Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 2, 2004)
After many years of frustration, Steven Spielberg finally nailed Oscar gold with 1993ís Schindlerís List. Four of his prior flicks earned Best Picture nominations: 1975ís Jaws, 1981ís Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1982ís ET the Extra-Terrestrial, and 1985ís Color Purple. The first three took home a few trophies but not the big one. (Purple remains notable as one of the big Oscar flops; it got 11 nominations but failed to win a single prize.
After four Best Picture nominations in ten years, Spielberg went through a drought. Between 1985 and 1993, he didnít get any Oscar love. However, that changed in a major way in 1993. All together, Spielberg flicks took home multiple trophies that year. Jurassic Park snared the technical awards, and it brought back three Oscars. List wound up with some of the major prizes. In addition to Best Picture, Spielberg won Best Director, and the movie also earned an additional five trophies.
As one who loved Spielbergís early flicks, I felt happy to finally see him get some Oscar recognition. However, I donít think Schindlerís List deserved all the accolades. Well-meaning but insubstantial and oddly unaffecting, List falls far short of the greatness achieved by Spielbergís best efforts.
Set during the early parts of World War II, after the Germans take over Poland, they force Jews to relocate to the major cities, and many pour into Krakow from the countryside. Wealthy German businessman and member of the Nazi Party Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) comes to Krakow to start a manufacturing concern there and use the Jews as cheap labor. He meets Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) and works through him to meet local investors. Once Schindler uses his charm to snare the money, Stern also helps round up the necessary workers, and he uses the factoryís status to help keep some folks out of the Nazisí grasp.
Schindlerís enamel works fares well, but matters gradually get worse for the Jews. First they get stuck inside a walled ghetto, and eventually the Nazis place them all in a work camp. To run it, Untersturmfuhrer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) arrives in the ghetto during the winter of 1942. He runs the Plaszow Forced Labor Camp sadistically and kills without consideration or remorse to serve his own desires.
The film follows two paths. We watch as Schindler develops as a person, which eventually leads to the creation of his ďlistĒ. Schindler arranges to purchase workers from the Nazis to work at a new factory back in his Czechoslovakian home, so he and Stern form a list with the many Jews they will be able to save. We also see the results of the Nazi occupation and their increasingly cruel treatment of the Jews. The movie focuses on some of the Jewish characters to a minor degree, as we follow a few in a loose manner.
Warning: some potential spoilers may appear in my discussion of the film, so if youíve not seen it, proceed at your own risk!
When I first saw List during its theatrical run, I knew of all its praise and fully expected to be blown away by its power. I left the theater puzzled, as I didnít understand all the fuss. At that time, I didnít see anything about List that I felt allowed it to stand out from most of the other Holocaust-related efforts; it seemed decent but not anything innovative or particularly noteworthy.
A decade later, I figured that maybe I was just too callow to appreciate the filmís impact and Iíd get more into it at age 36. Once again, I went into List with the full expectation that it would stun me and move me.
Nope. Ten years later and my reaction remains exactly the same. Actually, if anything, I may feel less impressed with List this time. I certainly appreciate the message Spielberg wanted to impart with the movie, but as with 1997ís Amistad, the director tries far too hard to manipulate the audience and not leave us any room to think for ourselves.
Over the years, many have cited Spielbergís ability to press buttons, with a particular emphasis on his sentimental tendencies. List displays those choices in full. Spielberg the manipulator shows up frequently during List, and this seems inappropriate for the material. A story with the inherent power of List doesnít need a director to goose our emotions. The material itself possesses the clout to touch us.
That means a cooler approach would have yielded better dividends. Iíd have preferred a more objective and less sentimental director on the project, as that would have made the movie more effective. Much of the time, my feeling that Spielberg tried to prod my emotions in one direction led to the opposite reaction. I took his machinations as a negative and became rather annoyed with his choices.
It doesnít help that List suffers from extremely thin characters across the board. Iíve mentioned this in other reviews and Iíll say it again: I still consider 1982ís Sophieís Choice to be the gold standard of Holocaust-related films. Why? Because the movie developed the characters precisely and kept the focus tight. We grew exceedingly attached to the lead, so when we saw what happened to her, the impact became extremely substantial.
That never occurs during List, as each and every personality remains distant from us. This seems especially true of the Jews. These are the characters for whom we need to develop the greatest connection, for theirs are the lives that hang in jeopardy. However, List does nothing more than attach some faces to names. We never get any feel for the personalities, and they remain little more than broad symbols of the Jewish population as a whole. Did I care when they became threatened? Yeah, in the sense that I thought what the Germans did was beyond atrocious. However, I never developed any broader sense of investment in particular characters. Perhaps Spielberg did that intentionally to keep the focus on the general Holocaust, not just a few victims, but I donít think so. He still attaches us slightly to that small roster of people, and he clearly wanted us to remember them. I think he desired for us to hook onto these characters but he simply failed to develop them as anything more than cameos.
It doesnít help that the jerky storyline ignores characters for long periods. Even Schindler himself disappears for extended segments, and the movie loses its focus at those times. Spielberg doesnít seem to know if he wants to paint a portrait of one manís moral journey or if he wants to depict the impact of the whole Holocaust, and the movie suffers for that. It becomes a ďjack of all trades, master of noneĒ situation, as the diffuse focus causes all the elements to lost their power.
While Neeson provides a terrific performance, he gets stuck with a badly underdeveloped character. Schindler starts the film as a shallow, cynical, opportunistic philanderer who simply wants to make money through the misfortune of others and have some laughs. By the end of the movie, he turns into an ultra-humanist totally obsessed with saving lives. While the film depicts some steps along the way, the trek seems poorly developed. List makes Schindlerís growth too simplistic and illogical.
A lot of that issue goes back to the absence of character development. Schindlerís relationships with all others in the movie remain so feeble and superficial that we donít quite understand what motivates his desires. His attachment to Stern probably seems the most affecting, but despite the best efforts of Neeson and Kingsley, not much depth occurs there either. We care about the pair because weíre supposed to, not because the movie gives us much on which to hang our hats.
Perversely, the best developed relationship in the entire movie comes from the connection between Schindler and Goeth. The latter never becomes more than a monster, which may or may not be appropriate. The story vaguely attempts to add a human dimension to him during the scene when he considers getting romantically involved with his housekeeper Helen, but Goethís bizarre internal monologue just makes him seem like a psychotic.
The relationship between Goeth and Schindler does seem the most believable, perhaps because the two men come across as opposite sides of the same coin. With the shallowness seen early in the film, we could see Schindler turning as callous and self-absorbed as Goeth; not much separates the two in regard to their potential. This makes their interactions more stimulating, largely because it moderately lowers Schindler to Goethís level; he needs to negotiate with the Nazi leader in crass terms to get what he wants.
Those moments seem effective, and I do want to echo that List is extremely well acted across the board. Despite my issues with the easy nature of his moral growth, Neeson makes the developments as natural and believable as he can. When divorced from their awkward roots, those bits seem quite effective and well played. Fiennes makes a sensational monster, and Kingsley brings out as much depth and humanity as he can in a thinly devised role. The other Jewish characters donít get much to do, but they live up to the requirements of the parts.
Too bad List didnít try to do more with them. Why not tell the film from an alternate point of view? It might have been more effective if we saw things from Sternís side, for example. We tend to go with Schindlerís perspective, and since he never seems at risk, this lessens the impact of the story.
It doesnít help that through his manipulation, Spielberg threatens the smattering of Jewish characters to whom weíve developed a tenuous bond but he never harms them. This starts early with a scene in which Goeth tries to shoot an older man but fails due to a jammed gun. The most severe example comes in Auschwitz. Briefly, the movie attains the power and stature it should display more consistently. When the train enters that station, Spielberg paints the picture coolly and without unnecessary embellishment. The movie briefly becomes utterly chilling and terrifying.
Unfortunately, he soon goes for the obvious moves and undermines these elements. For one, he teases us with the apparent imminent demise of the entire trainload of women, but this never occurs. He almost kills a few of them a couple more times, but it doesnít happen. Spielberg toys with us to make us fear for the characters, but nothing occurs to them.
This may sound bloodthirsty of me, like I want to see people die in the film. In a weird way, thatís true. I find it hard to accept a Holocaust movie in which none of the prominent characters gets killed. Spielberg wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants us to see the horror of the Holocaust, but only at a distance. Since nothing happens to any of the characters weíve followed throughout the film, the impact lessens.
Spielberg even uses a tacky gimmick to try and evoke a response from the audience. During the emptying of the ghetto, he adds a minor red tint to the coat of a little girl. We follow her briefly and discern that Schindler noticed her. Later on, we watch as Schindler sees a dead child clad in that same red coat carried off to be cremated. This attempts to elicit a reaction without any form of depth or effort. The modest example of color in the black and white image gives us a reason to notice her just so we can think ďthatís terrible!Ē when we see her corpse. This seems like a simple and manipulative way to knead the audience.
List did display the casual brutality of the Nazis well. We see Goethís random violence as well as other horrible actions of his fellow soldiers. For the most part, the movie portrays their sadism and cruelty in a fairly matter of fact manner, and that helps make those moments more powerful.
Not that Spielberg allows us many scenes that give us objective material. Another problem stems from John Williamsí score. He provides a rather cloying, sentimental piece that telegraphs emotions baldly. On its own, the music seems lovely, but thatís part of the problem, as it doesnít suit the dark footage.
I know Iím firmly in the minority in regard to my negative opinion of Schindlerís List, but I really donít understand the overwhelming praise given to the movie. It tells an important story but does so with too much manipulation and too little subtlety. Add to that a lack of depth from the characters and it seems like a flawed examination of its subject. List seems to enjoy a reputation as Spielbergís best film, but I donít even think it makes his top ten.