(United States, 1993)
Has any movie ever made more effectively presented the two halves of human nature? In Schindler's List, we have the monstrous and demonic (Goeth) personified alongside the selfless and sacrificing (Schindler). Yet this is no mere allegory; with the exception of certain events that have been fictionalized to make for a better narrative, Schindler's List is a true story, a part of the historical record. A few years ago, I named this my #1 movie of the 1990s, and my opinion has not changed since then. Few films I have seen have affected me as deeply or stayed with me as long. I can still recall the stunned silence in the theater as the end credits rolled. Four hundred people were sitting there; no one got up to leave until the lights came on. There was no talking as we lined up and filed out. Never before or since have I had that experience attending a motion picture. Schindler's List was the movie that documented for all to see that Steven Spielberg was capable not only of making tremendously entertaining popcorn films, but that he could cross over and craft something of amazing substance. Since then, he has done Amistad and Saving Private Ryan, but Schindler's List remains his crown jewel. He will likely never top it, nor will he likely feel compelled to try. The film has its detractors, few though they are. For the most part, their gripes sound like sour grapes – the comments of those who, for whatever reason, dislike the director. Over the course of the last decade, I have watched Schindler's List only three times – far fewer than almost any other film in my Top 100. It's a tough movie to view and my mood has to be just right. On each occasion, the experience has lingered, not only for hours, but for days. Inexplicably, the movie has not yet been released on DVD. Although that situation will be rectified in early 2004, it strikes me as incomprehensible that a film of this magnitude and importance has not yet found itself into such a universally embraced video medium.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The film opens in September of 1939 in Krakow, Poland, with the Jewish community under increasing pressure from the Nazis. Into this tumult comes Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a Nazi businessman interested in obtaining Jewish backing for a factory he wishes to build. He makes contact with Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), an accountant, to arrange financial matters. For a while, there is no interest and nothing happens. March 1941: The Krakow Jewish community has been forced to live in "the Ghetto", where money no longer has any meaning. Several elders agree to invest in Schindler's factory and the DEF (Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik) is born - a place where large quantities of pots are manufactured. To do the work, Schindler hires Jews (because they're cheaper than Poles), and the German army becomes his biggest customer. March 1943: Germany's intentions towards the Jews are no longer a secret. The Ghetto is "liquidated," with the survivors being herded into the Plaszow Forced Labor Camp. Many are executed, and still others are shipped away by train, never to return. During this time, Schindler has managed to ingratiate himself with the local commander, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), a Nazi who kills Jews for sport. Using his relationship with Goeth, Schindler begins to secretly campaign to help the Jews, saving men, women, and children from certain death.
Despite the grisly subject matter, this movie is essentially about uncovering a kernel of hope and dignity in the midst of a monstrous tragedy. The story of Oskar Schindler's sacrifices for the Jews sets this apart from other Holocaust dramas. Uncompromising in its portrayal of good, evil, and all the shades in between, Schindler's List offers a clear view of human nature laid bare: hatred, greed, lust, envy, anger, and, most important of all, empathy and love. Because this film touches us so deeply, the catharsis has a power that few - if any - other moments in film history can match. And that's what establishes this as a transcendent motion picture experience.
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