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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 Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 15, 1993

"Schindler's List" is a ruthlessly unsentimental portrait of a German war profiteer's epiphany that inspires neither sorrow nor pity, but a kind of emotional numbness. It's as if Steven Spielberg, so famous for emotional manipulation, here has let the material speak for itself. The result is less than heart-rending.

Like Thomas Keneally's novel, Spielberg's adaptation takes a matter-of-fact approach to the horrific material. It's a faithful but foreshortened 3-hour 16-minute version of Keneally's biography of Oskar Schindler, clinically scripted by Steven Zaillian, the writer-director of "Searching for Bobby Fischer." By necessity, Zaillian gives short shrift to many of the characters to focus on the protagonist, Schindler (Liam Neeson), his accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), and his tempter, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes).

Schindler, an industrialist who rescues more than 1,100 Polish Jews from the death camps, may consort with Nazis, but at heart he's a Spielberg archetype: a daredevil with the smarts of a fox and the heart of an angel -- only he's reluctant to acknowledge it. Schindler, like the paleontologist of "Jurassic Park" or the marine biologist of "Jaws," is going about his business when he is hijacked by events and forced to confront his monsters.

The Nazis of "Schindler's List," though, make Spielberg's other monsters seem as innocent as the beasts of Eden. They turn killing into a sport and finally into a business, as chillingly demonstrated by Goeth, the savage commandant of the Plaszow forced-labor camp. Goeth liked to begin his morning with a little target practice. Standing on the balcony of his villa overlooking the camp, he shoots random victims through the head. No shark ever showed less remorse.

Schindler, an enterprising businessman, befriends Goeth and other SS officers in Krakow shortly after the German invasion in 1939. In a rowdy cabaret, Schindler sizes up and seduces the power elite with a glad hand, good French wines and a coterie of showgirls in net stockings. Then, without remorse, he takes over a confiscated enamelware plant and staffs it with slave labor -- Jewish refugees who are forced into the ghetto or worse.

Stern, who becomes his accountant and right-hand man, builds the company into a major supplier of mess kits and cookware for troops at the front, while Schindler strokes the German honchos. Meanwhile, for the Jews, conditions steadily deteriorate as Spielberg demonstrates in a frenetic series of quasi-documentary sequences that take the refugees from the ghetto where they were confined in 1941 to the Plaszow camp in 1942.

Schindler, an enigmatic sort, absorbs the escalating brutality of the Nazis, but it is hard to say just when his conscience finally kicks in. Spielberg attempts to clue in the audience when he adds an incongruous splash of red -- a tot in a scarlet coat -- to this otherwise black-and-white film. The child in red is pivotal in the book, though the moment of epiphany remains ambiguous here.

In any case, Schindler becomes, if not a saint, then one of the righteous. With the help of Stern, he befriends as many Jews as possible, and when the Nazis threaten these "essential workers," he spends his last German mark to remove them to the relative safety of Brinnlitz. When the war ends, the Schindlerjuden give him a ring inscribed with the Talmudic adage: "Whoever saves one life, saves the world."

This would be an ideal ending, but Spielberg, like Spike Lee in "Malcolm X," doesn't quite know when to stop. Both Neeson and Spielberg step out of character, in the first case to give a weepy, melodramatic speech, and Spielberg to add an epilogue that is soothing, but more in keeping with "The Color Purple." All of a sudden, he's pushing our buttons, which he has thus far resisted so assiduously. The picture is complete without it, even if it will send audiences away with a greater understanding of the inscription on Schindler's ring.

"Schindler's List" reiterates much of what we already know about the Holocaust, though there are some understated -- and so all the more macabre -- images, such as when a child slashes his finger across his throat as the trains full of Jews rumble toward Auschwitz. There are many harrowing moments, but Spielberg does not indulge in either self-righteousness or torturous excess, much less his trademark schmaltz and special effects.

The cartoon Nazis of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" are never in evidence. Some are as gentle as fathers while leading the little ones to their deaths. And Goeth is easily as complex as Schindler, if something of a nutty Roman emperor, as played by Fiennes. Kingsley is at his best as the quietly insistent accountant whose every scribble is directed at saving another life. And Schindler, played with elan by Neeson, is really a lot like Spielberg himself, a man who manages to use his commercial clout to achieve a moral end.

"Schindler's List" is rated R for violence, nudity, language and difficult subject matter.

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