the seed is planted for one of the picture’s superbly developed great themes — that the matter of who lived and died was completely, utterly, existentially arbitrary. As one of the characters observes, the casualness and randomness of Nazi cruelty was such that at no point could one develop a strategy for survival; there was no safe way to behave, and even extreme cleverness couldn’t save you in the long run. All morality, justice and personal worth was erased.
With the clearing of Krakow, most of the action shifts to the labor camp, which is set in an extraordinary location at the base of a cliff. Looming above it is the opulent chateau of Commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), from which invited revelers can look down upon the prisoners during glittering parties and, in shocking scenes that, again, are unlike anything previously seen, from the balcony of which the commandant randomly shoots helpless inmates as if taking target practice.
The commandant is a fascinating creation, as evil as any Nazi presented onscreen over the past 50 years, but considerably more complex and human than most. He is deeply and, he admits, disturbingly attracted to the young Jewish woman he keeps as his personal maid. Tellingly, both he and Schindler drink a great deal, but Goeth admires Schindler for not, unlike him, being a drunk. “That’s control,” he says, “and control is power.”
Schindler must use utmost diplomacy in dealing with Goeth and other top-ranking Nazis in order to get his way, gently suggesting that their murderous policies are bad for business and that to bestow a pardon confers even greater power on a ruler than constantly meting out death. Schindler is permitted to continue operating his Krakow factory as a “sub-camp,” which becomes a virtual haven for hundreds of Jews in that they are basically assured they won’t die there.
Still, with the Final Solution being implemented with ever-greater dispatch by 1944, Schindler must finally buy, with his tremendous war profits, the leftover Jews to prevent them from being shipped to Auschwitz. In a harrowing sequence, women he has arranged to rescue wind up at the extermination camp by mistake. For Schindler as well as the Jews, it remains a question of which will last longer, his money or the war.
After listening to Churchill’s announcement of the German surrender, Schindler delivers an extraordinary speech of his own in the presence of both Nazi guards and Jewish workers before fleeing with nothing more than a suitcase. Throughout the mesmerizing narrative so masterfully orchestrated in Zaillian’s faultlessly intelligent screenplay, there are many opportunities for heart-tugging, obvious plays for sympathy and hate, maudlin sentiments and cheap indulgences. Not only because Spielberg resisted every one of them, but also because this film is so different, and so much tougher, than anything else he’s done, if not forewarned as to its director’s identity, even a well-schooled critic could watch virtually the entire picture and never suspect it was Spielberg.
On reflection, some of the themes relating to greed, corruption and inadvertent heroism have been present in his work from early on, but nothing before has been anywhere near this deep or resonant. Images, moments and scenes stay in the mind and become even stronger, well after viewing the film.
Despite its 3 1/4-hour length, the film moves forward with great urgency and is not a minute too long for the story it is telling and the amount of information it imparts. It is, naturally, full of violence and death, but Spielberg makes this both memorable and somehow bearable by staging it all with abrupt, shocking suddenness, which adds to the feeling of arbitrariness.
This is not, strictly speaking, a concentration camp movie but a densely woven personal drama with the most striking of historical backdrops, which is what will get mainstream audiences through it.
The only debatable choice is the brief color epilogue, which depicts many of the surviving “Schindler Jews” filing by his grave in Israel accompanied, for the most part, by the much younger actors who have portrayed them in the film. This will have many viewers crying their eyes out, but it also smacks, on a certain level, of direct emotional manipulation, the only such instance in the work.
Another device that uses color is also questionable, that of a little girl whom Schindler notices and whose red coat stands out against the prevailing black-and-white. What this is supposed to signify is anyone’s guess, although it’s so minor that it doesn’t matter.
From top to bottom, the performances from the enormous cast are impeccable. Whereas most major stars would have wanted to tip the audience off early on that Schindler was actually a sensitive, caring guy underneath it all, Neeson leaves no doubt through most of the film that his character was driven foremost by profit. In a superlative performance, Neeson makes Schindler a fascinating but highly ambiguous figure, effectively persuasive and manipulative in one-on-one scenes where he’s determined to get what he wants, and finally rising to dramatic heights with his courageous and stirring farewell speech.
Kingsley must act within much more rigid constraints as his trusted accountant Stern, a man who feels he must never make a misstep. Role is reminiscent of Alec Guinness’ deluded Col. Nicholson in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”; in his compulsion to do a perfect job for Schindler, he often seems to forget that he’s working for the enemy.
The extraordinary Fiennes creates an indelible character in Goeth. With paunch hanging out and eyes filled with disgust both for his victims and himself , he’s like a minor-league Roman emperor gone sour with excess, a man in whom too much power and debauchery have crushed anything that might once have been good.
The dozens of small roles, many of which figure in the action only briefly, have been superbly filled by faces that invariably register immediately and with terrific effectiveness.
Shot mostly on location in Poland, the picture captures in exceptional detail the nightmare world of 50 years ago. Allan Starski’s production design blends imperceptibly with natural locations. This is a film that could have been made only in black-and-white, and yet it is solely because of Spielberg’s commercial stature that it was able to be made that way. Lensing by Janusz Kaminski, a young Polish-American cinematographer whose previous credits include “The Adventures of Huck Finn,” Diane Keaton’s made-for-cable “Wildflower” and some Roger Corman efforts, is outstanding. Lighting is mostly very simple, camera moves are agile and perceptive, and palette features many shades of gray rather than high-contrast black-and-white.
Michael Kahn’s editing moves with dynamic swiftness when desired and holds on scenes when required, making the running time seem shorter. John Williams’ score is atypical, especially in the context of his work for Spielberg, as it’s low-key, soulful and flecked with ethnic flavors.
Dedicated to the late Time Warner chairman Steve Ross, “Schindler’s List” has a deep emotional impact that is extraordinarily well served and balanced by its intelligence, historical perspective and filmmaking expertise.