Sunday, 3 March 2019

Schindler’s List

Cast: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley

Director: Steven Spielberg  

195 minutes (15) 1993
Universal Blu-ray region B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

Based on Australian writer Thomas Keneally’s novel, this drama tells the true story about a German industrial businessman who saved over 1,000 Jews from the Nazi death camps after the invasion of Poland. A distinguishing feature of this movie, setting it apart from other examples of late 20th century cinema about WW2 - such as John Boorman’s Hope And Glory (1987) - is that it was made in black-and-white. Unlike the art-house styling of Japanese production Black Rain (1989), about the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, Schindler’s List manages to overcome that pretentious approach of a modern drama filmed in B&W, partly because Spielberg’s directorial focus explores fussy little details, in scenes often resembling archive footage, that’s probably intended to grant this movie an historical authenticity.

However, despite its inordinate length (three hours runtime), it clearly lacks a colourfully corruptive decadence, as seen more recently in Paul Verhoeven’s Dutch blockbuster Black Book (2006), of the Nazi regime, here depicted in sombre tones of brutal grey, seemingly done in order to de-glamorise a negative culture’s most nostalgic era of yesteryear, and define its marketable period setting. It appears unlikely that Spielberg’s reasoning was to help generate a moody style of realistic horror, because human reality or cinema realism are generally no longer effective in monochrome. In modern cinema, B&W film is simply an anachronistic affectation, so rarely evoking a timeless quality of noir-ish documentary intensity, as perhaps was intended here. Filming in B&W for a modern movie is subtraction, not addition. Consequently, this feels something like a museum piece. Schindler’s List is a museum of a movie. 

Spielberg’s other works set during wartime include the hugely popular adventures of the superheroic ‘Indiana Jones’, that began with Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981); the widely praised epic drama Empire Of The Sun (1987), based on an autobiographical novel by SF author J.G. Ballard; and the critically acclaimed Saving Private Ryan (1998). But since it’s arguable that all of the above are much better WW2 entertainments than Schindler’s List, it remains surprising that none of them score quite as highly as the 8.9/10 on IMDb star ratings. Laden with Oscars, this movie looks designed to embody that particular prize of worthiness where its entertainment and socio-political values satisfy the Academy’s woke criteria for annual awards.

Here, Spielberg embraces a studied adherence to wholly respectful depictions of religion, and its varied ceremonies like Jewish prayers, in conflict with the godless atheism of the Nazis. A tolerance of the faithful and their virtuous community spirit also stands in sharp contrast to the barking hatred from a rampant Nazism that provokes a tearfully nervous reaction or dumb catatonic shock. The certain angelic poses of a meekly suffering people whose lives are crushed, snuffed out, and callously destroyed by the jackboots of fascism is quite plainly a one-sided portrait of Holocaust events. This righteous dignity vies with a typically Spielbergian sentimentality for the movie’s central vibe.

So where are this Oscar-winning picture’s innate qualities to be found? Emotional impacts from a moral repugnance of damned Nazism is, of course, self-evident, along with a story of an ultimately fragile sense of humanity in grim situations of mortal desperation. There is a notable sequence where, to escape violent extermination in the ghetto, some of the persecuted Jews fled into the sewers. Later, the haunting symbolism of the little girl in a red coat represents the splashy colour of blood on the outside, not inside the body where it belongs. This, iconic bad omen and other sympathetic narratives of human folly in war, combine with arty cinema compositions to ensure Schindler’s List meets the demands of rich tone and presentational style for primed for expectations of success at the Oscars.

Were the much feared Schutzstaffel, here represented by the psychotic SS officer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), actually no better as trained German soldiers than serial killers in uniform? Laughter at needless cruelty usually signifies a degree of sadism, and there’s a blurry line between the presentation of bluntly appalling images of a genocidal massacre for educational value, and wallowing in an accurate recreation of atrocity merely for the sake of a movie about systematic racism. So the artistic decision to shoot in B&W might be viewed as a methodical avoidance of the commercial aspect, a choice prompted by the necessity for graphic depictions of terror and extreme violence that are clearly believable and unnerving, and yet without the risk of becoming rather too seethingly grotesque for any comfortably aware viewing by a family audience. The movie’s B&W images maintain a safe distance from an unwatchable exploitation of the Holocaust, central to a European catastrophe which still has lingering effects upon the continental society of today.

This 25th anniversary edition for Blu-ray includes a bonus disc of special features.
Schindler’s List: 25 Years Later - director Spielberg joins actors Neeson, Kingsley, Embeth Davidtz, and Caroline Goodall, at the Tribeca film festival to reflect on the making of the film and its legacy.
Voices From The List - a feature-length documentary with testimonies from Holocaust survivors and archival footage.
USC Shoah Foundation story - with Spielberg.