Picks and Pans Review: Schindler's List
If director Steven Spielberg's only intention in this battering, black-and-white cinema-verité-style chronicle were to show the full measure of the Nazi horror show, he has succeeded. If the maker of Jurassic Park and E. T. wanted only to prove he could make an adult movie, he has done that. Where Spielberg has been rather less successful is in documenting the true story of an opportunist turned war profiteer turned Moses (see story, page 79).
It is 1939, and the noose is tightening around the Jews in Cracow, Poland. Their homes and businesses have been confiscated, and they have been consigned to a walled quadrant of the city. But one man's misfortune is another's big chance, and the dapper bon vivant Oskar Schindler (Neeson) has an offer for desperate Jews such as Kingsley: Give him the working capital to buy an enamelware factory once owned by Jews, and Neeson will see that Jews gel jobs there. And if Kingsley (who gives a beautiful, delicately nuanced performance) and his friends don't think Neeson's terms are so attractive? Too bad. Better take the deal, Neeson tells them; things are only going to get worse. Neeson knows how to charm the ladies (though married, he has an army of mistresses) and how to bribe SS bureaucrats. With Kingsley installed as bookkeeper and war contracts rolling in, the factory is a huge success.
But Neeson spends his profits in ways he never could have imagined earlier: He feeds his Jewish employees, and protects them, by means of bribes and other subterfuges, from the harsher forms of persecution. And in the waning months of the war, with all the Jews slated for transfer to death camps, Neeson goes even further: He opens a munitions factory and "buys" some 1,200 Jews for his workforce (the "list" referred to in the movie's title).
The 3½-hour Schindler's List, which has the crisp, stark look of a documentary, is appropriately relentless in its cataloging of carnage. There are scenes of concentration-camp prisoners being forced to pull gold from the extracted teeth of fallen inmates and burying the dead in pits. Particularly harrowing is a boxcar's night arrival at Auschwitz, lights blazing, guard dogs yowling, humans screaming.
But the film never successfully explains what drives Neeson, a Nazi party member, a heretofore unremarkable man and frankly a bit of a cad and a swine, to such a change of mind and heart and lo such spectacular acts of heroism. There is almost nothing here about his life before the war. The movie depicts his epiphenomenal moment as the sighting of a little Jewish girl in a scarlet coat (the only gash of color until the coda) in the Cracow ghetto. But that seems thin and pat. Despite admirable intentions and the undeniable splendor of his craft, ultimately what Spielberg has told is the story of the list; he has not told the story of Schindler. (R)