The full influence of Schindler’s List goes far beyond the last two decades of Holocaust films, or any film centered around the genocide of a particular people for that matter, each one bringing up its own distinct yet vaguely familiar atrocities. The unique scope, narrative structure, and imagery of Spielberg’s film seems to be encoded in the scripts and visual rhythms of any number of depictions of wartime turmoil and torment, from Hotel Rwanda to Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn. And yet, Schindler’s List exists at a fascinating remove, not unlike Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which separates it from something like Wajda’s harrowing account of the Katyn massacre, which has the timbre and knowing detail of personal experience. Wajda is a survivor of genocide and systematic killing whereas Spielberg is, first and foremost, a historian attempting to recreate passed time.
The difference in these approaches is palpable and pronounced in nearly every frame, but this isn’t to say that Schindler’s List is any less of a movie. In fact, Spielberg’s depiction of the wartime life of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German entrepreneur who opened factories to help the Nazi war effort in Poland, only to staff them with Jewish workers, remains Spielberg’s most personal film, but for different reasons than ancestry. Oddly triangulated between Schindler’s relationship with his workers, most prominently his accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), and the brutal Nazi commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the film allows Spielberg to study life in the ghetto, the concentration camps, and the Nazi aristocracy, but more potently dissects the limitations of fiscal success and artistic power, not to mention the valley that too often separates the personal and the logical.
The issue, of course, is that life takes precedence over death, as it always has in Spielberg’s oeuvre. Indeed, Stanley Kubrick’s infamous criticism of pal Spielberg’s “Holocaust” movie remains the most acute take on the film and attests to Spielberg’s almost entirely unchallenged silver-linings playbook. Schindler’s List is, as Kubrick said, about success, but it’s of a sort of hollowed sense of achievement, one that pales in the face of its own glaring limitations. Much as Lincoln could be seen as being about making progress at the expense of a shackled humanity, Schindler’s List considers where the sidewalk ends when it comes to the ambitions that monetary reward and comfort afford, the point at which money and influence can no longer meet the needs of one’s own roaring humanity.
Spielberg has always aligned himself with the great and the burdened, and his connection with Schindler reveals a particular sadness in the director’s identity as a filmmaker. Spielberg’s indisputable talent has allowed him to put strong attention on domestic and international humanitarian issues while also crafting a number of hugely popular and successful entertainments, often utilizing the medium’s ability to preserve or recreate life and its philosophical promise of defying death to provide an optimist’s view of history. But that philosophical promise remains just that: a promise without a tangible reality. Schindler’s List is at once Spielberg’s doomed attempt to make good on that promise and a smart treatise on the essential impossibility of that promise.
The film doesn’t quite get the flavor and depth of Judaism, nor the cold mathematics and machinery that built the camps where the Jews were exterminated, but instead allows Spielberg’s personal remove from the events to form the film’s thematic spine. The darkly “cartoonish” tone that Jonathan Rosenbaum criticized the film for is, in this sense, part of the point: Schindler’s List shares more in common with Art Spieglemen’s brilliant Maus than it does with Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog or Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. There’s also the matter of Fritz Lang, whose caustic view of power and landmark use of shadow can be felt in nearly every sequence of Spielberg’s film, but whose films were always laced with a lacerating anger that’s suspiciously absent in Spielberg’s filmic arsenal.
Kubrick’s assertion that no film could ever genuinely convey the horrors of the Holocaust remains ostensibly true, reinforced by the fact that the definitive cinematic work on the subject, Shoah, is chiefly about absence. Perhaps one should buck at the perceivable hubris and tastelessness of Spielberg cloaking his most revealing film in SS garb, and there’s no easy way to forgive that red coat, but rarely has Spielberg’s narrative and visual ideas felt so unpredictable, so distinctly different, and of such a lilting melancholy. It’s a tough yet engaging film, bold enough to set a certain standard in all major wartime films to follow, but no film even remotely resembles the tumultuous inner-workings of Schindler’s List, an aching study of mortality’s coexisting certainty and elusiveness.
Schindler’s List may be Universal’s defining prestige picture of the ’90s, and as such they’ve given it an exemplary A/V transfer on Blu-ray. Janusz Kamiński’s lovely, largely black-and-white cinematography boasts startling clarity and a beautiful delineation of shade. Textures of the varying wardrobe, the camp buildings, the food and decor of the rich, and all those faces look excellent from beginning to end. There’s a healthy level of grain over the entire feature and the black levels are good and inky throughout. The sound is just as impressive, keeping Steve Zaillian’s dialogue clean and crisp out front, with John Williams’s now-classic score and a dense thicket of sound effects balanced beautifully in the back.
"Voices from the List," a feature-length collection of interviews with Holocaust survivors, witnesses, and their descendants, gives more than a fair share of emotional pull and contextual information, so much so that it renders the other two featurettes moot.
Steven Spielberg’s controversial, defining work on the limitations of success arrives on Blu-ray with a fantastic A/V transfer and a modest helping of contextual extras.