Schindler's List Review

Oskar Schindler, a Sudeten-born salesman, arrives in Krakow hoping to get rich. More a capitalist than a philanthropist, he sees an opportunity in the enamel factory to the southern suburbs. He tracks down Itzak Stern, a Jewish accountant, to check out the potential for profit and see if he can get some of the rich members of the Jewish community, now barred from making almost any financial transaction, to invest in it. Employing Jewish workers is much cheaper than using Polish nationals so with an exclusive Jewish workforce, Schindler will have a cutting edge over the competition and simultaneously provide his workforce with the needed documents to avoid being deported to the death camps.

Emotional pornography was David Mamet's lapidary assessment of Schindler's list - a statement that flew in the face of the public mood and gave Mamet a certain status as an arch Agent Provocateur, but his clumsy use of hyperbole shouldn't hide the reason why Schindler's List is not by any stretch of the imagination one of the best films ever made. It is vitally important at this point to distinguish between the film's subject topic and the film itself - you can without doubt produce a very bad film about a most worthy subject matter; Makhmalbaf's Kandahar or Wenders' The End of Violence are two examples of films that fail to varying degrees despite the author's best intentions. Despite the stark black and white film stock and the above average performances from the cast, Schindler's List does sadly very much the same.

There is something desperately Hollywoodesque about it despite the pretension of being outwith or beyond it - the use of black and white may be an attempt by Spielberg to vividly show to the viewer this isn't your normal popcorn flick but, on almost every single level, it completely fails to differentiate itself from them. From the outset, one is left with no doubt that this is a Spielberg film before being anything else - his Manichean vision of the world glares through the celluloid, be it with his inability to cast much ambiguity into Schindler's character or his failure to give Amon Goeth the depth that Keneally gives him in the novel. Goeth is the quintessential villain who is the embodiment of evil and shows no cogent signs of remorse - a bit like the shark in Jaws or the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, he lives to kill and destroy but there is no interest in giving him a third dimension or even a past. He is a simple plot device to focalise our hate, disgust and revulsion at the Third Reich's genocide and Fiennes gives us another rehash of the evil German accent that British actors seem to have to specialise in if they want to make a career in Hollywood and subconsciously places Goeth alongside the Die Hard bad guys - irrational, Germanobritish and very, very angry...

Some spoilers are included in the following paragraph - if you want to avoid them please skip to the DVD section.

And then there's Spielberg's heavy-handedness - something you can put up with in the likes of ET or Raiders of the Lost Ark but this story called for a certain amount of restraint. It's quite easy to horrify an audience senseless but incredibly complicated to not overstate your case. For example, late in the film, a trainful of Schindler's workers end up in Auschwitz - they all get rounded up and sent into the showers which are then hermetically shut and locked. For about a minute, he toys with the audience's knowledge of what happened in the showers at Auschwitz, letting us imagine the horrible outcome until, as a Deus Ex Machina, cold water springs out of the showerheads. By that point, he had completely lost me as a viewer because he was pulling a cheap cinematic thrill when it was completely unnecessary especially given the gravity of the subject matter. Though The Pianist provides the audience with many narrow escapes for Szpilman and Louis Malle does roughly the same in Au Revoir Les Enfants, these are barely perceptible to the audience. It's a question of fine measure and Spielberg regularly oversteps the mark by a mile with the aforementioned tricks as well as with Williams' overwrought and pious score. In fact, Williams inclusion epitomises the film's flaws: bar some cosmetic changes, Spielberg seems to have approached Schindler's List like just another project. To be fair to Spielberg, he originally felt he wasn't the right person to direct this type of film and only made it after failing to coax Roman Polanski into taking the director's seat. Although Schindler's story is nothing short of heroic, it couldn't have been worse served than by this kind of treatment. To claim this to be the seminal film about the holocaust (a claim amazingly made upon the film's release) seems to be at best myopic - ten years after the Holocaust, Resnais came nigh close to perfection with his grave and sober Night and Fog (now available from Criterion). In comparison, Schindler's List looks like Holocaust-light - simplistic and insipid.

The DVD:

The image:
The stock used to film was intentionally grainy and the DVD transfer renders it very well. This makes the film naturally lack a certain amount of crispness and precision but that was obviously intended. Of course, the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is retained with an anamorphic transfer and there were no signs of print damage at all. Due to the inclusion of the extras and the DTS track, the film has been split over two discs with the first two hours of the film on the first disc and the remaining hour and the extras lodged on the second. I found the point chosen for the break rather poorly chosen and it breaks the films flow quite noticeably. Still since this allows the inclusion of the DTS track, this is a minor problem.

The sound:
There are two available mixes: DD 5.1 and DTS. Both mixes are rather subtle and shy away from being too flashy - Saving Private Ryan this is not - but there is some effective use of surrounds in the open air scenes and also of frontal stereo effects in the more intimate scenes. The dialogue tends to be centralised and relatively clear though Spielberg's insistance on getting the actors to speak English with a heavily accented German accent makes the dialogue a bit difficult to decipher at times and I occasionally had to turn on the subtitles to clarify some of the speech.

The extras:
The main extras focus on the Shoah foundation that Spielberg set up following the film - both are given a 5.1 mix and a 4:3 transfer with optional English subtitles. The first documentary runs for 78 minutes and has the people saved by Schindler recount their stories as well as Schindler's - Spielberg introduces and concludes the documentary telling us it will be a more powerful than any film about the Holocaust and indeed it is. Though the film's contains good acting and cinematography, Spielberg's inability to find the correct tone completely spoils the movie. Though obviously aspiring to greatness, the film fails to be much more than entertainment.

The second documentary (12 mins) is a promotional film for the Foundation narrated by Morgan Freeman, showing some of the foundations work and their aims.

Finally, the usual filmographies and bios are featured - these are quite detailed and well written but hardly an essential extra.

Though the film will probably continue to divide audiences, it's hard to escape from the harsh reality that this is a film I could not recommend for the aforementioned problems. If you want an accessible account of the Holocaust, buy Art Spiegelman's Maus or Alain Resnais' Night and Fog, which are both artistic but sober. The DVD is also quite sober with little padding and an excellent extra in the shape of the documentary.

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