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Schindler

Narrator, Dirk Bogarde.

Narrator, Dirk Bogarde.

Thames Television’s 1983 documentary exploration into the life of Oskar Schindler makes an interesting companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” Given the enormous impact of the latter, KCOP scores something of a coup by importing the former to run two nights before the Oscars.

The British docu is making its U.S. TV debut via syndication. As familiar as the saga of scoundrel-saint Oskar Schindler and his WWII heroics has become, the story itself is never less than compelling, regardless of how it is told. While certainly no cinematic match for Spielberg’s masterpiece, “Schindler” has moments of pathos, pain and revelation that are actually betterserved by the documentary form.

Interestingly, “Schindler’s List” makes “Schindler” feel more powerful than it actually is. There’s a clumsiness and a confusion to much of the documentary’s narrative, but the docu isn’t needed to tell us the story; Spielberg’s done that. The documentary is needed to provide witness, and it does that magnificently.

Several of the interviewees, most notably Helena Hirsch, maid to camp commandant Amon Goeth, and Leopold Pfefferberg are recognizable from the movie. Thus, their stories and observations, forceful as they are on their own, are just that much more powerful. Having seen their suffering through “List,” we are happy to see them alive to testify for posterity.

Pfefferberg remembers Auschwitz as a place where everything was meant for death, not life, and his truth rests not in the grandness of his statement but in the smallness of his details: there was no soap or toilet paper there.

Another survivor recalls the horrifying moment, so powerfully captured half a century later by Spielberg, of being herded into the showers, expecting to die by gas, only to be saved by water. “Schindler” resonates with the drama of memories that vibrated across time into images and incidents in “Schindler’s List.”

Hirsch describes the sadistic Goeth, her personal tormentor, as “a man who could have had Satan in him” and Schindler as “an angel (who) flew down” on wings of hope and encouragement.

To be sure, the image of savior is regularly conjured by the parade of those who worked for Schindler, and their faith in him, miraculous as it seemed at the time, was matched by their laterloyalty to him.

The two most fascinating witnesses are Schindler’s wife, Emilie, and Goeth’s mistress, Ruth Kalder. Emilie certainly knew her husband, and accepted him for who he was and what he was; she tries less to exalt him than explain him — for all his faults, he simply loved life and he loved people, she says proudly.

Kalder, by comparison, remained (she was dying of emphysema when she was interviewed) an apologist for the barren morals of an empty servant to corrupt policy. “He didn’t kill them just for the fun of it,” she says, as if that somehow relieves Goeth of guilt and absolves her own complicity by proximity.

Her eyes are those of a woman who’s carried a terrible burden.

The documentary ends with a moving recap of Schindler’s life after the war. If he was a man who seemed, as his wife says, somewhat lost and purposeless in his last decades, his majestic deeds were not forgotten by those who owed their lives to his largess.

They helped support him, and turned out, en masse, for his funeral in Israel. For most, it was the first time they’d ever been in a church.

Still, the question remains: Why did Schindler do what he did? Over footage of him taken shortly before his death in 1974, he tries to explain his actions, finally boiling it down to a single, simple, declarative sentence: “There was no choice.” Is any other answer necessary?

Schindler

(Sat. (19), 8-9:30 p.m., KCOP)

Production: Filmed by Thames Television; executive producer, Catherine Freeman; producer, director, writer, Jon Blair; photographer, Simon Kossoff.

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