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review added: 4/22/04



Schindler's List
1993 (2004) - Universal

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsEncoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

Schindler's List Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A/B

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): B+/B+

Specs and Features

196 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, custom Digipack packaging, dual-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switches at ??), Voices from the List documentary, The Shoah Foundation Story with Steven Spielberg featurette, cast and filmmaker bios and filmographies, About Oskar Schindler text feature, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (40 chapters; 1-27 on side A, 28-40 on side B), languages: English (DD and DTS 5.1), Spanish and French (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned


All right, folks. Make yourselves comfortable. This might be a long one. It's taken me almost every one of the ten years since Schindler's List was released to sort out my extremely conflicted feelings toward this almost universally acclaimed film. If possible, please hold off on the hate mail until you hear me out.

For years, whenever the subject of Schindler's List would come up in conversation, I'd nod to acknowledge that I'd seen the movie and bite my tongue as everyone else praised it to the high heavens. As I mentioned when I reviewed JFK, there are certain movies you just can't criticize without appearing to be criticizing the film's subject matter instead of the film itself. Schindler's List is the epitome of this type of film and I learned this the hard way. Say a word against it and you run the risk of being branded anti-Semitic or worse.

To be fair, I said more than just one word against it. As virulently as most people were overpraising it at the time, I was reacting in the extreme opposite direction. For years, I refused to give Steven Spielberg any credit at all for what he'd done with Schindler's List. I agreed with David Mamet's assessment of the movie as "emotional pornography". I was outraged that school kids were being sent to cinemas by the busload to watch the movie as part of their history class. It struck me as fundamentally dishonest that they should be required to watch a film based on one of the few relatively inspirational stories to come out of the Holocaust. In my most passionate moments, I decried Schindler's List as one of the most despicable films ever made, reducing the slaughter of millions of innocent people to the same tear-jerking level of little Elliot saying goodbye to E.T.

Well, that was an overreaction. One thing I'm willing to admit about myself today that I wasn't willing to admit back then is that any time an overwhelming majority of people love a movie/book/whatever and tell me that I will too, I immediately resolve that I will not. I am so resistant to the herd mentality that I will latch onto the slightest little imperfection and work it to the ground in my attempt to go against the grain. More often than not, this will blind me to the things in the film/book/whatever that do work and this was certainly the case with Schindler's List. Ten years later, I can watch the film more dispassionately and sure enough, there are definitely a number of things right with Schindler's List. However, there are still some things that bothered me then and bother me still. And interestingly enough, new problems have cropped up that I think are even more damaging to Spielberg's vision than the ones I'd latched on to previously.

I certainly can't deny that this is a story worth telling. Liam Neeson is quite good as Oskar Schindler, the industrialist who made a fortune exploiting Jewish labor at the onset of World War II and lost it all trying to save his workers from certain death. During the first half of the film, Neeson is very much a man of mystery, wreathed in a plume of cigarette smoke and scheming to work the situation in Poland to his advantage. But as good as Neeson is, it's difficult for me to accept that what is widely considered to be the definitive cinematic treatment of the Holocaust is not really about Jews but about the Catholic who tried to save them. Like I said before, the story is compelling and definitely worth telling. But it seems to me that if you're going to criticize Glory for making Matthew Broderick its central character or The Last Samurai for being about Tom Cruise (criticisms I don't necessarily agree with but have heard leveled against both films), you can't not criticize Schindler's List for being about Liam Neeson.

That said, there are really only two fully-realized characters in Schindler's List. Neeson's Schindler is one. Ralph Fiennes' Nazi commandant Amon Goeth is the other. Like Neeson, Fiennes does an excellent job, creating a truly evil character who never seems anything other than human. Unlike other World War II films that depict Nazi characters as simply following orders handed down from on high, Fiennes is brave enough in his performance to convince us that Goeth truly does believe that Jews are inhuman. He shoots them at random, like rats in a junkyard, without so much as a second thought. Nowhere is his contempt more powerfully felt than in his basement confrontation with his Jewish maid. It's a chilling scene as Goeth, basically talking to himself, almost begins to see her as a person and then, as if realizing what he's done, beats down both her and the impulse.

But if Schindler and Goeth are the most fleshed-out characters in the film, where does that leave the Jews themselves? Pretty much as extras in their own story, I'm afraid. Ben Kingsley as Schindler's accountant Stern does a fine job subtly manipulating Schindler into caring what happens but we never really know anything about him. We know nothing about his family or their fate. He never betrays any emotion more complex than worry, whether it's over Schindler's finances or the execution of a man right before his eyes. The others fare even less well, either beaming their thanks at Schindler or suffering at the hands of Goeth. Considering that the film inspired Spielberg to found the Shoah Foundation, dedicated to recording the stories of survivors before it was too late, it's disheartening how poorly Schindler's List conveys any of the individual survivor's stories.

And then there's the girl in the red dress. The first time I saw the film, this scene was a flashpoint for me and I approve of it no more today. The girl in the red dress represents Spielberg at his most shamelessly manipulative. In theory, the character exists to deepen Schindler's character. He first spots the girl running alone in the aftermath of the horrible ghetto massacre, then later sees her corpse being heaped onto a burning pyre. And of course, the death of this beautiful, innocent little girl is a horrible, horrible thing. But Schindler's standing in front of a mountain of burning corpses. Isn't that already awful enough to provoke his sympathies? Drawing our attention to the girl in the red coat is nothing more than a movie trick that goes against Spielberg's stated intentions, which were to make a cinema verite style look at these events. But like I admitted earlier, there are a number of things that Spielberg does amazingly well in this film, much of them concentrated around specific details that would ordinarily be overlooked. The sights and sounds of the young Polish children spewing out the hatred that they've been indoctrinated with are bone-chilling. The ghetto purge sequence is brilliantly handled from beginning to end, particularly the final shots of the Nazi officer playing the piano as shots ring out, murdering those who'd attempted to hide. Possibly the most disturbing scene focuses on Jews going through the luggage of prisoners recently sent to Auschwitz, assessing their value and cataloging them. It's done with an economy of shots and sounds, the final effect of which is extremely powerful.

The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is stark and often grimly beautiful, which can at times work against the film. The nighttime arrival of the train in Auschwitz is an example, with the shots of the chimneys against the black sky done so well that you almost forget what it is you're looking at. Roman Polanski's The Pianist, which is, for my money, the best treatment of the Holocaust on film to date, has any number of virtues but I wouldn't describe any of the images in the film as beautiful. You can use that word to describe some of the cinematography in Schindler's List.

The look of the film is as good a way as any to move into the disc itself. The digital transfer is absolutely flawless, with no edge enhancement or artifacting of any kind. The "flaws" you will see are inherent in the film itself. Spielberg and Kaminski intentionally left scratches and excessive grain in some shots to add to the film's verisimilitude. This is certainly no knock against the quality of the disc. On DVD, Schindler's List looks as good as it Spielberg wants it to. Audio is provided in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1, both of which are crisp and clear, though a bit more subdued than you might expect. Surround usage is kept to a minimum, presumably so as not to distract from the story. I watched the first half of the film in DTS and switched to Dolby Digital for side B and could find very little appreciable difference between the two. The sound is strong and consistent and no matter which track you choose, you'll be more than satisfied.

Universal has given Schindler's List a respectful, almost reverential treatment on DVD. A gift set is available that includes the widescreen disc, the soundtrack CD, and a companion picture book (proving my point about the beauty of the photography). The regular version comes in a sturdy custom Digipack designed to look like a book. The left side of the package has a sleeve containing a booklet. It's a handsome design that certainly makes the disc stand apart from other DVDs. But paradoxically, it's slimmer than other packages so when you put the disc on your shelf, it tends to disappear next to everything else.

In terms of extras, Universal has played it very safe by including absolutely nothing to do with the film itself (apart from some bios and haphazard filmographies for the cast and filmmakers). However, the main extra on here is worth the price of the disc alone. Voices from the List is a 77-minute documentary directed by Michael Mayhew interviewing the real survivors rescued by Oskar Schindler. Produced with the aforementioned Shoah Foundation, this piece addresses virtually all of my criticisms of the film itself, giving the story back to those who lived it. If Schindler's List is still being taught in high school history classes, I hope they show them Voices from the List immediately afterward. The remaining extras include a text bio of Schindler himself and The Shoah Foundation Story, essentially an extended public service announcement narrated by Morgan Freeman detailing the excellent work being done by the organization.

With the arrival of Schindler's List on DVD, all of Steven Spielberg's major films now have a digital home. While I can't in all honesty agree that it's his masterpiece, I do believe Schindler's List is one of the most important films in his canon. Perhaps not for the film itself, but rather for the effect it has had since its release. For a superior cinematic treatment of the Holocaust, I prefer The Pianist or better still, documentaries like Night and Fog or the truly staggering Shoah. Shoah is a draining, intensely emotional experience that few films can approach. While Schindler's List has its individual moments that do convey the magnitude and horror of this terrible tragedy, Spielberg's continued reliance on his usual movie magic undermines it more than its subject matter deserves.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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