Our review of Schindler's List (Blu-ray), published February 25th, 2013, is also available.
"Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire."—The Talmud
In 1980, Australian writer Thomas Keneally walked into a Beverly Hills luggage store owned by Leopold Pfefferberg, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. While waiting for a credit card authorization, Pfefferberg related a fascinating story to Keneally, about how he and nearly 1,200 other Jews had been rescued from the death camps by a man named Oskar Schindler, a German factory owner. Pfefferberg had recounted his experience to every writer he met; with Keneally the story finally took root, resulting two years later in the novel Schindler's Ark. This novel eventually found its way to a young director named Steven Spielberg.
In 1993, after a long and tortuous development process, Schindler's List opened to near-universal acclaim and a shower of awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture and a long-coveted Best Director Oscar for Spielberg. This film represented an artistic apotheosis and the nod of critical respect the director of E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark had long been denied. It was also a personal turning point for Spielberg, who, through the making of this film, was moved to embrace his Jewish heritage.
From the day of its release, and throughout the past decade, Schindler's List has been seen as something more than just a movie, or even a cultural event, but somewhat of a living historical artifact. While no single artistic work can hope to definitively capture an event as massive and unfathomably complex as the Holocaust, or convey the depth of suffering inflicted upon those swept into its abyss, Schindler's List has been, for the millions of us who are spectators to history, an entryway of understanding into one of the 20th century's most heinous atrocities.
Marking the tenth anniversary of the film and the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation birthed from it, Universal has at last released Schindler's List on DVD, offering viewers a fresh look at this landmark film.
Facts of the Case
Schindler's List begins with a close-up of a hand lighting two candles in a darkened room. Pulling back, we see a Jewish family observing the Sabbath, singing in prayer. The family vanishes, and the Sabbath candles burn down, the softly glowing flames fading out, as wisps of smoke rise into the air. The flames, as we soon realize, represent life, and smoke a recurring symbol of death; the scene is a visual metaphor for the horrors we are about to witness.
As the smoke rises, the film goes from subdued color to stark black and white, and we are placed in Krakow, Poland, September of 1939. Through a succession of meticulously composed images, such as a close-up of a Nazi party button being precisely attached to the lapel of a fine suit, we are introduced to Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson). We see Schindler, enigmatic and imperious, at a nightclub, ordering drinks for an important-looking German officer, who is puzzled and a little wary of his mysterious benefactor. Within moments, however, Schindler is at the head of a table full of Nazi officers, a total stranger who has inexplicably drawn them into his circle as if they are old friends; it becomes apparent that we have just seen a master con artist in action.
The story of Oskar Schindler is in part the story of the greatest swindle ever perpetrated against the Third Reich. Except that it is not money that Schindler steals from the Nazis, but human lives. Of course, it doesn't begin this way. Schindler comes to Krakow with a suitcase and the clothes on his back. His sole intention is to make a quick buck. When the Nazi occupation and persecution of the Jews begins, Schindler sees an opportunity and grabs it, taking control of an enamelworks factory and hiring desperate Jewish workers as cheap labor. A businessman without a lick of business sense, he hires a Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), to handle the actual management of the company. Stern, himself a consummate opportunist in his own quiet way, uses his position to arrange work papers for "non-essential" Jews to aid in the war effort. These individuals, lacking in skills, will otherwise be taken away to an unknown but dismal fate.
The stranglehold on the Jewish community of Krakow tightens, as they are first herded into a walled-off ghetto, and then, following the arrival of Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), commandant of the Plaszow labor camp, rounded up and imprisoned. From a hilltop, while out for a horseback ride with his mistress, Schindler witnesses the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. Horrified and sickened, he watches as Nazi soldiers rout out the Jewish residents and ruthlessly murder anyone left behind. Schindler spies a young girl in a red coat—one of the few times that color appears anywhere in the film—and as he watches her progress through the corpse-littered streets, something seems to awaken behind his eyes.
Soon, Schindler's factory becomes a refuge for the Jewish labor camp inmates, taking in children and elderly workers who are somehow "essential" to the factory's operations, despite the fact that they have no actual factory skills. Schindler's carefully cultivated network of powerful friends, maintained with a regular application of bribes, ensures that no one looks too closely at his activities. In the meantime, Schindler does what he can to temper the homicidal excesses of Kommandant Goeth, a pathological killer and sadist riddled with insecurities that Schindler, whose aura of power Goeth helplessly envies, employs like puppet strings.
The Plaszow camp is, inevitably, scheduled for liquidation, its inmates to be sent to the Auschwitz death camp for "special treatment." Schindler employs the vast wealth he has accumulated to arrange for over a thousand of "his" Jewish workers to be diverted to his factory in the relative safety of Czechoslovakia. Schindler dictates the names of those to be spared to Stern, who types them up. "The list," Stern says afterward, "is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf."
Schindler's List was, for a time, to be directed not by Spielberg but Martin Scorsese. Scorsese ultimately passed on the film, saying that Spielberg would be a better choice. In retrospect, it's easy to see why; there may be no filmmaker—except, perhaps, for Billy Wilder—better suited to this material than Steven Spielberg. In telling the story of Oskar Schindler, Spielberg is in a sense telling his own story: the consummate manipulator who undergoes a moral awakening, and employs his talents in the service of a cause greater than himself. Ironically, for a film in which Spielberg set aside his ego and his bag of tricks to disappear fully behind the story, Schindler's List is in some ways his most personal, revealing work. If there is an answer as to why Schindler makes the sacrifices he does, it may be simply that he, like Spielberg, is fundamentally attuned to the feelings and needs of his fellow human beings—a vital quality for both confidence men and filmmakers.
Spielberg is, first and foremost, a master of visual storytelling, and in Schindler's List he employs that virtuosity with a graceful subtlety previously unseen in his work. The opening sequence, which introduces us to Schindler, unfolds with succinct precision; this is the Spielberg of Raiders of the Lost Ark, who unveiled Indiana Jones with a few brisk strokes that instantly enraptured his audience. Similarly, before Schindler utters a single word, we are captivated by this man and drawn into his mystery. There is a predatory satisfaction in the way Schindler stalks his prey, reducing the Nazis to unwitting dupes. For a moment, we are lulled, chuckling, into what seems like a classic Spielberg vaudeville—the master showman dazzling us with another rousing adventure.
Then, abruptly, the film cuts to a scene of Nazi soldiers rounding up and beating Jewish civilians, severing the braids of a Hasidic Jew as he stands in abject humiliation and terror. The trance is broken, and the nightmare is only beginning.
The visual impact of this film cannot be overstated; every shot captures a moment of ineffable beauty or unspeakable horror. A delicate, lovely snowfall is revealed to be ashes drifting from incinerating corpses; a train unloads its human cargo at Auschwitz, in a nightmarish collage of garish spotlights, faceless soldiers, and savagely barking dogs. At over three hours in length, the effect is overwhelming, even crushing, but it is nearly impossible to avert one's eyes from the screen. The film feels brief and unending at the same time. In terms of pure imagery, this is one of the most unshakably powerful cinematic visions of the Holocaust ever recorded.
That Schindler's List is filmed primarily in black and white is the key to Spielberg's artistic intentions; while color may be more realistic, black and white is how the postwar generation remembers the 1940s, through classic movies and newsreel footage—it feels more "realistic" and truer to our memories. Schindler's List is, after all, a film about remembrance, aimed squarely at younger and future generations. Unlike Roman Polanski's The Pianist, a more intimate account of the persecution of Polish Jews, Spielberg's film seeks consciously to be a legacy of the Holocaust and a monument to the memories of the deceased.
Such lofty aims are usually a harbinger of stultifying moral lectures, but Spielberg's direction is anything but heavy-handed or intrusive. While scenes involving Schindler's roguish behavior and slippery machinations are presented with Spielberg's trademark flourishes (as in a scene where a woman tries unsuccessfully to gain an audience with Schindler—who is seen observing her in the far distance—and returns in a slinky dress to much better effect), images of persecution and murder are delivered with unblinking matter-of-factness. Oddly, upon seeing the film after a number of years, I found that Schindler's List depicts far fewer onscreen acts of violence than I remembered. Instead of focusing grotesquely on the brutality and death, Spielberg presents these moments almost offhandedly—which, ironically, only intensifies the sense of abomination, by underscoring the dehumanization of the Jews (who are described as "subhuman" and "vermin") that made possible the casual atrocities committed by soldiers who were, ostensibly, once regular human beings.
At one point an SS officer tells Schindler, "That's not just good old-fashioned Jew-hating talk; it's policy now." And in fact, it is not so much the act of killing that arouses our revulsion, but the notion of racism and murder being adopted as bureaucratic mandates. Murder inspired by rage or passion is abhorrent, but within the realm of understanding; murder with the emotionless efficiency of a policeman issuing a traffic ticket is what propels these acts of savagery beyond the limits of comprehension.
Much of the power of Schindler's List stems from this parade of casual atrocities, and the hellish atmosphere generated as Krakow disintegrates into a nightmarish charnel house. So much so, in fact, that it would be easy for the film to slide into an abyss of total despair. Surprisingly, however, Schindler's List is at heart a hopeful, even inspiring film. It is not a story of pure-hearted champions and superheroic deeds, but of how small acts of decency can have tremendous consequences—and, conversely, how the chaos of war allows small minds to flower into monstrous evil. Oskar Schindler remains a largely opaque figure in Schindler's List; his horrified reaction to the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto is one of very few glimpses we receive of his inner workings, and for a good part of the film his motivations remain ambiguous. Even when performing admirably selfless acts, Schindler repeatedly undercuts his heroism with some mundane or raffish remark that masks his true intentions beneath a veneer of genial self-interest.
With frequent parallel cutting and juxtaposition, Spielberg sets up the psychopathic Amon Goeth as Schindler's foil and opposite. Goeth, like Schindler, is an unremarkable figure who gains prominence through circumstances of war; but where Schindler's basic decency is amplified in contrast to the horror that surrounds him, Goeth's essential lack of empathy turns an unimaginative, insecure man into a demonic figure. If war is a vast engine of death, Spielberg seems to be saying, then it will inevitably, if allowed to run unchecked, elevate only the most ruthless and compulsive murderers to power; the only force that can stand in the way of such an amoral juggernaut is simple humanity.
By the end of the film, both Schindler and Goeth have been returned to their former statures; Schindler winds up a penniless fugitive, Goeth a pathetic madman. They are simple human beings, yet both have committed acts that will resonate throughout history. The hundreds of lives extinguished by Goeth, added to the millions killed by those like him, constitute the indelible horror of the Holocaust; but the lives saved by Schindler and his list offer a ray of hope in the darkness, that humanity can endure even the most savage onslaught of evil.
Of course, the depth of characterization in this film, despite Spielberg's masterful direction, would come to nothing without performances strong enough to bring these characters to life. It's a measure of how completely the actors inhabit their roles that, when I sat down to write this review, I momentarily blanked out on their real names. I had forgotten that I was watching Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, and Ralph Fiennes. As clichéd as it may sound to say that the actors virtually became their characters, that's precisely how much authenticity and conviction they brought to the film. Every member of the cast, from Neeson and Kingsley down to the most fleetingly glimpsed background artist, delivers a knockout performance without a hint of grandstanding or scenery chewing. Given the gravity of the subject matter, one has to appreciate what this group of actors endured to bring this harrowing story to the screen.
Universal's presentation of Schindler's List is a model of elegant restraint, from its attractive, muted case design to its simple, unadorned menus. One thing is immediately clear from viewing this disc: that the film itself is the focal point, with no bells and whistles to distract from it. Video quality is simply magnificent, presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen (there is also a full screen edition for those with a masochistic desire for an incomplete viewing experience) and a flawless transfer that preserves the rich monochromatic hues of the black and white print. Any evident graininess is intentional on the part of virtuoso cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who employs a variety of styles that range from lush, softly-lit glamour shots to gritty, high-contrast verité-style footage that looks freshly minted from a WWII newsreel negative.
Audio gets fine treatment here, with an English DTS 5.1 Surround track and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround tracks in English, Spanish, and French. As critical as the soundtrack is to the effectiveness of this film, most especially in regard to the somber, mournful John Williams score (one of his finest), it's appropriate that Spielberg and Universal have paid full attention to delivering the best sound possible. All of the audio tracks are excellent, delivering strong surround separation and bass, with exceptional clarity in the sound effects—gunshots crack and echo so realistically as to make one jump each time you hear them. Schindler's List is not an especially loud or sonically busy film, but these audio tracks excel in combining ambient noise and subtle effects to create an immersive experience.
The issue of extra features is bound to be a thorny one for DVD enthusiasts. Spielberg, already (in)famous for shying away from audio commentaries, made the controversial decision not to include the usual bonus features, such as making-of documentaries or deleted scenes, on this release. As he explains, "I just didn't want to knock down any of the fourth walls, because it's experiential, and to suddenly see how it was all pulled together I think would take you out of how hard we worked to put you inside of the Holocaust from the point of view of the survivors."
Instead, what we have is a 77-minute featurette entitled "Voices from the List," which is composed of interviews with several "Schindler Jews" bookended by an introduction and closer from Spielberg. The interviews offer valuable background on the true-life events of Schindler's List, giving faces and voices to the mass suffering of the victims of the Holocaust. It's a bit unsettling to see real people giving testimony to the cinematic events we've just seen, but it adds immeasurably to the impact of the film seeing the actual people saved by Schindler, and being reminded once again of how his actions have reverberated through the decades. It's an experience as powerful and affecting in its way as the film itself, and is a perfect supplement to the feature presentation.
Among the other extras, the second featurette, "The Shoah Foundation Story," isn't a whole lot more than an infomercial for the Shoah Foundation, but is a fascinating feature for those who may not be familiar with what the organization does. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, this featurette describes the work the Foundation has done over the past decade, in archiving over 52,000 videotaped testimonies from Holocaust survivors around the world. In recording their memories, the Foundation has given them, along with the family and loved ones they lost, a voice that can never be silenced. More than Schindler's List itself, the creation of the Shoah Foundation will stand as Spielberg's most significant contribution to history.
Rounding out the extras is a standard-issue set of text-based biographies and filmographies for the cast and filmmakers, and about nine pages of notes giving a concise biography of Oskar Schindler, who died in 1974 at the age of 66.
While I admit to initially being disappointed by the slim set of bonus features, I think Spielberg made a sound artistic decision in omitting them. Bearing in mind that the absence of "traditional" DVD supplements was a conscious choice on the part of the filmmaker, rather than a result of cheapness or lack of effort from the studio, it would be unfair to summarily downgrade the DVD for what it is deliberately missing. Schindler's List represents a fragile dance between cinematic spectacle and historical document, and to dwell on production details and behind-the-scenes information would distract from the primary intent and spirit of the film. Part of the creative philosophy underpinning Schindler's List is the subordination of the cast and crew to the story they are telling, and a group of featurettes touting the expert filmmaking techniques and the fabulous performances of the actors could only muddy the stark clarity of the film's impact. If the purpose of extra features is to enhance one's experience of the film, then the extras on this disc are appropriate and complete. Obviously, it's a debatable position that many will disagree with, but in this reviewer's humble opinion, this is a rare instance in which the inclusion of fewer extras actually enhances the overall product.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Most of the negative criticism around Schindler's List has tended to dwell upon external issues, either complaining that Spielberg has made a "critic-proof" film that exploits its sensitive subject matter to evade critiques of his artistry, or attacking the film for not being the definitive record of the Holocaust that it was never meant to be. Incredibly, some even cite the ambitious scope of the film as an example of Spielberg's hubris, thoroughly missing the point.
Cynical irrelevancies aside, there are some valid criticisms to be made. In terms of artistic choices, Spielberg's storytelling instincts falter in the final scene, when Schindler breaks down in front of his newly liberated workers. While justifiable for a number of reasons, as a dramatic cinematic moment it feels excessive, the only scene in a movie rife with potentially melodramatic events that feels melodramatic. Likewise, while I can understand why a scene with Goeth humiliating his Jewish housemaid goes on as long as it does, it doesn't prevent the scene from feeling voyeuristic and smarmy (that it's meant to feel smarmy makes it a little more palatable, but not much).
It could also be argued the Jewish victims whose plight Spielberg documents with such sympathy nevertheless comes across as somewhat faceless; we see the suffering, but we're not often allowed behind the suffering to get to know the victims as people, as who they were before the Holocaust reduced them to hollow-eyed wretches. However, Spielberg is working in fine strokes here, within a finite canvas. As a practical matter, there is no way to adequately represent the individual stories of these victims and do justice to them, the way a film of more personal scope like The Pianist might. Instead, Spielberg has cast these roles with distinctive faces, which we see again and again until we come to recognize them instantly through sheer repetition. Then, in an epilogue in which we see the real Schindler Jews with their actor counterparts, the almost subliminal familiarity bonds with the reality to devastating effect.
The closing sequence of Schindler's List shows a vast line of liberated people striding towards a nearby village. Then, gradually, the scene turns to color, and the people go from period dress to contemporary dress. We realize that these are the real-life Schindler Jews. Through titles, we are told that there are 4,000 Jews living in present-day Poland; Schindler's Jews, and their descendants, number around 6,000. One by one, they file past Oskar Schindler's grave, and leave a small stone to mark their passing. As the stones pile up, the significance of Schindler's actions becomes heartbreakingly manifest. "There will be generations because of what you did," Stern tells Schindler at their final parting. And here we see those generations in the flesh, and are reminded of the thousands of human beings who are alive today, and the thousands more who will live in the future, because of the humane actions of one man in the face of implacable evil.
The word "holocaust" has its origins in an ancient Greek word referring to burnt sacrifice. In leaving us with the image of simple human goodness surviving through crushing despair, Schindler's List finds a slim thread of hope in a miasma of horror: that the suffering and death of millions may not have been in vain, if in remembering and honoring their sacrifice we may learn to live together despite our many differences, and prevent such a catastrophe from occurring again. Such a hope may indeed be slim, as events in the Balkans and Rwanda have shown, but Schindler's List stands as a reminder that it is always there.
Schindler's List represents that all-too-rare union of powerful material, a director at the height of his powers, and a dedicated cast and crew giving their all in service of the film and what it represents. Ten years from its release, Schindler's List has lost none of its devastating power, and remains an unforgettable document of one of history's bleakest episodes.
Can there be any doubt? Schindler's List is found not guilty on all counts. Anyone who has not seen this masterpiece is ordered to purchase or rent this title immediately, although leniency will be granted those who have had the stamina and patience to make it to the end of this review.
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Scales of Justice
• "Voices from the List" Featurette
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