Schindler List Film Critic Essay

Box-office supremo. Hollywood's baby boomer wunderkind. The finest architect of audience thrill since Hitchcock. All of these things were true of Steven Spielberg in 1993, yet there was the nagging sense that the Oscar-deprived director remained a pretender, a popcorn-maker of unrivalled talent but not the real thing. In an astonishing double-whammy, 1993 upheld all the suspicion, then undid it utterly. This was the year he remade dinosaurs and then on an unparalleled template envisioned the Holocaust. By 1994 Spielberg was presiding over the most successful picture of all time and, finally, his treasured Oscar.

Fourteen years previously, a well-regarded Australian writer strolled into a luggage shop to escape the LA heat. Thomas Keneally immediately struck up conversation with the shop owner, one Leopald Page, formerly Poldek Pfefferberg, a Schindlerjuden. There Page told him the story of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who had saved him and 1200 others from certain death in occupied Poland. Here was a Nazi who had not stood back. Keneally was so inspired he turned it into the Booker Prize winning novel Schindler's Ark. Spielberg, in turn, was transfixed by the story which awakened feelings of his own Jewish heritage and picked up the movie rights in 1982. Then he dallied, he wasn't ready, he hadn't matured enough. It took him ten years, as he put it, "to develop his own consciousness about the Holocaust."

Made without his trademark storyboarding, the whizz kid bravado put away, Schindler's List was shot from the gut, where all of his God-given skills as a filmmaker were distilled into something instinctual and fiercely emotional. Working Kaminski, the film was daringly — although it is hard, now, to consider it otherwise — shot in black and white, alternating between a documentarian-vibe of jarring hand-held confusion for the Jews and a sumptuous German Expressionism for the Nazis (we first meet Schindler in a nightclub shot with the back-lit beauty of a 30s' movie star). Constructed around a brilliant script by Steve Zallian, the film meticulously threads the historical facts of Schindler saving the Jews by employing them in his enamel (and later armaments) factory with the story of a man discovering his conscience despite everything he is. On a more subtle, thematic level Zallian pits a battle for Schindler's soul between camp commandant Amon Goeth (Fiennes) and Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Kingsley).

History has been massaged. Aspects were contracted for more direct storytelling (it actually took Schindler three weeks to retrieve his female Jewish workers from Auschwitz) but impressively Neeson's philandering entrepreneur is presented with an ambiguous lustre. He was a womanising profiteer, whose actions constantly contradict his instincts, not a cleancut hero. War transforms men, it made Schindler far more than he appeared. It did the same for the director.

Through its wrenching three hours, Spielberg takes an unblinking eye and steely humanity. In its most extraordinary moments, the film presents the Holocaust as a reality that defies understanding: nothing in Spielberg's career could prepare us (or him) for the numbing brutality of the 16 minute liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. The film charts a barrage of the unthinkable, summed up in the stunning image of the Nazis unearthing the mass graves and burning the corpses on a vast, hellish funeral pyre. Ash rains down on Krakow in a perverse mockery of snowfall and a German officer laughs with the unsettling intensity of the insane.

It is hard to explain the first reaction to watching Schindler's List, it is one of emotional exhaustion, of elation at artistic triumph, of eyes stung by tears of outrage and a strange sense of loss. The director you once knew like a favourite uncle had become something else. He had become important. And he was asking us to grow up with him.

The reviews were ecstatic. Exultant notices from critics whose expectations and doubts had been confounded. Twelve nominations and seven Oscars were the result from the fusty Academy. There was, inevitably, a backlash. The Zealot community decried the fact the Holocaust must remain beyond artistic interpretation, Claude Lanzmann — who made the nine hour documentary Shoah — criticised him for shifting the focus away from the six million who perished. There was a wave of reactionism citing Spielberg's motivation as suspect: his sudden rediscovery of his Judaic roots, his yearnings to be taken seriously as a filmmaker. Yet, in the face of the movie, such judgements are hard to swallow.

The fact remains that regardless of what Spielberg was personally hoping to achieve, Schindler's List brought the history of the Holocaust back to public consciousness like nothing else (it is enormously telling that it was a smash hit in Germany). It was (and remains) irreducibly his masterpiece. The apprenticeship was over. The dreamer was born-again as a supreme artist.

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Heartbreaking retelling of one man's affront to the Nazis.

The big man at the center of this film is Oskar Schindler, a Catholic businessman from the Sudetenland who came to occupied Poland to reap the spoils of war. (You can be sure this is not the last time the words "Oscar" and "Schindler" will be heard together.) Schindler is also something of a cipher, just as he was for Thomas Keneally, whose 1982 book, "Schindler's List," marked a daring synthesis of fiction and fact. Reconstructing the facts of Schindler's life to fit the format of a novel, Mr. Keneally could only draw upon the memories of those who owed their lives to the man's unexpected heroism. Compiling these accounts (in a book that included some of the Titsch photographs), Mr. Keneally told "the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil, a triumph in eminently measurable, statistical, unsubtle terms."

The great strength of Mr. Keneally's book, and now of Mr. Spielberg's film, lies precisely in this pragmatism. Knowing only the particulars of Schindler's behavior, the audience is drawn into wondering about his higher motives, about the experiences that transformed a casual profiteer into a selfless hero.

Schindler's story becomes much more involving than a tale of more conventional courage might be, just as Mr. Spielberg's use of unfamiliar actors to play Jewish prisoners makes it hard to view them as stock movie characters (even when the real events that befall these people threaten to do just that). The prisoners' stories come straight from Mr. Keneally's factual account, which is beautifully recapitulated by Steven Zaillian's screenplay.

Oskar Schindler, played with mesmerizing authority by Liam Neeson, is unmistakably larger than life, with the panache of an old-time movie star. (The real Schindler was said to resemble George Sanders and Curt Jurgens.) From its first glimpse of Oskar as he dresses for a typically flamboyant evening socializing with German officers -- and even from the way his hand appears, nonchalantly holding a cigarette and a bribe -- the film studies him with rapt attention.

Mr. Neeson, captured so glamorously by Janusz Kaminiski's richly versatile black-and-white cinematography, presents Oskar as an amalgam of canny opportunism and supreme, well-warranted confidence. Mr. Spielberg does not have to underscore the contrast between Oskar's life of privilege and the hardships of his Jewish employees.

Taking over a kitchenware factory in Cracow and benefiting from Jewish slave labor, Oskar at first is no hero. During a deft, seamless section of the film that depicts the setting up of this business operation, Oskar is seen happily occupying an apartment from which a wealthy Jewish couple has just been evicted. Meanwhile, the film's Jews are relegated to the Cracow ghetto. After the ghetto is evacuated and shut down, they are sent to Plaszow, which is overseen by a coolly brutal SS commandant named Amon Goeth.

Goeth, played fascinatingly by the English stage actor Ralph Fiennes, is the film's most sobering creation. The third of its spectacularly fine performances comes from Ben Kingsley as the reserved, wary Jewish accountant who becomes Oskar's trusted business manager, and who at one point has been rounded up by Nazi officers before Oskar saves him. "What if I got here five minutes later?" Oskar asks angrily, with the self-interest that keeps this story so startling. "Then where would I be?"

As the glossy, voluptuous look of Oskar's sequences gives way to a stark documentary-style account of the Jews' experience, "Schindler's List" witnesses a pivotal transformation. Oskar and a girlfriend, on horseback, watch from a hilltop as the ghetto is evacuated, and the image of a little girl in red seems to crystallize Oskar's horror.

But there is a more telling sequence later on, when Oskar is briefly arrested for having kissed a young Jewish woman during a party at his factory. Kissing women is, for Oskar, the most natural act in the world. And he is stunned to find it forbidden on racial grounds. All at once, he understands how murderous and irrational the world has become, and why no prisoners can be safe without the intervention of an Oskar Schindler.

The real Schindler saved more than a thousand Jewish workers by sheltering them in his factory, and even accomplished the unimaginable feat of rescuing some of them from Auschwitz. This film's moving coda, a full-color sequence, offers an unforgettable testimonial to Schindler's achievement.

The tension in "Schindler's List" comes, of course, from the omnipresent threat of violence. But here again, Mr. Spielberg departs from the familiar. The film's violent acts are relatively few, considering its subject matter, and are staged without the blatant sadism that might be expected. Goeth's hobby of playing sniper, casually targeting his prisoners with a high-powered rifle, is presented so matter-of-factly that it becomes much more terrible than it would be if given more lingering attention.

Mr. Spielberg knows well how to make such events truly shocking, and how to catch his audience off guard. Most of these shootings are seen from a great distance, and occur unexpectedly. When it appears that the film is leading up to the point-blank execution of a rabbi, the director has something else in store.

Goeth's lordly balcony, which overlooks the film's vast labor-camp set, presents an extraordinary set of visual possibilities, and Mr. Spielberg marshals them most compellingly. But the presence of huge crowds and an immense setting also plays to this director's weakness for staging effects en masse. "Schindler's List" falters only when the crowd of prisoners is reduced to a uniform entity, so that events no longer have the tumultuous variety of real life.

This effect is most noticeable in Schindler's last scene, the film's only major misstep, as a throng listens silently to Oskar's overwrought farewell. In a film that moves swiftly and urgently through its three-hour running time, this stagey ending -- plus a few touches of fundamentally false uplift, most notably in a sequence at Auschwitz -- amounts to a very small failing.

Among the many outstanding elements that contribute to "Schindler's List," Michael Kahn's nimble editing deserves special mention. So does the production design by Allan Starski, which finds just the right balance between realism and drama. John Williams's music has a somber, understated loveliness. The soundtrack becomes piercingly beautiful as Itzhak Perlman's violin solos occasionally augment the score.

It should be noted, if only in passing, that Mr. Spielberg has this year delivered the most astounding one-two punch in the history of American cinema. "Jurassic Park," now closing in on billion-dollar grosses, is the biggest movie moneymaker of all time. "Schindler's List," destined to have a permanent place in memory, will earn something better.

"Schindler's List" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes violence and graphic nudity. Schindler's List

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Thomas Keneally; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Allan Starski; produced by Mr. Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen and Branko Lustig; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 185 minutes. This film is rated R. Oskar Schindler . . . Liam Neeson Itzhak Stern . . . Ben Kingsley Amon Goeth . . . Ralph Fiennes Emilie Schindler . . . Caroline Goodall Poldek Pfefferberg . . . Jonathan Sagalle Helen Hirsch . . . Embeth Davidtz

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