Combustible Celluloid
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With: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Embeth Davidtz, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagall, Malgorzata Gebel, Shmuel Levy, Mark Ivanir, Béatrice Macola, Andrzej Seweryn, Friedrich von Thun, Krzysztof Luft
Written by: Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Thomas Keneally
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexuality and actuality violence
Running Time: 196
Date: 11/29/1993

Schindler's List (1993)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A Candle in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's hard to imagine a time when Steven Spielberg was considered an outsider. As of the early 90s, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had nominated Spielberg a few times for Oscars but had snubbed him just as often. He was viewed as a boy wonder who made exciting entertainments and little else. His first few attempts at "serious" filmmaking wound up as overly saccharine efforts like The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and Always.

In the summer of 1993 he had one of his biggest hits with Jurassic Park, but by the fall, a new Spielberg would emerge, one that the Academy could no longer ignore.

Adapted by screenwriter Steven Zaillian from Thomas Keneally's book, Schindler's List hit with a force almost unseen in movies since D.W. Griffith's day. It was a major event, a deadly serious movie made with great artistry that scored huge numbers at the box office. People did their solemn duty and went to see it.

It would rank unquestionably with the best and most important pictures of all time if not for one thing: a wretched, syrupy ending.

Liam Neeson stars as Oskar Schindler, a real-life German businessman who saved over 1000 Jews during World War II. After the movie's memorable opening of the burnt-out candle dissolving into the smokestack of a train, Schindler prepares for a fancy dinner gathering. Spielberg introduces him in pieces -- an almost fetishistic collection of silk ties, cuff links and watchbands. The final touch is a Nazi Swastika pinned to his lapel.

Schindler is a man of appearances, it seems. During the war, he operates two factories: first manufacturing pots and pans and secondly shell casings, none of which are of any use to the Nazis. With the help of Itzhak Stern (Ben Kinglsey) he uses the factories to hire Jewish workers, keeping his employees out of the death camps.

Yet Schindler's List is not all about triumph. Spielberg doesn't shy away from the full horror of the Holocaust. The German Commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is one of its deadliest catalysts. We see plenty of footage of humiliation, degradation and murder at his hands. But Spielberg is smart enough not to paint him as pure evil. We see him constantly thinking, weighing his beliefs, and continually trying to convince himself -- especially when he becomes inexplicably attracted to a Jewish maid (Embeth Davidtz).

Spielberg is enough of a master showman to break up the horror with small rewards. In one scene, a group of women is herded into what we suppose is a chemical shower where they will be killed. Instead it turns out to be a real shower with nothing more than hot water.

Photographed by Janusz Kaminski, Schindler's List is shot mostly in black-and-white, with a few exceptions, notably the "girl in the red dress." Many critics have described this as an all-too obvious gimmick; Schindler spies the little girl in a crowd, and later sees her body lying in a heap. Both times her red dress shines through the black-and-white imagery. It's possible Spielberg could have used some other identifying marker, a flower or a hat, perhaps. But the red dress works in a kind of heightened operatic manner, raising Schindler's List past the level of a mere story or document.

For three hours Spielberg conducts this great film without a misstep, then with only about 15 minutes left to go, he throws it off a cliff. Schindler breaks down and makes a stammering and overwrought speech about how -- if he hadn't been so selfish -- he could have saved even more people. The speech is way too long, expositional, and betrays all the subtlety of the rest of the film. Following this, Spielberg cuts to the present day, in color, and films the surviving Schindler Jews and their families as they place ceremonial rocks on Schindler's grave, a moment that could have been much more powerful just on its own.

Spielberg's greatest failing, one that rears its head in nearly every one of his films, is that he trusts the audience only so far. He feels the need to take our hands and guide us through as if we were children. He's one of the most gifted filmmakers alive and yet he has no faith in his own skill. So he drags his movies on far too long, killing their momentum -- especially in his more recent films A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report.

Of course, it would have been nice to call Schindler's List a masterpiece, but even in its current state, it's still a landmark in American cinema, a hugely important film that deserves to be seen again and again.

Universal's DVD release comes with a worthy transfer. The film looks and sounds amazing, and the black and white photography really sparkles. Viewers must flip the disc at around 136 minutes to finish viewing the 196-minute film. And once again, Spielberg refuses to provide a commentary track, instead throwing in a couple of rather straightforward documentaries about his Shoah Foundation.

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