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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 2 - Schindler's List (1993)

Schindler's List (1993; Universal Pictures)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Thomas Keneally (novel); Steven Zaillian (Screenplay)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes

This is the film a lot of hardcore film fans probably expected to be #1.  It currently ranks #7 on the IMDB top 100, it’s #8 on the American Film Institute’s, and it won an impressive seven Oscars including best picture.  It’s probably as close to “perfect” as a film can get.  The only reason it is number 2 on my list is because the number one slot is reserved for my favorite film of all time.  It’s a personal choice, and does in no way mean I think less of this movie.  That said…

Schindler’s List tells the story of industrialist Oskar Schindler (Neeson), a shrewd businessman who operates in the employ of the Third Reich for the war effort while turning a profit, but in the end, he is faced with a choice: greed, or the right thing.  The film is told in two parts: the first focuses on the Nazi’s advance in power and their segregation of Jews into the ghettos, the second centers on the Final Solution, where the remaining few were shipped to camps and a systematic genocide began.  Meanwhile, Schindler himself is hiring a number of Jewish workers for his factory and as he is essential to the Reich’s success at the time, he becomes an obstacle of sorts for the cruel Nazi Lieutenant Amon Goeth (Fiennes).  Schindler’s right-hand man Mr. Stern (Kingsley) begs him to help, but at first Schindler is reluctant until a fateful encounter at a Nazi train depot almost finds Stern in Birkenau until Schindler cames to his rescue.  After this near loss of his colleague and friend he is inspired to do all he can to save as many lives as possible by signing them on as recruits for his factories to protect them from the trains to the concentration camps.  Of course, there is a lot more to this film than that, but for a core synopsis, that’s the best I can word it.

Schindler’s List forces the audience into a hard position.  If you were Oskar Schindler, how far would you go to save these otherwise-doomed souls from the hands of the evil Third Reich?  Because, his stand against Hitler’s forces could have not only cost him his enterprise, but his very life.  Yet, the revelation that he can use his influence to help people, even if it is just a few in the grand scheme, makes his actions all that more meaningful.  This is a story of one man doing all he can to save only a few lives at the risk of losing his freedom.

The film is shot in beautiful black and white, having a deep contrast creating a very crisp look.  Every shot is astounding, too.  There are beautiful scenes juxtaposed against a rightfully-mournful tone.  Likely the most striking and memorable visual moment shows a young girl in a bright red dress against the entirely black and white scene.  This one piece of symbolism has become the defining image of the film from an artistic standpoint.

The performances by all involved are just excellent, too.  Ralph Fiennes in-particular gives a grim and harrowing Oscar-nominated performance as the Nazi officer.  Every scene with him is just chilling.  Unlike a cartoonish villain lacking humanity, we see that in him because we know what he is, but his performance is quite understated despite a few shocking moments.  Liam Neeson gives the best performance of his career here and shows a hint of just how much of an essential performer he could have continued to be if it weren’t for the dreadful Phantom Menace grinding his career to a screeching halt for nearly a decade.

I railed against the Oscars a few times during this list but the Academy got it right in 1994, because in-spite of not ONE actor from this film winning an Oscar, the movie as a whole was recognized for the artistic achievement it was.  There are very, very few films that really depict the Holocaust in any capacity for a few reasons.  First, it isn’t the sort of subject one associates with “entertainment” and secondly, if you mess things up, you are through.  Nobody will respect you as a filmmaker again.  This goes all the way back to the notorious Italian Nazi exploitation flicks of the 70’s which have gone down in legend as some of the most deplorable pieces of cinema ever filmed.  So, it’s understandably-rare to see a quality, successful film tackle this subject, especially as masterfully as Schindler’s List does.

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