The Good: Amazing acting, Great direction, Good story, Great character development, DVD bonus features
The Bad: None (Except the title)
The Basics: A perfect film, Schindler's List chronicles a Nazi businessman's rise to financial success on the backs of his Jewish slave labor before becoming a champion for his workers.
There are certain things we seem to take for granted with modern cinema. Movies about the Holocaust are pretty much money in the bank (unless, I suppose, you're showing your movie in Iran) and the generally-assumed best movie about the Holocaust is Schindler's List. It took me until today to actually watch this three hour, sixteen minute cinematic juggernaut. And to make it short, the film is every bit as great as everyone claims it is. I loved everything about this difficult film . . . except the title. The viewer who knows what the significance of the list Schindler makes is liable to spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for it to come into play. It doesn't for over two hours of the movie!
My preconceptions about Schindler's List going in were limited. Before I started the movie, I thought it was a bit pretentious - actually VERY pretentious - that director Steven Spielberg presented the film in black and white. As well, I am (as a general rule) not a fan of Holocaust movies. The Jewish Holocaust in World War II was not the first act of genocide, nor was it the last and I am one of the many people who understands the magnitude of the holocausts, so I don't need to keep watching works that feature it. Outside Defiance, I cannot recall a single film with the Holocaust as even a peripheral event that I would ever want to see again. But then, there's Schindler's List and this is a truly amazing film.
As the Nazis ghettoize the Jewish citizens of annexed Poland, Oskar Schindler visits the Judenrat and finds Itzhak Stern, a Jewish bureaucrat. Schindler wants to start a business with metalworks and enameling, but he does not have the capital. So, he convinces Stern to bring him Jews who still have cash to invest in his enterprise in exchange for getting finished goods to sell on the black market. However, as the Nazis begin to clear the ghetto, Schindler's Jewish workforce is forced to relocate. Unwilling to give up his now-booming business, Schindler makes a deal which allows him to start his own work camp and keep his "highly skilled" workforce working for him.
As the corrupt Amon Goeth randomly kills Jews and beats (and it is heavily implied, repeatedly rapes) his maid, Schindler works to protect his workers in his camp. But when the work camps are closed and the concentration camps begin killing off Jews, Schindler takes bold steps to protect his workforce and relocate them, even pulling women and children out of Auschwitz. Now producing artillery shells that continue to fail, Schindler creates a haven for Jews. As the war comes to a close, Schindler pragmatically accepts that he and the Nazis around him must flee.
The true brilliance of Schindler's List is not that it illustrates the power of a good man doing a good thing for a good reason, but rather that Spielberg and writers Thomas Keneally and Steven Zaillian make empathetic a morally ambiguous man doing a good thing for a bad reason. Oskar Schindler is not presented as a heroic man who went out of his way to save Jews from extermination. Instead, he is a businessman who has created a tight social network in the Nazi regime and he amasses an insane amount of wealth based on slave labor. It is only after he has, as he describes it, more money than he could ever spend in his lifetime, that he makes a concerted effort to save Jewish lives and even put his own life in order by marrying Emilie.
Far more than Schindler, Itzhak Stern is cast as the hero of Schindler's List for the majority of the film. Stern cooks the books to keep Schindler in business and he is the one who initially found Jews in the ghetto who were not skilled, saved their lives and convinced Schindler to get them trained in the factory. Stern, unlike Schindler, is a man of principles and the film wonderfully illustrates this through such things as Stern refusing to drink with Schindler until Schindler actually takes a moral stand to save his workforce.
Schindler's List is appropriately difficult to watch, but it remains an important film. There is nudity and there are several people who are shot in the head quite vividly at center screen. This is not a movie for the weak of stomach, but unlike other overblown films that supposedly use the gore in a "reasonable" way (like a certain abysmal Mel Gibson flick that got busloads of Evangelicals to watch a gore movie), Schindler's List's story includes random violence and brutality as a necessary element to it. The reason for this is simple: Oskar Schindler is a pragmatist and a businessman and while he initially fights the brutality of the Nazis as an issue of depriving him profits, as the war escalates and the acts of genocide (differentiated some from the acts of enslavement and humiliation) become official Nazi policy, Schindler learns of the policy changes just as the audience does. Watching the purging of the ghetto and the subsequent exhumation of a body (the girl in the red coat), Schindler comes to truly understand the machine he has been working for. It is in that moment that he makes the leap necessary to put human lives above his profits.
The brutality is also necessary to understand the random and crazed mind of Amon Goeth. Goeth is seen doing such charming things as randomly shooting workers in the work camp he is the commandant of. He beats and torments Helen and the direction his character goes in is not a real surprise to any viewer. But because he is part of the escalation, the violence he does offers a stark contrast to Schindler. It also makes Oskar seem more heroic, when - objectively - he is more of a neutral and morally-ambiguous character. It is only in the film's final moments, when Schindler takes full responsibility for all he has done that he truly becomes heroic.
In addition to having a truly great story with characters who are easy to empathize with, sympathize with or revile, Schindler's List is a powerhouse of great acting. Ralph Fiennes is terrifying as Goeth. He is twitchy and unsettling in virtually every scene he is in and he leaps into the role with a commitment that is unflinching. Similarly, Embeth Davidtz plays Helen with a sad humanity that is difficult to watch. Davidtz has a surprisingly difficult physical role to play and when she reacts to her character's abuse, she completely sells the audience on the reality of the moments.
Much has been written on the strength of Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler and I've nothing to add to that. Neeson is impressive as the Nazi businessman and he makes it strangely easy to watch the film and actually care about his character. Neeson has the suave characteristics to play off the idea that his character could charm those around him and rise within the order to become successful. And when his character has the emotional revelations needed to allow him to leap beyond his profit motive, Neeson is able to convince the viewers of this easily with his eyes and the rest of his body language.
But the performance of note in Schindler's List truly is that of Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern. I can think of no greater praise for an actor than to say this: I have seen Kingsley in several other films and I did not recognize him at all. Kingsley abandons all pretense and all sense of celebrity or facet of any other character he has ever played to become Stern. He blends in, makes his presence known when he has to and he is completely devoid of any mannerisms I've ever seen from his characters before. In fact, he also has a great moment where he has a few tongue-in-cheek lines and he illustrates a surprising wit and sense of comedic timing.
Finally, while Steven Spielberg and George Lucas usually get John Williams to compose grandiose soundtracks to their films, Spielberg's use of John Williams is far more conservative in Schindler's List. Williams uses strings and musing pianos to create a more contemplative soundtrack (when there is one) and while there are no rousing or universally recognizable themes, like there were from Star Wars or Raiders Of The Lost Ark, he creates a soundtrack that is nowhere near as obtrusive and also does not telegraph the emotions Spielberg hopes viewers will feel.
On DVD, Schindler's List (at least the one-disc version I had access to) has good, but sparse bonus features. There is no commentary track and the featurettes focus on the historical facts of the life of Oskar Schindler. In addition to a text biography of Schindler, there are video featurettes in which Jews rescued by Schindler tell their stories. As well, Steven Spielberg presents a featurette with the organization that is trying to the stories of as many of the Holocaust survivors as they can find.
In this end, this is a timeless, socially important film and Schindler's List lives up to all of its hype as a great drama that chronicles the suffering of a people and one man's efforts to fight that tidal wave.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project available here! Please check it out!]
For other films featuring Liam Neeson, please check out my reviews of:
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader
The Next Three Days
The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace
For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.