Universal has just brought out a 20th-anniversary Blu-ray edition of Steven Spielberg's Holocaust movie, Schindler's List. Don't blame whoever got stuck writing the box copy—"Experience one of the most historically significant films of all time like never before," and so on—for a certain awkwardness about how best to strike the celebratory note. The package is also notably stingy with the undignified extras that usually tempt consumers to repurchase a beloved classic, but what were you expecting, a blooper reel?
That crack isn't meant to be gratuitous, believe me. Call it a reminder that Schindler's List is every bit as much a Hollywood product as Groundhog Day, which came out the same year. Unlike Groundhog Day, it's got the Academy Awards—seven of them—to prove it. In my book, nothing that wins that many Oscars can be altogether holy.
However ennobled by its topic, the movie was nonetheless conceived as entertainment—of a very somber sort, to be sure—by one of the most gifted of all crowd-pleasing directors. That is, it was meant to be accessible and popular as well as impressive. Still, my fellow oldsters may recall how some African American high-school students in Oakland who got sent to see the thing a month or so after its premiere—on MLK Day, no less—stirred up nationwide consternation by laughing at some scenes. They'd committed what was already the sin of treating Schindler as just another afternoon at the multiplex.
Obviously, it wasn't, at least compared to Spielberg's own Jurassic Park. His other big hit of 1993 leaves one ever so slightly unnerved that he could shift from one to the other without breaking a sweat. All the same, those kids' reaction and the flap that resulted do crystallize the quandary involved, then and now, in judging Spielberg's docudrama—which doesn't get called one only because the term sounds unprestigious, interestingly enough—about German businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who saved over 1,200 Jews from the gas chambers by cajoling and then bribing the Nazis to keep them at work in his factory until the Third Reich fell.
For many people, the subject matter alone—along with the large-scale, wrenchingly authentic-looking renderings of the Final Solution's barbarities—elevates the movie beyond routine criticism. To be less than totally awed by Schindler's List is to proclaim one's indifference to the murdered six million, and so on. Yet a perennially cranky minority view is that to attempt to depict the Holocaust in dramatized—hence inherently falsifying—movie grammar is a travesty by definition.
One fabled Schindler naysayer is Jean-Luc Godard, who devoted 2001's In Praise of Love to dissing Unka Steven's hubris. For a Swiss Protestant who hasn't always put enough daylight between himself and anti-Semitism to attack an American Jew as a Holocaust carpetbagger is one sick reminder that it's all about turf. Acting chauvinistic about Auschwitz is carrying one's prickly pride in Europe's cultural heritage a bit far. However, that doesn't invalidate the larger question Godard both raised and muddied. Namely, whether there are some realities movies can't do justice to—and only damage our grasp of history by trying.
So how does Schindler's List stack up 20 years later? As a (cough) movie, at least for the most part, awfully well. After all this time, I'd almost forgotten how acerbic a lot of it is, with little shocks of black comedy that take far more chances with the audience's undependable (cf. Oakland) reactions than is Spielberg's norm. He usually relies on composer John Williams to spell out everything's meaning as schmaltzily as possible, but Williams's work here is uncommonly sophisticated.
Meanwhile, the guarded bromance between Liam Neeson's ebullient Schindler and Ben Kingsley as his wary Jewish wingman, Itztak Stern, ends up as the movie's emotional spine. That's something my inner Hollywood fan is bound to be impressed by, because it's old-school story construction at its most subtle. We've seen this intrinsically comic pas de deux in something like a thousand genre flicks, yet it's delicately reworked here to give us the reassurance at least one familiar silver-screen relationship amid the horrors. You also have to admire how Spielberg and his screenwriter, Steven Zaillan, stress the Final Solution's bureaucratic methodology. Each new enormity is signalled by petty officials setting up open-air desks and arranging their stamp-pads.
It's the full-on depiction of the horrors themselves that's most debatable, but obviously not because of ineptitude. Purely as a piece of filmmaking, the terrifying liquidation of the Krakow ghetto is probably the greatest sequence Spielberg has directed, topping even Saving Private Ryan's opening Omaha Beach bloodbath. Yet in both cases, one's perhaps already self-congratulatory sense of vicariously experiencing What It Was Probably Like gives way to a distracting recognition that this is one heck of a set-piece. Just how do you navigate the difference in priorities between "Never again" and "Right up there with D.W. Griffith"?
As moviegoers, we've been conditioned. At some level, the ghetto-liquidation sequence's visual ingredients—armed men, floodlights, panicked people desperate to survive—are exciting. While nobody would accuse Spielberg of catering to that response, he can't help being Steven Spielberg, one of the most kinetically minded directors of all time. His unquestionably lofty intentions are betrayed by his own brilliance, so to speak.
In varying degrees, that goes for the other "big" Final Solution sequences. (To phrase it that way is to underline the problem.) Even the one whose primal power only a fool would deny—flooding the screen with mothers who've just grasped that the train the camera is mounted on is taking their children to the death camps—is ever so slightly tinctured by random, disgraceful thoughts of "If only Roberto Rossellini [the neorealist Italian director Spielberg often imitates here] had had this budget." That, and the awareness that it's designed to be the definitive rendition, the more tellingly as it's not all that intrinsic to the specific Schindler story.
While it may be borne out by the historical record, I also think it was a bad mistake for Spielberg to send Schindler's women to Auschwitz. He gives us every impression they're about to be killed until "the showers" turn out to be just that ... for once. It's his excuse to show us the mechanism of mass death while reprieving us from its "normal" outcome, a heap of naked corpses to be disposed of by people who did it every day.
That sequence also initiates the mushy third act that turns Schindler into a feel-good movie about the handful of Jews who survived thanks to our hero. It doesn't minimize the real Schindler's achievement to point out that the Holocaust was about the doomed many, not the relatively lucky few. Pity the poor Jews who didn't know him.
I can't possibly be the first to make this distinction, but if Schindler's List were just a Holocaust story, I'd salute it. The way it's been hallowed as the Holocaust story—something Spielberg himself doesn't discourage—amounts to a posthumous marginalization of every innocent Hitler succeeded in killing. If she were alive today—and, if not for Bergen-Belsen, she might be, since she was younger than my very spry and active mother—Anne Frank could tell you that there were more than a few of those.