movie film review | chris tookey

Schindler's List

© 1994 - Universal City Studios, Inc - all rights reserved
  Schindler's List Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
9.79 /10
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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Steven Zaillian from Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler's Ark (later renamed Schindler's List)

Released: 1993
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Length: 196


A nazi (Liam Neeson, right, with Ben Kingsley) saves more than 1100 Jews from the Holocaust.

Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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One thing that’s often forgotten in times of “back-to-basics” Puritanism, is that flawed people can achieve great things. The hero of Spielberg’s film is an inveterate womanizer, an exploiter of slave labour, and a Nazi - yet still a hero. Where Thomas Keneally’s Booker prize-winning novel was obliged to describe him with words, Spielberg shows us Schindler through a montage of visual images. He is a hedonistic dandy: his first, dressing-up scene is reminiscent of Richard Gere going to work in American Gigolo. He fraternizes with Nazis in a club, like a more corrupt Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. He wheels, deals and threatens, like a Germanic Godfather.
His first act of rescue - when he saves his hapless accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) from a train leaving for a concentration camp - is for selfish, business reasons. “What if I’d got here five minutes late?” Schindler demands. “Then where would I be?” But he happens to be riding on a hilltop on March 13th, 1943, when he sees beneath him the brutal clearing of the Cracow ghetto: people being shot, children running for cover. He finds himself sympathising with a Jewish workforce which he had intended only to exploit. His moment of truth is not accompanied by angst-ridden soul-searching: instead, we see him starting to change through his deeds.
Neeson plays Schindler convincingly as a big man of impulsive appetites and actions, someone whose force of character, bonhomie and ability to turn nasty enabled him to bluff his (and others’) way out of danger. He has an expert foil in Ben Kingsley’s more calculating, self-effacing right-hand man. But the most stunning performance comes from another British actor, Ralph Fiennes, as Amon Goeth, the murderous commandant of the Plaszcow forced labour camp. Fiennes plays this monster with such understanding and black humour that he becomes comprehensible and even pitiable - while Schindler’s attempts to dupe him with bribes and flattery become doubly scary.
One of the worst side-effects of modern cinema is that it has partly anaesthetised us to scenes of violence; but the casual shootings here - many of them by the demented Goeth - have the immediacy of today’s news. Jews are dispatched as casually as pigs being slaughtered. This is how it must have been; and it is horrible to watch.
Yet this is not a depressing picture - so much so that Spielberg was even accused of making a “feelgood” film out of the Holocaust. It is true that he is eager as always to see light in the darkness: the striking of a match is his opening image. But he is not guilty of prettification, as he was in Empire of the Sun and (especially) The Color Purple , which lost impact through Spielberg’s constant pursuit of the perfect, backlit shot, and his seeming inability to contemplate the uglier sides of life.
Here, he seems a different and far superior director. At no point does he sanitise history, and he achieves a much harder-edged, black-and-white, hand-held style of shooting which (though as perfectly lit as ever) has the rough immediacy of real life.
He is unable to resist one vulgar, Hollywood touch: a schmaltzy, over-theatrical farewell where Schindler breaks down and expresses the wish that he could have saved more Jews. But perhaps Spielberg and screenwriter Steven Zaillian may be allowed one crass scene in three and a quarter hours.
Schindler’s List has been called Spielberg’s Citizen Kane, but in its vitality, style and quality it is more like John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath. Spielberg gives a similar impression of huge numbers of people on the move: his amazing sense of scale and shot composition (first revealed in his worst ever flop, 1941) comes into its own with the enormous, hellish set-pieces, such as the exhumation and incineration of massacred Jews; the loading of children on to cattle trucks and the chase by their screaming mothers; the entrance into Auschwitz. Spielberg is not afraid to take us into the heart of darkness, and many of his images are unforgettable.
Most astonishingly of all, he achieves this epic scale without sacrificing any humanity - and without allowing himself to be sidetracked into the easy pathos of soap opera. Some have complained it is impossible to keep track of every individual Jew in the film, but that is one reason why it will bear re-seeing. Their stories are going on in the background, but their behaviour is shown in wonderful detail and variety - and every now and again (there is one staggering moment about a girl in a red coat) Spielberg brings us face to face with some moment of salvation or personal tragedy.
Schindler’s List was bound to win the best Film Oscar for all sorts of bad reasons - in recompense for the one he should have won for E.T. , as a way of saying thank you for the box-office success of Jurassic Park , because its portrayal of a wheeler-dealer capitalist with a heart was bound to appeal to voters in Hollywood. But it is a masterpiece - a brilliantly made, richly textured and profoundly moving picture which does more than any other film to illuminate one of the central events of the twentieth century.

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