Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Steven Zaillian
Steven Spielberg is a master of cinema. He broke onto the scene with the hit blockbuster thriller Jaws and proceeded to change moviemaking over the next 30 years of his career. He has directed and produced such a large body of work, and at such a consistently high level, bringing great sci-fi (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Minority Report and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence), great adventures (Indiana Jones trilogy and Hook) as well as compelling dramas (Saving Private Ryan and Munich) to an audience of millions. And I even left off some of his best work. The man is a genius and he has the body of work to prove it. And to cap it all off, Schindler’s List may be the most celebrated film in his filmography. So I have no explanation as to why it took me so long to finally see this masterpiece from one of the true masters of cinema, but I finally did.
Schindler’s List is known for being a few things. It is known for being an epic, or in other words a long film with lofty themes. It is known for its rawness in dealing with its subject matter, the Holocaust. It is also known for its artistry, being a landmark modern film in terms of its use of black and white photography, with, of course, the little girl in the red coat. This is what the film is known for, and that is also all I knew of it going into my first ever viewing.
What first struck me with the film was the film score, which was composed by the great John Williams with violinist virtuoso Itzhak Perlman playing the solos. But unlike the great John Williams works of the past which were grandiose and obvious, albeit masterful, the score here is much more subtle and restrained, which reflects the mood of the film so well, which is another master stroke of filmmaking. Spielberg is able, with his many tools of the trade, to create an otherworldly mood for the film, which suits its subject matter perfectly. He, along with Janusz Kaminski, uses the beautiful, yet stark and bleak, black and white photography to perfection. Along with that, he never holds back in his depiction of anything that is happening.
Last quarter, I took a class which examined another Spielberg work, Amistad. In our analysis, it was brought up that his depiction of the “Middle Passage” was tame and not historically accurate. In the discussion, I lay on the side which argued that he was not telling that story, and therefore must tame it down to hold his audience in long enough to deliver the true story of the film. It was an unfortunate move that needed to be made, as the “Middle Passage” is not something to be taken lightly in any circumstance. I bring this up because here it appears that Spielberg does not hold anything back. Spielberg does not shy away from depicting the grim and often abrupt nature of the Holocaust. Even that being said, I do not feel as though Schindler’s List fully encapsulates the Holocaust, which just goes to show how horrid and unimaginable the whole situation was.
Adding to the sense of realism were the magnificent performances given by the entire cast, but most notably by Ralph Finnes. I have long been a fan of his work, but his performance as the cold hearted and evil German soldier Amon Goeth is some of the best work of his career and some of the most disturbing work any actor has done as a villain. He truly becomes the hatred of the Nazis.
For a film that is so long, running just over three hours long, it really is a work that does not feel as long as it actually is (which I am hopeful this review is similar in that regard). I think a lot of that had to do with Spielberg’s decision to shoot the film in somewhat of a documentary style, delivering long scenes with little to no dialogue. He depicts the conditions and routines of the labor camp and before that the rounding up of the Jews from the ghetto. These long sequences are so stark and disturbing they just add to the mood and story so well. Making the film less theatrical and more real I think created such a sense of importance and impact that Schindler’s List instantly became a film that you couldn’t miss, which makes me sad that I missed it for so long.
There is so much more I could say in terms of theme and storytelling, but this review is long enough as it is already, so I must stop here. But before I do, let me just say that what Spielberg and his collaborators were able to accomplish with this film was a monumental achievement.