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Schindler’s List (1993)
UK Certificate: 15
US Certificate: R
Intended audience: Older teenagers and adults
Content warning: Strong violence, strong language, sexual content, nudity.
Schindler’s List marked an extraordinary turning point in the career of Steven Spielberg. Many felt the Holocaust was unlikely subject matter for the director of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and yet growing up I always thought he had a film like this in him. I turned 18 in 1993, and in a sense Spielberg’s directorial career also came of age at the same time. I grew up loving Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but Schindler’s List was different. Schindler’s List was a radical departure from anything Spielberg had made up to that point. It took the cinematic world by storm, winning tremendous critical acclaim and – in a rare case of me actually agreeing with the Academy – seven Oscars (including Best Film and Best Director). It also paved the way for later mature, complex works including Saving Private Ryan and Munich.
For my money, Schindler’s List is the greatest film of the 1990s; an epic three hours plus monochrome masterpiece telling the gripping, harrowing, intensely moving true story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson). Ruthless businessman, womaniser and a Nazi party member, Schindler comes to Poland at the outset of World War II, essentially intending to profit from slave labour. At first his ventures succeed beyond his wildest dreams, but when he sees the appalling suffering inflicted on the Jews, Schindler slowly but surely changes. He begins to shelter those most vulnerable in his factories, going to great lengths to keep them out of the gas chambers by bribing Nazi officials. In doing so, he systematically bankrupts himself, but becomes an unlikely hero.
Everything about Schindler’s List is remarkable. For a start, Liam Neeson has never been better. Nor arguably has Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s accountant (and conscience). But man-of-the-match acting honours have to go to Ralph Fiennes, playing the odious but conflicted Nazi Commandant Amon Goeth. He is one of cinema’s most memorable villains because Fiennes and Spielberg refused to make him a one-dimensional thug. There are moments – especially in Goeth’s treatment of his beautiful Jewish maid – where flashes of humanity buried deep beneath the demonic Nazi ideology struggle to get out, but are then stifled again by the evil he has become. Such characterisation makes his monstrous actions all the more diabolical.
All other aspects of the production are superb, from Michael Kahn’s editing, to Janusz Kaminski’s stark cinematography and John Williams’s beautiful and haunting music score. However Spielberg remains very much the driving force. In adapting Thomas Keneally’s novel, he found his ultimate passion project in Schindler’s List. Eschewing his usual trademark dolly and tracking shots, here he adopts a hugely effective handheld, verite approach; plunging the viewer headfirst into the horrors of the Holocaust. There are moments here of visceral, armrest-gripping terror (particularly during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto and the justly famous girl-in-the-red-coat sequence) that will haunt you for the rest of your life. Spielberg does not patronise or editorialise, the brutality speaks for itself. The systematic oppression and genocide of the Jewish people is unflinchingly and ruthlessly depicted, sparing the viewer nothing.
And yet, I cannot see this as a depressing film. On the contrary, it is a hugely powerful, historically important, life-affirming story that deserves to be told, declaring boldly the extraordinary spiritual truth that one person can indeed make a difference. The finale, when Schindler breaks down, wishing he could have saved more, is one of the most powerful scenes in cinema history. What follows, in the epilogue, is almost unbearably moving, and enough to make a paving slab weep burning tears.
I recall the first time I saw this film in the cinema. No-one moved during the entire end credits. When the lights finally came up and I looked behind me, my eyes were greeted with a sea of tear-stained faces in a state shock and disbelief; unable to speak in the aftermath of such a brilliant work of cinematic art. It was a profound, sombre moment, and one that, like the film, I will never forget.