|Written by Paul Lingas|
|Tuesday, 09 March 2004|
Widely regarded as one of the best films of the 1990s, "Schindler’s List" tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a charming, charismatic German entrepeneur and war profiteer who ended up saving more than 1100 Jews from the concentration and forced labor camps of World War II Poland. It is a film that won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director honors for Steven Spielberg.
The film begins with the plight of the Jews in Krákow, Poland during the Nazi occupation. The Jews are made to wear yellow Star of David badges and are forced to subsist on very little as their homes and businesses overtaken by the German forces. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrives because he sees a great way to make money by starting a war factory which will make enamel ware for the German army. Armed with money and his charming spirit, he soon endears himself to the local Nazi leaders. He soon encounters Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), a Jewish accountant and businessman who had run the now-closed factory that Schindler wants to buy. With Stern’s help, Schindler is able to get enough Jewish money to buy and convert the factory. Schindler is aided not only by the Jews, but also by the Germans, whom he wines and dines constantly.
Soon the Jews are forced to move into the ghetto, a 16-square-block area of Krákow. Schindler’s Jews, as they become known, are afforded the ability to leave the ghetto so that they may go to work at the enamel ware factory. Soon thereafter, though, a new commandant, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes, who was robbed of the Oscar he was nominated for in this role) enters Krákow and the ghetto is eliminated. This entails the killing of many Jews and the removal of all the rest to the newly-constructed forced labor camp at Plazsow. Through his bribery, Schindler is able to retain his workforce and they are allowed to continue to move from Plazow to the factory. Soon Schindler and his factory become known as havens from the daily dance of death with the Nazis. At the prodding of Stern, every time one of the people has a particularly dangerous encounter in Plaszow, Schindler hands out another bribe to have them brought over to the factory.
In the meantime, Goeth and Schindler become friends of sorts, if only so that Schindler can keep a closer eye on his workforce, who he has started to care for, especially after witnessing the horror of the ghetto liquidation. Goeth himself is a heartless killer, often gunning down those who displease him in even the slightest sense. At one point Schindler even tries to tell Goeth that the real power we have as humans is the power to forgive and pardon people, not the power to arbitrarily kill. This has a temporary effect on Goeth, but it doesn’t last. At various points, Schindler continues to show his benevolence, at one point having hoses broken out on a scorching day to wet down rail cars packed full of Jews waiting to be moved out. The Nazis all laugh, as Goeth says, "You’re giving them hope, Oskar. That’s cruel!" They all seem sobered later by Schindler’s continued kindness to the Jews, but as long as the bribes of money, food and liquor keep up, the Nazis go along with it. After all, Schindler is a member of the Nazi party himself.
As time passes, the atrocities worsen and the workforce grows. Soon, however, with the war turning against Germany, Plaszow is due to be shut down and all of the prisoners transferred to Auschwitz and there killed. Schindler wants to move his factory to Czechoslovakia and he is prepared to buy all of his workforce off of Goeth. So begins the making of the list, where Schindler and Stern make a list of all of the 1100 people he wants to take with him to Brunlittz. It makes little difference to Goeth, as long as he gets paid, though he does wonder why Schindler cares so much about these particular Jews. When Stern asks Schindler how he got Goeth to agree to handing over the 1100 people, he is shocked to find that Schindler is literally buying all of them.
After they finally get to Brunlittz, with the women taking a dangerous detour through Auschwitz, Schindler is more free to treat the Jews as people, and his factory becomes even more of a haven than it had been in Poland. Soon the war ends and Schindler must leave, overcome by the feeling that he could have saved so many more people.
The film is a wonderful story and an excellent mechanism to portray the many horrors of the Holocaust. The performances are all exceedingly strong, especially by Neeson, Kingsley and Fiennes. The black and white cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is poignant and fantastically executed, winning him a much deserved Academy Award. The story is told intelligently and carefully, showing the horrors while maintaining the humanistic aspects of all, from good to evil. It is an important film because it is an easily accessible and mainstream portrayal of the Holocaust. Spielberg takes time and care to tell a true story of one man whose humanity showed through in the darkest of times. Even those who care little for historical pieces will not be able to deny the power of the film and the story it presents.
As a DVD experience, however, this edition leaves much to be desired. Technically, it is superb, a digitally enhanced transfer that is pretty much flawless, though there are a few specks here and there. The film itself is fairly grainy, which is to be expected due to the combination of black and white stock and the frequent number of low-light situations used by the filmmakers. The grain of the black and white film, as well as the choice of shooting in black and white, adds an overall grittiness to the film that is both purposeful and useful. The sound is fantastic, though this is one of the rare times I will say that the Dolby Digital track sounds better than the DTS. This is mainly because the DTS track has a penchant for making many of the sounds bright and surprisingly tinny on occasion. This is only for brief periods and is very slight. However, there is no stereo option in the sound, which for those who don't yet have a superb 5.1 system is a bit of a drag. I have noticed on this and past DVDs that, if available, the DTS mix is preferable to the Dolby Digital if the only speakers you have are the TV. I don’t quite know how to explain that, but there it is.
There are few special features on this DVD. No behind-the-scenes footage or interviews, no commentary whatsoever from Spielberg or anyone else. Spielberg has been reluctant to do commentary on any of his films, but because this one is so personal for him, it would have been nice to have it. What is included are some rudimentary cast and crew bios, as well as a short bio about Oskar Schindler. The documentary "Voices from the List" is a splendid addition, comprising of interviews with actual Schindler Jews and photos and film of the various areas in Krákow, Plaszow and Brunlittz, as well as photos of Schindler, Goeth and others. It is a moving and fascinating account that closely parallels the film narrative. Also included is an informative bit about the Shoah Foundation, which has set out to record more than 52,000 testimonials from survivors of the Holocaust.
Overall, "Schindler’s List" is a powerful, important and exceptionally well made film about a dark but important-to-remember episode in the recent history of this world. The DVD, while not flashy, contains what is most important, a fine transfer of an excellent film, one that should be viewed and owned by all.