SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) ****
In the hopelessly inexact but perhaps necessary system of rating movies via stars, I have been hoarding for a long time the full and unambiguous four-star classification. Until "Schindler's List." In military terms it's like calling the film General of the Army or Field Marshall.
Considerations of newness, surprise or shock do not enter that rating. I have been studying history all my life -- and, happening in the most enlightened of centuries, the Holocaust is not only the most unspeakable mass crime, but it is literally impossible to speak of it since no vocabulary contains terms to characterize it. And although man's inhumanity to man has existed forever, and this earth is full of killing fields, it is still beyond grasp that a major, cultivated, artistic, highly "civilized" nation could do what the Third Reich did.
In a sense, it is because "Schindler's List" shook me up so much in spite of my familiarity with the events surrounding the movie, that I am almost speechless with admiration for the film. Admiration? Another poor, stupidly inadequate word.
Every year I screen for my film students Alain Resnais' heart-rending documentary on the death camps, "Night and Fog" (1956). Near the end of it, the narrator says "But what can one say?" and when the lights go on, the viewers cannot find anything to say. To say something right there and then, to analyze and criticize what we saw -- as we do for other films -- would feel like an obscenity and a desecration...
"Schindler's List" too simply requires stunned silence. Words like "great," "superb," "masterpiece" simply sound jarring in the context of both films. Those terms can be used when talking of parts of the film, but not the whole.
Steven Spielberg's movie relates the events around a real person, Oskar Schindler who saved more than 1,100 Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. Schindler, a German (more precisely a Sudentendeutsch from Czechoslovakia), a member of the Nazi Party and a shady businessman, rushed to Krakow with only nominal funds, to become a wealthy war profiteer. Ironically, he accomplished what a number of immigrants (Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms among them) achieved after they arrived penniless in the West, including the Americas.
Schindler (Liam Neeson) was a master hustler, a con-man , a sybarite, a woman chaser, and a consummate bait and switch artist. His strategies for luring the German authorities into helping him in exchange of gratitude (bribes of all sorts) were just as good as the strategies of the Desert Fox (Field Marshall Erwin Rommel) in North Africa. Oskar, that big bear of a man, could also use teddy bear tactics to endear himself to the Nazis in uniform. He he plied them with wine, women and song, with delicacies plundered from slave countries, with a cut of his profits. And that rake was such a wizard that he even managed to charm his own wife right after she caught him "in flagrante delicto" with another woman.
He rapidly managed to take over a confiscated enamelware plant in Krakow, plunged into the black market for supplies, and with blitz-speed went from an elegantly dressed facade with nothing behind it (no rags for Schindler), to riches. His main ploy was to obtain free, unpaid labor, in the shape of desperate Jews for whom employment in an industry touted by Schindler as essential to the war effort, was at least a temporary haven from annihilation.
Gradually though, self-serving, amoral Schindler came to a kind of ill-defined consciousness of the Jews' tragedy. It was a slow process -- no sudden revelation, no road to Damascus. Endangering his own life, he went to radical efforts of lying, bluffing and cajoling in order to employ more Jews, saving many from a death camp and ultimately even snatching them from another. The train leaving Auschwitz with a load of living inmates is visually extraordinary and historically unique.
The film is the partial tale of Oskar Schindler along with the partial tale of the Jews around him : branded and expropriated, moved into a specially created ghetto, then wiped out in summary executions in streets, houses and death camps. The film focuses especially on Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), Schindler's accountant and right-hand man. It is also the tale of the Germans, specifically Obersturmbannfuehrer (Lieutenant Colonel) Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the local SS Commandant, and a monster.
Contrary to some irresponsible critiques that Spielberg depicts the rest of the Jews as anonymous masses, a number of reappearing characters do stand out within the multitude. Spielberg manages the near-impossible coup of having both anonymity and personalization.
Not every person or happening shown is factual. Stern is a composite figure, for example. But whether created or recreated, everything is true. Nothing is exaggerated, embellished or fabricated to dramatic ends. This is no Hollywoodian flick. It is life and death in the raw, and all done like a documentary. The film is in black-and-white, framed by color scenes, and very occasionally adding some color bits that make points in incredibly powerful yet un-showy fashion.
The historical recreation is just as amazingly strong and true. From the start, as Schindler sets about casting his nets on German officers in a nightclub, the atmosphere is genuine, from the chiaroscuro lighting of such places (it also recalls films noirs and dramas of the 1930s and 1940s) to the music : "Gloomy Sunday," a popular Hungarian song so downbeat that (it's a fact) it encouraged many a suicide; other period tunes, jazz, the tango "Jealousy"; martial music, including the German's favorite march "Erika." As the film proceeds, the score includes Hebrew songs and melodies, background music, classical music (Itzhak Perlman plays), more German items. For composer and music selector John Williams, it is his finest hour.
Spielberg's experience pays off every minute, with outstanding efficiency. Yes, Spielberg is the father of fantasies (some terrific, some good, some irritating, and some lemons), but it is demeaning both to him and to reviewers to harp on the notion that Peter Pan has finally made a "real" movie. For the record, Spielberg is also the father of "Duel" (his 1972 debut), of "The Sugarland Express," and of "Empire of the Sun."
Here his camera techniques are astounding: no bravura shots, but unerring photography that varies from handheld, newsreel or amateur footage, to subjective points of view, to a rock-steady lens watching disaster from afar, imperturbably, and all the more affectingly. The editing is full of masterful ellipses of sights, speeches and sounds, but again, never showy, never arty.
Intelligent yet unfabricated scenes abound. Two examples among scores. The evil, bestial Goeth's villa overlooks from high up the camp of Plaszow. Goeth, stripped to the waist, leaves his mistress in bed and from the balcony does target practice on the inmates. He then bends down, picks up with his mouth his burning cigarette from the ledge, while clutching his telescopic rifle with both hands, and shoots again.
During an infamous triage sequence, loudspeakers are blaring a syrupy German song "Gutte Nacht Mutter" (Good Night, Mother)-- a true situation, grippingly staged.
When all is said and done, Schindler is still a cipher whom, mercifully, the film does not attempt to explain, either by bargain basement psychology or through high-flown analysis. The Irishman Neeson plays him with unforgettable power, nuances, and a characterization that has no equivalent in other films.
Nor is Goeth (whose name, with deadly irony, is like the humanist Goethe's) spelled out or clarified. When British actor Ralph Fiennes first appeared, I wondered why Spielberg took such a chance on an unknown, instead of picking a proven powerhouse like Klaus Maria Brandauer ("Mephisto," etc.) or Jurgen Prochnow ("Das Boot"). Minutes later I knew why. Like those performers, Fiennes is also a powerhouse who can act like the psychotic fiend he is but can also, from head to toe-tips, quietly convey complex ominousness.
Then there's Ben Kingsley who, is able to portray any nationality, like the late character actor J. Carrol Naish, (that Irish-American who played all ethnicities save the Irish) but as a star and on a much more elevated and demanding level. Kingsley rounds up the trio of perfect male leads. And in the rest of the cast, every single part is impeccable, from kids to oldsters, from civilians to uniformed barbarians.
Violence is omnipresent, but shown in mater-of-fact, unsensational ways. And it is intellectualized by low-key depictions as well as conversations.
Spielberg's film comes as close to flawlessness as any of the major classics of cinema. My qualms are minor. One is that the concentration camp people are not as skeletal as in reality, but there's no way to find hundreds of emaciated extras. Another is that the film does not state that the Holocaust kept building up in direct proportion to Germany losing the war -- something not known to the masses of viewers who know little or no history.
At movie's (and war's) end, comes an invention : Schindler breaks down from accumulated stress and survivor's guilt, and takes his leave from the now free Jews, while doing a mea culpa. Unhistorical, yes, but so gut-wrenching that I can't really cavil. And the epilogue of the movie is an extraordinary emotional experience.
Credit Spielberg for creating this film in every detail. (There's an excellent article on the making of the movie in the January 21 of Entertainment Weekly). Credit him too for bringing out the best in the talents he gathered and orchestrating them. Like scriptwriter Zaillian ("Awakenings," "The Falcon and the Snowman," "Jack the Bear"), who recently also turned director ("Searching for Bobby Fisher"). Like cinematographer Kaminski who came from Poland to the United Sates in 1980 to attend Columbia College in Chicago, went on to American Film Institute and has photographed mostly unknown movies.
Finally, what gets me in that movie is the reminder, the knowledge that there is no knowledge of the Nazi era, that our kids --even many of our adults-- know all about MTV and Madonna, but no history. In this age of information, Hollywood shamefully neglects downbeat subjects of our age while the several European features can find no public. But then there's television. The public watches endless detritus on the small screen yet there is an abundance ( PBS, TDC, A & E, etc) of documentaries that can teach us both analytical and in-your-face history. The resulting ignorance can be frightening, as in the reports that certain younger audiences laughed during some of the most heart-breaking moments of "Schindler's List."