Twenty years after its initial release, Judge Clark Douglas finds this moving, masterful film as powerful as ever.
Our review of Schindler's List, published April 12th, 2004, is also available.
Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.
"What's a person worth to you?"
Facts of the Case
World War II has just begun, and times are hard for many people—particularly the Polish Jews who have just been transported to the Krakow Ghetto. However, where most see tragedy, some men see opportunity—men like Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson, Taken), a German businessman who hopes to engage in a bit of good old-fashioned war profiteering. Schindler is determined to set up a factory and become a manufacturer of mess kits, but he knows next to nothing about running a business. So, he hires Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley, Gandhi) to essentially run the business for him. While Schindler is only interested in profits, Stern sees an opportunity to aid his fellow Jews. New laws have ensured that Jews cost much less to employ than anyone else, which makes it profitable for Schindler to hire only Jewish workers. However, those with jobs in Schindler's factory will also be permitted to leave the ghetto. As such, Stern does everything within his power to persuade Schindler to hire as many Jews as possible (particularly those in dire need of aid).
As time passes, life only gets harsher for the Jewish people. Soon, the Nazis turn Schindler's factory into part of a concentration camp that is overseen by the merciless Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes, The Constant Gardener). Everyone does what they can to survive, but no amount of caution can defend against Goeth's constant outbursts of murderous rage. After witnessing the depths of Goeth's hatred, Schindler begins to develop a conscience and feel a sense of responsibility for his employees. After some deep soul-searching, he vows to pay whatever price is necessary to save the lives of his workers.
One of the strongest moments in Schindler's List comes late in the film, when Schindler and Stern have just finished compiling the titular list. It is filled with the names of Jewish individuals Schindler is spending his own money to save. Stern looks and Schindler and makes a simple, touching declaration: "This list…is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf." Schindler may have been a womanizer, a war profiteer, a popular member of the Nazi party and many other unsavory things, but the fact of the matter is that he took a stand for what was right during a time in which most other German men in his position were either participating in or endorsing unspeakable evil. In one sense, it seems like such a small achievement—for a man to simply choose to do a good thing instead of a horrific thing—but such actions can be so rare during the times when we need them the most. The fact that Schindler saved the lives of 1200 people is deeply moving, but it also serves to accentuate the fact that no one was there to stand up for the more than six million other Jews who were exterminated during the Holocaust.
I'm not sure that it's even possible to capture the full extent of the horror of the Holocaust. Schindler's List is a crushingly sad movie, and only made bearable by the fact that we're centered on a story of survival. Some have accused Spielberg of giving a horrific chapter in history a happy ending. That's complete nonsense. The survivors of this story are put through hell over the course of the film, and the knowledge that they fared far better than many (a fact the film briefly re-emphasizes before the end credits begin) serves to remind us of just how terrible things really were. At no point does Spielberg attempt to soften the reality of what happened. In several lengthy, nearly unbearable sequences, the director unflinchingly outlines the depths of cruelty the Jewish people were subjected to. Without Schindler's story, the film would simply be a relentless catalogue of despair. With his story, it becomes a reminder that basic human decency can and must survive anything.
The film is a deeply personal one for Spielberg, and he has consistently treated it with greater caution than any of his other efforts. He refused to accept any payment for directing the film, claiming that it would be accepting "blood money" and insisting that all proceeds be given to the Shoah Foundation. He has refused to autograph any materials related to the film. Despite the fact that most Spielberg DVD and Blu-ray releases have received generous bonus materials detailing the making of each film, Spielberg has not included any making-of material on any home video release of Schindler's List (only including interviews with real-life Holocaust survivors and information about the Shoah Foundation). Any time one makes a film about a subject as sensitive as the Holocaust, there are bound to be cynical accusations of all sorts (being accused of making awards bait, exploiting tragedy for personal gain, etc.), but Spielberg has worked hard to ensure that no reasonable person could ever mistake this as anything other than a pure-hearted effort to educate the public and honor the victims of the Holocaust.
That passion shines through in the film itself, as Spielberg demonstrates a level of sure-handed skill that is strong even by his own high standards. Spielberg has made several excellent historical dramas (including The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and Saving Private Ryan), but as far as I'm concerned Schindler's List stands above all of them (and most other historical dramas by most other directors, for that matter). Every little detail is so persuasive and absorbing; the film grabs you early on, never lets you go and leaves you emotionally exhausted by the time it concludes. I've seen the 195-minute film several times, and not once have I been aware of its considerable length. Part of this is due to the fact that despite the grave subject matter, Spielberg remains well aware of his responsibility to keep the audience engaged. In the wrong hands, Schindler's List might have felt like little more than a somber sermon (something that might have easily happened, given that Spielberg approached several other directors about making the movie before deciding to do it himself). Spielberg's skills as an entertainer join forces with his passion for the material to create a film that is spellbinding even when it's grueling.
Almost any single element of the movie could be praised at great length, but let us simply say that everyone involved is at the top of their game. Neeson's Schindler is charismatic and appealing. Ben Kingsley's quiet dignity forms the soul of the film. Ralph Fiennes delivers one of cinema's most chilling portraits of evil. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is artful and inventive without ever calling attention to itself. John Williams' score (featuring violin solos by Ithzak Perlman) is one of the composer's most heartfelt efforts. Steve Zallian's screenplay (greatly expanded from its much shorter original draft at Spielberg's request) is far and away the finest thing he's done.
The film concludes on two scenes that never fail to move me immensely. First is the much-debated "I could have saved more" scene, which critics have accused of indulging in false sentiment. Perhaps I'm simply too easily manipulated, but the emotional catharsis of the sequence proves overwhelming each and every time. It's partially the music, it's partially Neeson's carefully-measured performance suddenly turning nakedly emotional and it's partially that this moment finally permits the viewer to step back and really reflect on everything that has been occurring over the previous three hours. The second scene involves a transition from dramatization to reality, as we witness real-life survivors paying a visit to the real Schindler's grave. Simply to see them alive reduces me to tears each and every time. Steven Spielberg made great films before Schindler's List and he has made great films since, but I doubt he will ever deliver another scene with as much emotional heft as the scene that concludes this film.
Schindler's List (Blu-ray) has received an exceptional 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that was personally supervised by the director. Detail is strong throughout, blacks are deep and shadow delineation is very impressive. A light layer of natural grain is left intact and is pleasingly consistent. There are faint traces of ringing on occasion, but otherwise there's nothing to complain about. Spielberg's films have fared quite well on Blu-ray to date, and this one is no exception. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is masterful; a truly immersive track that further enhances the persuasiveness of the film. There's tremendous balance between the score, dialogue and sound design, with a handful of louder sequences proving as overwhelming and sonically complex as they need to be. As mentioned earlier, supplements are limited to a 70-minute documentary featuring interviews with Holocaust survivors and two 5-minute pieces spotlighting the work of the Shoah Foundation. Oddly, these supplements are included on the DVD copy of the film (which is spread across two discs)—the Blu-ray disc contains only the film itself. A digital copy is also included.
Despite the fact that some have grown increasingly comfortable with dismissing Schindler's List in recent years, I feel it remains one of the most powerful films ever made. It's one of those rare films that ennobles the medium of cinema and an essential viewing experience for every person old enough to handle the necessarily harsh R-rated content it contains.
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