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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Writing Credits: Thomas Keneally, Steven Zaillian
Produced by: Branko Lustig, Gerald R. Molen, Steven Spielberg
Genre: Drama | History
Length: 195 minutes
Certificate: UK 15 / US R
IMDb Rating: 8.9
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley
The film starts with the striking of a match. The scene is shot in colour unlike the majority of the rest of the film. The flame lights a candle before moving to another one nearby. A Jewish family is observing the Sabbath, and a Hebrew prayer can be heard being recited. The family disappears from shot, and are replaced by only the candles, which flicker on a plain tablecloth. As the prayer ends, the camera focuses on a solitary candle. The candle is withering and eventually dies out in a stream of smoke. The scene is then replaced with a shot of a train funnel which bellows steam. Only this isn't in colour, it is in black and white. This is the moment where Jews arrive in Krakow to register as Jewish people, and is where we first meet Oskar Schindler. The colour scene probably represents a Poland before the Nazis invaded. A family sitting down for a meal together, safe in the knowledge that they would enjoy what they are about to eat, and regale in the conversations of times previous. I also think that the extinguishing of the flame signifies a very different life for those that once sat around the table. And for some, their lives were extinguished the day Hitler's army invaded Poland. This is the story of those people. It is a story of the hardship they endured under Nazi rule, and their struggles to stay alive. The film was over 50 years in the making, with the events taking place during World War II, and culminating in an effort involving survivor, Poldek Pfefferberg, director Steven Spielberg, writer Thomas Keneally, and executive Sid Sheinberg. This is Schindler's List, and it may just be Steven Spielberg's masterpiece.
I can remember first seeing Schindler's List when it was released in the cinema. My then girlfriend had just passed her driving test and she drove us to a better cinema complex in her crappy Fiat 126, which, at the time, I thought was ironic, because of Italy's involvement in World War II, and Benito Mussolini's penchant for cars was Fiat. I can also remember that she wanted to see the film because she was studying world history in sixth form, and clearly Schindler's List was of historical importance. I must admit that I knew very little about the film, but I did know a lot about the history of World War II through my grandfather who fought in North Africa, Italy and France as a Scots Guardsman. He never spoke of the things he did or saw as a soldier, but he did tell me stories of being under the command of Bernard Montgomery, the Spartan General. This whet my appetite for further knowledge, and the famous battles of the second World War became essential reading for me as a youngster. I knew about the extermination of Jews in Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka, and naturally I was intrigued on what Steven Spielberg could come up with from Thomas Keneally's book, Schindler's Ark. What I witnessed over the course of the film was something truly stunning. I liked to think I walked out of there thinking "only in the movies", but I knew most of what I saw was true. Nazi soldiers did indiscriminately murder Jews, and it is estimated that six million were killed during the conflict. Schindler's List is not a film that you can sit down with your family and watch, but it is one you should watch, because it not only tells the story of Oskar Schindler, but that of Itzhak Stern, Helen Hirsch, and Poldek Pfefferberg, among others. It also loosely tells the story of those six million murdered purely because of their race, and that's what is important.
Those people that were at the Auschwitz concentration camp who survived know full well of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and it is estimated that over one million Jews died there. There are many scenes in this film that are poignant and some stand out more than the rest, especially one such sequence that involved some of the women that had first arrived there. They arrive by train into a snowy Auschwitz, only it likely isn't snow. Even though it is very cold, the 'snow' is probably ashes from the bodies that are being burned to cover up the murder in a massive scale. The women are all forced to have their hair cut, and are instructed to strip naked. They've heard the stories of the gas chambers, and they huddle up together as they are ushered into the showers. Accepting their fate, they look up towards the shower heads and await the inevitable. Only it isn't gas that comes out, it's water. I decided to give this little spoiler out purely because we know the real stories of what happened at Auschwitz. We've heard of Josef Mengele's experiments, and the pain and suffering millions of Jews went through. I wanted to include something of a lighter note in what is largely a sombre film. These women here were the fortunate few. Hundreds of thousands of others were not so lucky.
While researching for writing my review, I stumbled on The Pianist. It was a film I knew very little about, and I really don't know why. Maybe it was because I thought it was about someone who played the piano and nothing more, and I felt a little ignorant and ashamed when I read the plot. It reminded me a little of Schindler's List, and I thought it was the perfect accompaniment. It was the chips to the fish, the spade to the bucket, and the Laurel to the Hardy. Both are set during the Nazi occupation of Poland, and both include struggles of survival for Jewish people. We know Oskar Schindler was a Nazi, and we know that he was kindly in helping Jews, but for those that have seen The Pianist, you will know we don't see a kind Nazi until closer to the end of the film when Captain Wilm Hosenfeld helped out Wladyslaw Szpilman in his fight for survival. I am not defending Nazi party members or the SS, but it does seem to be a recurring theme that one or two were capable of acts of human kindness. Not all of them was like Joseph Mengele, Heinrich Himmler, or Adolf Eichmann, and I suppose a good number knew what was happening was wrong, and decided to do something about it. Karl Plagge was one of these, who, like Oskar Schindler, employed Jews in an attempt to help them survive. These were not just men, however. Plagge saved women and children, also, during his time in Lithuania under Nazi occupation. Plagge was put on trial in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1947, and was exonerated shortly afterwards. Plagge blamed himself for having not done enough, and died in 1957.
From the moment Amon Goeth is introduced, it appeared there was a sort-of rivalry between him and Schindler. You could argue that the two were friends, but I saw them as acquaintances more than anything. The two were often at loggerheads over the use of Schindler's workers, and Goeth frequently visited his enamelware factory, harassing the Jews that were working there. They also shared a passion for cognac, and appeared in a few scenes together, drinking and talking. Schindler had few friends, it seems. You could probably count Poldek Pfefferberg as a friend of Schindler's, and if it wasn't for him, it is unlikely we would have ever read the book in which the film came from, Schindler's Ark. It was Pfefferberg who, by chance, met with novelist Thomas Keneally, and decided to tell the story of Schindler. By contrast, it can be said that Schindler and Itzhak Stern were never friends during the film, but they definitely gained one another's trust towards the end. So much so that they eventually became friends. Germans and Jews were forbidden to form friendships under Hitler's governance, but the telling factory here – even though the Nazis would not have cared – is that both Schindler and Stern were born in Austria. As was Amon Goeth, and, of course, Adolf Hitler. I suppose the telling factor here is forget what World War II took from people, we're all the same no matter where we come from. Only some choose to do things different to others. I'm going out on a limb here, but the only thing that divides each of these people is their religion. Famous American thrash metal band, Slayer, said it best with their song, "Cult." "Religion is hate, religion is fear, religion is war." I am not going to slam people for choosing religion – each to their own – but the number of wars from history around the world that have been directly caused because of people's interpretation of religion is astounding.
I don't often agree with the Academy Awards, but I completely concur with the seven wins Schindler's List received, although I do think it should have won more. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction were the seven wins, and a further five were nominated. Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound, Best Makeup, and Best Costume Design lost out. However, I am not quite sure Tom Hanks, though very good, should have won Best Actor for Philadelphia, nor do I think Tommy Lee Jones did enough as US Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive for Best Supporting Actor. Neeson shone through as Oskar Schindler, and his portrayal was absolutely sublime. I'm not saying Hanks wasn't good as Andrew Beckett, I just think that it was always clearly obvious he would win due to the direction Philadelphia had to go in. AIDS was very relevant at the time, and all Hanks had to do was show up. So Neeson was never going to win that year, but what about Ralph Fiennes' performance as Amon Goeth? Now strangely, I think this is the biggest travesty of that Academy Awards ceremony. Fiennes put everything into that role, and I do think that certain scenes define a film as being something special. In Schindler's List, that comes when Goeth and Schindler are drinking together at Goeth's house. Goeth, clearly drunk, tries to reason with Schindler about what power really is. The two put out a scene that most actors would have killed to be a part of, and it is right there when I thought they both would have won for their respective roles, just like the scene in the magnificent Raging Bull where Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) asks his brother, Joey (Joe Pesci), if he'd slept with his wife. But moving on, I don't even think Tommy Lee Jones was good enough to beat the other actors on the list for Best Supporting Actor. Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, John Malkovich as Mitch Geary in In the Line of Fire, and Pete Postlethwaite's role as Giuseppe Conlon in In the Name of the Father, all lost out, along with Fiennes, to Tommy Lee Jones. We can't change history, but you have to wonder how that was allowed to happen.
When I think of films that are truly outstanding, I can name a few. Schindler's List is one of those without a doubt. Steven Spielberg's direction is as masterful as it is encapsulating, and is a stark reminder that, although we can't change history, we can educate people of the horrors that happened during World War II. Clearly, Spielberg's heritage had something to do with his determination to make the film, although he never wanted to direct. Roman Polanski was offered the chance, but turned it down because he was an actual survivor of the ghetto in Krakow. Martin Scorsese and Billy Wilder were also approached, but neither thought they could make the film in such a way that would leave a legacy. The film was a massive success in the Box Office bringing in $321m, and is rightly mentioned in many critics' list of greatest films of all time. For those of you that have inexplicably never seen Schindler's List, what are you waiting for? It is harrowing and poignant, but often witty and charming, with a dose of intensity thrown in for good measure. While I don't class it as my favourite film ever, it is up there in my top ten. It doesn't get the number one nod purely because it is not a story. It is a true story based on the accounts of those that witnessed family and friends murdered at the hands of the Nazis. For that reason only, I can't 'like' the film. I do very much admire it, however.
The Blu-ray version has been meticulously restored from the 35mm film, with a wonderfully crisp picture for one that is in black and white. Dark levels are immaculate, and lighting is strikingly good. If this was shot in colour it would do itself justice, but black and white is the only way to go for this film. Sound-wise, the audio track now boasts 5.1 surround which plays a great part in giving the viewer a sense of being a part of what's happening. You can hear whispering voices, and the sound of jack boots is accurately disturbing, if that's the right phrase for it. There are better audio tracks out there, but none as gripping as this. The special features, although sparse, are just right, I thought. There is a feature-length documentary with Steven Spielberg himself hosting survivors and relatives of survivors about Krakow, Auschwitz, and their experiences of the inhumane acts of the Nazis in occupied Poland. Some of the feature is quite moving as the people involved speak of their memories. There is also a short featurette with Spielberg talking about a non-profit foundation for survivors of the Holocaust, and a promotion for an Internet-based instructional site which teaches about the Holocaust.
My rating: 10/10