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This movie won Oscars for Best Picture; Director (Steven Spielberg); Adapted Screenplay; Editing; Original Score; Cinematography; and Art Direction.


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‘Schindler’s List’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 17, 1993

"Schindler's List" packs a punch all right, the overwhelming wallop of six million Jews in general, and more than a thousand so-called Schindler Jews in particular. Behind that punch is director Steven Spielberg, for whom this three-hour, black-and-white saga is a scorched-earth proving ground.

For a movie -- or more accurately, a Hollywood-approved art movie -- this often-stunning work puts the Holocaust into bracing perspective, brings the filmmaker closer to his cultural roots and demonstrates his consummate movie-making abilities.

But this heavy-hitting fist lands with calculated deliberation. Despite Spielberg's obviously genuine commitment, "Schindler's List" feels strangely controlled -- more than impassioned. It's officially artistic, an engineered project of pride, Little Stevie's growing-up project, rather than an organically brilliant masterpiece.

The movie, based on the novelized biography by Thomas Keneally, tells the real-life story of Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson), a devil-may-care Nazi industrialist who yanked Polish Jews from the death machine to work in his enamelware factory in occupied Krakow. It was obvious to all that to be on Schindler's list was the difference between life and death.

When the Nazis' Final Solution led to the closure of the Plaszow forced-labor camp in Krakow and its sub-camps, Schindler was obliged to relocate his factory to the safer Brinnlitz, on the Polish-Czechoslovakian border. By now sensitized to the horrors of the Holocaust, Schindler claimed to need more than 1,100 Jews (today fondly known as Schindlerjuden) for his new munitions plant. He saved children by telling the Nazis only the young ones' little hands could fit inside armament shells.

By all indications (and the film is faithful to the book), Schindler's moral agenda was not easily fathomable. He started off, apparently, with his stated motive -- the need for free and motivated labor. He ended up as a conscientious savior.

Under Spielberg's surface polish, and within his artfully constructed sequences, scriptwriter Steven Zaillian presents Schindler's slow-and-steady moral education. Neeson, who imbues the role with believable presence, starts off as a master of cigar-chomping hobnobbing with Nazis. With Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (the wonderful Ben Kingsley) as his able production lieutenant, Schindler becomes the compleat wartime industrialist -- a Citizen Schindler reaping enormous profit.

This agenda brings him necessarily close to Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes in a mesmerizing, evil manchild performance), commandant of the Plaszow camp. Schindler, who has always instinctively steered clear of Nazi zealotry, sees the darkest end of that spectrum in Goeth -- a man who shoots Jews from his balcony for pre-breakfast fun. In spite of his efforts to maintain a cool, profitable head, Schindler's protective attitude towards his workers becomes more than financially motivated.

Spielberg's impressive abilities with set-piece filmmaking, coupled with a subject as visceral as this, make for some of the most jarringly effective moments of the year. In one heart-sinking scene, female Schindlerjuden are diverted wrongly to Auschwitz-Birkenau through a clerical error. As they undergo the most harrowing experience of their lives, Schindler works feverishly to secure their release.

In another scene, a Jewish woman forced to kneel before Goeth's pistol delivers these touchingly defiant words: "It'll take worse than that." During the wholesale slaughter of Jews in the walled-in Podgorze ghetto, Nazis advance towards a hospital. Before they arrive, the patients, in a tender, bedside pact with their doctors, swallow suicide pills. You watch scenes like these and ask: Is this a Spielberg movie?

Overlooked repeatedly by a motion picture academy that does not believe box-office bankability and Academy Awards should be enjoyed in the same lifetime, Spielberg has leapt into his post-"Jurassic Park" vacuum with redemption-seeking vigor. The result is many things, most of them good, but "Schindler's List" is also an attempt to grasp two "Oscars" -- one called Schindler and the other, a naked statuette with Spielberg's name on it.

Copyright The Washington Post

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