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Spielberg's devastatingly beautiful Oscar winner finally graduates to high-definition....
Universal / 196 Minutes / 1993 / Rated R / Street Date: March 5, 2013
Schindler's List is a movie that is, quite frankly, unreviewable. It exists outside of the sphere of common entertainment; it is not a documentary, nor even a historical document. It is simply a statement, a declaration of faith and belief that tackles a subject so central to our understanding of humanity that it is above reproach. Evaluations of the artistic merits of Schindler's List are easy - we can praise the quality of its production, the beauty of its photography, the caliber of its cast and the narrative gifts of its director, Steven Spielberg. But assessing its morals, its message, and the passion of its convictions is trickier. What a minefield: to criticize Schindler's List as anything but a searing portrait of humanity and hope is to throw rocks at the Easter Bunny.
So rest assured that I have no intention of desecrating a revered cinematic institution. Schindler's List is indeed about as perfect a technical achievement as is possible in film. It is gorgeously shot, impeccably acted and wonderfully scored - not a single frame is wasted. That it would be elevated to the status of Best Picture of the Year by over 100 major critics and awards organizations upon its release was a foregone conclusion, and its multiple Academy Awards were guaranteed. It is impossible to watch this movie and not be moved, amazed and simply overwhelmed by its quality. And given the current state of modern cinema, that any film could actually be called noble only makes the accomplishment of Schindler's List even greater.
But if you, dear reader, would allow me the luxury, I would like to risk being branded a heretic and say that this is not Steven Spielberg's best film. E.T. and Jaws are all just as good, if not even better, than what is widely considered his masterpiece. I would still unquestionably rank Schindler's List as one of Spielberg's finest cinematic accomplishments, but not at the expense of his prior work - and I am aware that such an opinion flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Hollywood's reigning infantile, its Peter Pan, Spielberg has always been accused of being the boy who refused to grow up, and laughed all the way to the bank in spite of it.
His unstoppable and unrivaled commercial success engendered a begrudging respect from his peers and critical nods for his technical abilities, but a resentment that still festers decades later. Critics may like to feel that they are intellectually superior to the masses that they are supposedly writing for, but remain as predictable now as they were then. "No one who is that successful," they would whisper about Spielberg, "could really be any good." But with Schindler's List he finally proved them wrong. Little Steven had at last grown up.
Hogwash, I say. Spielberg has always been a mature filmmaker, just one whose gifts were so in tune with the mass cultural consciousness that his only crime was that his dreams and the dreams of the world were one and the same. How can you fault a filmmaker for not betraying his natural gifts? With Schindler's List, it almost felt that Spielberg was at last caving in to the pressure to finally get serious. Yet while the film may not feature any aliens, dashing archeologists and elaborate action sequences, it is not so much a rebuttal of Spielberg's previous style as a dissolution of it (you can strip him down to the bare essentials, but you can't make him turn cynical).
Gone are the usual magnificent crane shots and whoosh-zooms, as are the candy-colored wonderlands, replaced by grainy handheld, black and white tracking shots of terrified Jews being led into the gas chambers. Yet even when staging scenes of mass genocide Spielberg is incapable of composing an unpretty picture, making Schindler's List gorgeous even at its most ugly. And such beauty in the horrible allows his optimism to shine even brighter. The real Oskar Schindler may have sped off into the night without the benefit of a final, cathartic group hug, but Spielberg was not out to document history with Schindler's List, but to reinterpret it and reaffirm his ultimate worldview. Even in the face of unspeakable genocide, one does not have to lose hope in humanity. And in that respect - and no matter how hard his detractors may want him to disavow his previous, "less serious" films - he is still the wide-eyed little innocent that befriended E.T. And God bless him for it.
So if we are going to remove the importance of the subject matter from the equation, Schindler's List is a film with problems, or, more appropriately, a problematic film. Like movies about historical occurrences, or issues, it presupposed a knowledge of its central conflict - the Holocaust - and offers little in the way of context. Even its characters lack meaning without at least some prior historical knowledge on the part of the viewer. That the film makes no attempt to dissect the reasons for its protagonist's ultimate redemption - Oskar would, with great risk to his own standing and life within the Nazi party, rescue "his Jews" from the unstoppable fury of Hitler - has been called its greatest strength, yet it leaves the film an inscrutable blank. The "Schindler's Jews" the film depicts are represented almost as a depersonalized mass. (How ironic, one could say, that the story finally Spielberg chose to embrace his Jewishness would be about a German?) Is this good filmmaking, or is Schindler's List a story ultimately powered only by our own feelings towards the Holocaust? Because who wouldn't be horrified?
Yet the power and passion on display in every frame of Schindler's List shines through despite any arguable faults. While I would still rather take a ride across the moon with little E.T., or fly high into the sky inside the mothership of Close Encounters, Schindler's List at last proved to the critics that Spielberg was a major talent on equal with the greatest auteurs in the history of cinema. It was just that they were a couple of decades figuring it out.