Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle, Embeth Davidtz. (1993, R, 195 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 14, 1994
How does a person who is neither humanitarian nor beast fit into society -- especially when that society is as socially demarcated as Germany of the Third Reich? That is the saga of Oskar Schindler (Neeson), a man whose self-serving commitment to individual aggrandizement becomes undermined by the desperation of his time. Though the story is based on real events in the life of a true historical figure named Schindler, the movie makes him nothing less than the motivational cipher he has always been. A German Catholic war profiteer, Schindler moves to Krakow in 1939 when Germany overran Poland. There he opens an enamelware factory that, on the advice of his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Kingsley), is staffed by Jews from the nearby forced labor camp at Plaszow. Schindler's factory prospers though his contacts with the Nazi war machine and its local representatives, as well as his deft skill on the black market. Then, somewhere along the way, Schindler's devotion to self-interest is supplanted by a desire to protect as many Jews as possible. This desire ultimately grows into “Schindler's List,” which is directly responsible for sparing the lives of 1100 Jews. But what is it that makes a person shift from personal profit and Nazi complicity to heroic altruism and subversive activity? That is one of the ultimately unanswered mysteries that drives the compelling narrative of this three-hour long movie. Schindler's List is just about as good as all the advance hype has trumpeted. This odds-on favorite for best picture Oscar may finally be the charm for its heretofore Oscar-denied director Spielberg. And rightfully so, for in Schindler's List, Spielberg marshals all his formidable storytelling talents and puts them at the service of an epic human drama. His attention to the details of narrative construction makes this movie a trove of intrigue, suspense, curiosity and fascination. As such, it becomes so much more than a prophylactic history lesson for a world that seems to have forgotten the Holocaust. (Indeed, a recent survey concluded that a third of all Americans even doubt that the Holocaust ever took place.) While Schindler's List provides the opportunity to watch America's most popular and proficient storyteller functioning at the peak of his creative capacities, Spielberg also receives extraordinary assistance from his collaborators. Neeson is spectacularly engrossing as the alternately larger-than-life and irreducibly human Oskar Schindler. Also quite magnificent is the rich black-and-white cinematography of Janusz Kaminski. It has the velvety deep-focus look typical of films of the Forties and contributes so much to the sense of a world divided by polar opposites and the realities of lives lived in the shadows. Except for a couple of forgivable things, Schindler's List is just about a perfect work. Minor characters tend to be a bit undeveloped in the swirl of so many faces and stories. Perhaps fewer characters and a little more definition to the ones who remain might have made their individual tales easier to follow and ultimately more clear. The movie's ending at the train station and the modern-day epilogue feel protracted and indulgent. It is the only time the movie submerges into sentimental manipulation and, indeed, invites viewer tears and grief. Spielberg should have had enough confidence in his story to let it speak for itself. Apart from the ending though, this is Spielberg's most articulate movie ever.