Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Review: "Schindler's List" is Fine Art

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 19 (of 2005) by Leroy Douresseaux

Schindler’s List (1993) – B&W with color segments
Running time: 194 minutes (3 hour, 14 minutes)
MPAA – R for language, some sexuality and actuality violence
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
WRITER: Steven Zaillian (from the novel by Thomas Keneally)
PRODUCERS: Gerald R. Molen, Branko Lustig, and Spielberg
EDITOR: Michael Kahn, A.C.E.
Academy Award winner

DRAMA/WAR with elements of thriller

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle, and Embeth Davidtz

When Steven Spielberg finally won his Oscar for “Best Director,” he also picked up an additional statue as a producer when Schindler’s List won the “Best Picture” of 1993. Schindler’s List is without a doubt one of the greatest films of the last quarter of the 20th century, and it is also truly film as art.

The film’s title character is the real life Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a member of the Nazi Party and a war profiteer. The Czech-born, German businessman made his fortune exploiting cheap Jewish labor in German-occupied Poland. As World War II progresses, Schindler grows more horrified as the Nazi’s step up the process of exterminating Jews, especially after he witnesses the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto in 1943. He convinces a barbaric German commander, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), to let him have the 1100 Polish Jews he has on a list he created with his longtime partner and Jewish prisoner, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley). This group of Jews are scheduled to be gassed at Auschwitz, but he is allowed to use them to operate a munitions factory at Brinnlitz. The second half of the film follows Schindler as he lavishly spends his fortune on bribes, parties, and gifts on important German officials who will tolerate him using Jewish workers. Schindler’s Jews and their benefactor struggle to stay alive as Germany steadily loses the war because it is at this point that Germany begins to try to hide evidence of the Holocaust.

Although many have criticized the film for being overly-sentimental, propagandistic, and historically inaccurate (Oskar Schindler may have been less charitable and more opportunistic in his quest to save the Jews, and Jewish prisoners may have had to pay their way onto the list, according to some), Schindler’s List is nevertheless a very powerful film. It resonates more than just emotionally and is also a very well made film. In fact, Spielberg’s mixture of classic Hollywood style, black and white photography, and a documentary-like directing technique make for a inimitable and distinctive film. Whenever the film narrative turns to Liam Neeson’s Schindler, Spielberg frames the character as if Schindler were in an archetypal 1940’s Hollywood film noir. When chronicling the Germans’ brutality against the Jews, Spielberg creates a raw, visceral, and immediate art splashed on the wide canvas of a world simultaneously real and dreamlike.

It’s a bravura effort from one of the great film helmsmen. Spielberg makes a compelling film that you can’t help but watch even as he brazenly displays the monstrous cruelty of Germans. Still, that is the way Spielberg emphasizes that the Germans considered their Jewish slaves and prisoners to have no future, that they were merely the tattered remains of a history already forgotten.

It’s a shame Neeson did not win the “Best Actor in a Leading Role” Oscar that year, losing to Tom Hanks. In many ways, Neeson is as important to the film as Spielberg. Schindler is both the foundation upon which this story is built and the axis upon which it turns. Neeson recognizes the faults of the man and subtly pushes Schindler’s less than savory attributes to the surface. He makes him more human than hero. Neeson conveys the sense that there is always something else going on in Schindler’s mind, something quite different from what he tells his friends and adversaries. An actor giving a character that much verisimilitude is rare. That Neeson can make the sly, sneaky, and recklessly flawed Schindler so engaging and intriguing is itself a work of art.

10 of 10

1994 Academy Awards: 7 wins: “Best Picture” (Steven Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen, and Branko Lustig), “Best Director” (Steven Spielberg), “Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published” (Steven Zaillian), “Best Art Direction-Set Decoration” (Allan Starski and Ewa Braun), “Best Cinematography” (Janusz Kaminski), and “Best Film Editing” (Michael Kahn), “Best Music, Original Score” (John Williams); 5 nominations: “Best Actor in a Leading Role” (Liam Neeson), “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” (Ralph Fiennes), “Best Costume Design” (Anna B. Sheppard), “Best Makeup” (Christina Smith, Matthew W. Mungle, and Judith A. Cory), “Best Sound” (Andy Nelson, Steve Pederson, Scott Millan, and Ron Judkins)

1994 BAFTA Awards: 7 wins: Best Actor in a Supporting Role” (Ralph Fiennes), “Best Cinematography” (Janusz Kaminski), “Best Editing” (Michael Kahn), “Best Film” (Steven Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen, and Branko Lustig), “Best Score” (John Williams), “Best Screenplay – Adapted” (Steven Zaillian), and “David Lean Award for Direction” (Steven Spielberg); 6 nominations: “Best Actor” (Liam Neeson), “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” (Ben Kingsley), “Best Costume Design” (Anna B. Sheppard), “Best Make Up Artist” (Christina Smith, Matthew W. Mungle, Waldemar Pokromski, and Pauline Heys), “Best Production Design” (Allan Starski), and “Best Sound” (Charles L. Campbell, Louis L. Edemann, Robert Jackson, Ron Judkins, Andy Nelson, Steve Pederson, and Scott Millan)

1994 Golden Globes: 3 wins: Best Director - Motion Picture (Steven Spielberg), “Best Motion Picture – Drama,” and “Best Screenplay - Motion Picture” (Steven Zaillian); 3 nominations: “Best Original Score - Motion Picture” (John Williams), “Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama” (Liam Neeson), and “Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture” (Ralph Fiennes)

2004 National Film Preservation Board: National Film Registry


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