April 18, 2002
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagall, Embeth Davidtz, Malgoscha Gebel, Shmulik Levy, Mark Ivanir, Béatrice Macola, Andrzej Seweryn, Friedrich von Thun, Krzysztof Luft, Harry Nehring, Norbert Weisser, ,
Widely considered his most critically acclaimed and personal work to date, Spielberg’s masterpiece about the Jewish holocaust arrives on DVD.
Ten years on from its initial release, Schindler’s List remains one of the most shocking, thought-provoking and moving pieces of cinema ever made. It was Spielberg’s first ‘serious’ project according to the critics of the time (previous dramatic efforts like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun had sadly fallen into the background in favour of his more crowd-pleasing efforts like Jurassic Park) and the point where he was finally accepted by both sides as being a master filmmaker, winning Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars.
List was also the first film about the second world war for some time, and would inspire the making of other war films like The Thin Red Line and Spielberg’s own, if albeit very different, Saving Private Ryan. It was a stark reminder that the holocaust had happened, that six million Jews really were murdered at Hitler’s behest, and that we should never let such a terrible thing happen ever again. Ask any teenager about the holocaust and chances are he or she will think about the first time they watched Schindler’s List, because Spielberg managed to express in three hours what five years of school never could.
“The ending’s too sentimental,” his detractors cried (and still cry). And speaking objectively, it is. It’s also what really happened, so make of that what you will. Lesser directors would have chosen to lay the emotion on with a trowel throughout, but Spielberg saves any hint of it until the climax by having the bulk of the film full of blunt violence and bureaucratic racism that hits home like a punch in the guts. It’s hard to dismiss the film as sentimental when you see pyres full of burning corpses surrounded by jeering soldiers, or a man witnessing his wife shot in the face purely because she’s slowing things down.
Oskar Schindler was no saint, as history and the film both tell us. He drank and used women to his own advantage, and was greedy to make money from the opportunities brought about by the war. But he also had a conscience and over the years his principles slowly shifted. He had the fortune he had always dreamed about and yet his life was still empty, so he used his wealth and power to secure the lives of as many Jews as he could.
Liam Neeson perfectly captures both Schindler’s powerful presence as a man and a businessman who knew how to play people like a pianist to get what he wanted. Fiennes is suitably chilling as the murderous Amen Goeth, a man who shoots people for the sheer sport of it, and Kingsley has a quiet dignity as the accountant who managed Schindler’s money and conscience with equal aplomb. And in a film with hundreds of speaking parts, there’s no weak link to be found from the bit-players or child actors. Indeed, the scene where the adults are distracted in camp whilst their children are rounded up into trucks to be taken away and murdered is especially powerful in its portrayal.
Kudos then to Spielberg’s cinematographer of choice, Janusz Kaminski, who uses black and white film and handheld cameras to create an authenticity that transports you back to the 40’s with the help of the faultless production design (the entire Plazow concentration camp was built from scratch), and John Williams’ haunting score. Spielberg knows it’s the little details that stick in your head, like Goeth’s gun jamming during an impromptu execution, or an old man’s blood melting the snow as it gushes from his head. Who could ever forget the two iconic appearances of the little girl in the red dress, which sums up everything that is wrong with war without using a single word of dialogue.
So a decade on, has the film lost any of its power? No. Will it ever? No. And that’s what makes it a genuine classic.
As with previous releases from the bearded one, the extras aren’t as impressive as they should be. There’s no commentary from anyone, no deleted scenes and no behind the scenes footage. The film itself is also split over two discs, although this is probably due to it being in black and white and needing more data to prevent those pesky pixelations.
So what do we get? Well, ‘Voices From The List’ is an hour long documentary introduced by Spielberg himself. Children who were saved by Schindler and are now grown-up recount their experiences from the start of the war through to the present day. A lot of it you will have seen portrayed in the film, but hearing it from the real people who went through the holocaust is still fascinating.
‘The Shoah Foundation Story’ lasts ten minutes and, narrated by Morgan Freeman, tells us about how during the making of Schindler’s List Spielberg was inundated by stories by survivors and got the idea to set up a foundation that would capture these stories on video to use as educational tools for future generations.
‘Cast and Filmmakers’ offers extensive text biographies about…the cast and filmmakers, and ‘About Oskar Schindler’ tells us about what happened to Schindler after the war, when he divorced his wife and became a farmer.
The film itself looks and sounds fantastic, and the only reason this package doesn’t get full marks is due to the film being split over two discs and not having the wealth of extras the fans were expecting (none of the bonus material covers the actual production of the film, which is a huge disappointment).