'Schindler's List': Filmmaking at its best

December 24, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In 1981, the film critic of this newspaper wondered about a young director's apparent ignorance of the past as demonstrated in the glibly amusing "Raiders of the Lost Ark," with its cartoon Nazis: "The film, which is absolutely nailed into a certainIn 1981, the film critic of this newspaper wondered about a young director's apparent ignorance of the past as demonstrated in the glibly amusing "Raiders of the Lost Ark," with its cartoon Nazis: "The film, which is absolutely nailed into a certain time and place in its textures and details, still manages to lack a wider and tragic sense of history. . . . It's as if Spielberg has never heard of the Holocaust."

Twelve years later, the critic can write: He has heard of it, indeed.

Steven Spielberg's new film, "Schindler's List," is an unblinking vision of that firestorm. It looks, without ever averting its gaze, at the darkest of the dark: executions, beatings, mass murder, the consignment to night and fog of a whole people, the reduction of a culture to ashes. But it's also a story of redemption as a man learns that it profits him not to gain the whole world if he loses his soul in the bargain. Working from a non-fiction novel by Thomas Kenneally, he tells the astonishing story of Oskar Schindler, Nazi war profiteer and wannabe Krupp, who set out to exploit the Jews and ended up their savior. A businessman and not a soldier, he fought the Third Reich with the only weapons available: his charm, his backslapping and glad-handing, and his underlying shrewdness.

Indeed, Schindler is a strange hero, and the Irish actor Liam Neeson seems to play him like a movie producer: a charmer and bon vivant, the guy who's always calling out "More champagne, garcon," while trying to get his mark to sign on the dotted line. Like a producer, he doesn't really make anything; his real skill is finding people who can make things and putting them together with people who want things made, while scraping off all the profit for himself. Thus it is that this all-too-common bourgeoise greedhead is as astonished as anyone else when, during the razing of Krakow ghetto in 1944 (the tragic event that is the centerpiece of "Schindler's List") the little mouse that says, "This is wrong" began to gnaw at his heart.

It's a great story, and it makes a great old-fashioned movie-movie. As sheer narrative, "Schindler's List" just roars along, creating a world, peopling it with believable characters and following them through the crises of history to their own fates. It watches as Schindler negotiates the survival of "his" Jews, the 1,100 he's commandeered to work in his factory. Alternatingly charming and bluffing, he becomes a dynamo of nerve, of sheer will preventing the Reich from its agenda of execution, even to the degree of getting people out of Auschwitz. In the end, it costs him everything.

But standing in counterpart to Schindler's burgeoning discovery virtue is a darker presence -- the Lucifer, as it were, of the Holocaust. In "Schindler's List," this demonic figure takes the form of SS Obergruppenfuhrer Amon Goeth, commandant of the Plaszow Forced Labor Camp and architect of the action against the Krakow Ghetto ("action" being the Nazi's euphemism for massacre).

This nasty boy was a stock figure in World War II movies and books for years, but the British actor Ralph Fiennes manages to bring dimensions to him as yet unseen. Fiennes's Goeth is a kind of intellectual lout, lazy and corrupt (we watch his pot belly grow), debauched beyond redemption, and yet somehow a strangely compelling figure. Fiennes gives him shadings of self-doubt and vulnerability; it's as if, as the film continues and Goethe gives full vent to his reptile brain (he loves to shoot people), his flesh itself becomes somehow mottled or clouded with corruption. He's a strange figure, who, however much one may want to see him as the personification of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil," insists on being its opposite: the charisma of evil. That most very troubling character, the monster with the human face, he clearly fascinates some secret part of Spielberg.

It's a mark of Spielberg's growth that he has put away childish things. Gone are the Spielberg hallmark shots, the swooping crane moves, the blissful camera glides, the night sky apile and algow with stars and metaphorical possibility. He's even abandoned that most obvious foundation of the imagined story, color, in favor of a black and white that carries the thought: This is real.

But it shouldn't be said that he puts aside technique. There's not a single artless shot in the film and in fact sometimes artlessness itself is used artistically. In an early scene, where Goethe and Schindler meet for the first time, Spielberg seems to glory in the prosaism of the setup. Occasionally one will get up and wander off screen, then wander back, violating every convention of feature filmmaking with the utter untidiness of it all.

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