USA, 1993, M, 195 min. Director: Steven Spielberg. Stars: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle.
Without a doubt, people will look back on the Twentieth Century as an historical whirlpool, a maelstrom of Events with a very capital "E". But three will stand out as particularly significant; events which shook our worldviews to their foundations and forced us to start rebuilding from the mental rubble. They were the Moon Landing of 21 July 1969, the Atomic Bomb of 6 August 1945, and the Holocaust, which covered a decade but is remembered on this day, August the 4th.
Film-makers, by and large, have shied away from them. We've had The Day After, but not the story of Hiroshima; Capricorn One, but not Apollo 11; and until now, only documentaries to tell the story of the six million Jews who died at Hitler's command. It takes tremendous skill to tackle such enormous subjects, and few directors have felt equal to the challenge. It seems appropriate, then, that the century's most commercially successful director, Steven Spielberg, should be the one to bring the Holocaust to popular cinema. In the process he has affirmed his own claim to greatness.
Schindler's List is an emotionally shattering film, even if one is familiar with the historical background—even, in fact, if one is familiar with the story of Oskar Schindler, the profiteering German who saved a lucky few from the concentration camps. Some of you may have seen the ABC documentary on Schindler at the time of this film's release; knowing the course of events makes one or two scenes slightly more bearable, but takes nothing away from the film. It also makes the claims of those who criticised Spielberg's portrayal as "unauthentic" seem ridiculous. In one newspaper article an Australian Jewish Studies scholar criticised Spielberg for focussing on the thousand who survived rather than the millions who did not, but again it's an unjust charge. If he'd simply made a dramatised documentary of death (and there is plenty of it in the film, about as harrowing as it comes) it would have been unbearable; at least as it stands one can walk out of the cinema unaided. The contrast between good and evil acts is, instead, what makes Schindler's List so compelling. It's still plenty depressing, for it is impossible while watching the film not to keep in mind the story's backdrop—the millions who died.
Along with everything else, Schindler's is technically outstanding. Some of the camera shots are brilliant, showing just how gifted a director Spielberg is: in his hands, the gates of Auschwitz become as forbidding as the gates of Hell. And the portrayal of Amon Goeth, the terrifying camp commandant, is a superlative study of evil by a new British actor (Ralph Fiennes) which surely owes a lot to the director's skills too. Fiennes lost the Oscar to a Tommy Lee Jones sympathy vote, but twenty years from now people will remember his performance over Jones's in The Fugitive.
To think that Spielberg can produce this within months of Jurassic Park, a film that couldn't be more different (yet certainly accomplished in its own terms), is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Schindler's List is his least sentimental, most honest and painful film, and appropriately enough won seven Oscars. Those who think Spielberg won Best Director through some sort of tokenism are kidding themselves—no film has so thoroughly deserved its accolades since Dances With Wolves.