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Schindler's List

Spielberg’s Holocaust masterpiece refuses to get Spielbergian

It would be tough to make the case that Steven Spielberg’s multi-award winning Holocaust drama, with its National Film Registry recognition and perennial placement on critics’ Best Of lists, has gone wanting for praise over the years.

And yet when Schindler’s List comes up in conversation now, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s been tarred by the brush of Spielberg’s subsequent jaunts into historical fiction - Saving Private Ryan, War Horse - which have erred more towards overt sentiment.

It’s the only explanation that makes sense, because there’s nothing remotely sentimental about Schindler’s List until its final 15 minutes, and that’s an emotional resolution hard-earned by three hours of relentless, stoically drawn cruelty.

Spielberg and his scripter Steven Zaillian (Moneyball) must be given credit in spades for telling a moving and emotional story, but what stands out more upon re-watching is the brutal efficiency of Zaillian’s narrative, and the lack of reprieve it offers its audience.

Doubting his own maturity as a director, Spielberg reportedly tried to pass off the gig to Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese, among others, before finally saddling up to adapt the story of German industrialist and Nazi Party member Oskar Schindler.

Played by a pre-action hero Liam Neeson, Schindler is credited with saving more than 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them as factory workers, in what he passes off as a mutually beneficial business arrangement.

“The panache, the presentation - that’s what I’m good at,” Schindler tells newly appointed Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), who soon comes to serve equally as his second-in-command and conscience.

Neeson is at once charismatic and impenetrable, allowing us only snatched glimpses of Schindler’s inner life, but Stern sees through his desire to profit from the war in a way that nobody else (audience included) initially can.

It’s disconcertingly easy to imagine a version of this story in the mode of, say, Titanic, with a doomed fictional romance between two improbably well-groomed Jewish refugees taking centrestage.

The closest Spielberg gets to a love story is the central push-pull of Stern subtly, shrewdly forcing Schindler to confront his own humanity - the one-armed machinist being a key early moment.

Still, there’s a sense that neither Zaillian nor Thomas Keneally (who penned source novel Schindler’s Ark) entirely understand how Schindler’s change of heart came about, and so it plays as mysterious on-screen.

It’s a slow but relatively seamless transition from Nazi war profiteer to modern-day Moses, which ends up with Schindler bankrupting himself in order to move his workers away from the Final Solution.

It’s unclear how strong his Nazi allegiance was to begin with, his politics remain largely un-discussed, and his womanising is referenced but never explored. As character studies go, this one is scant on insight.

By the same token, there’s little sense to be made of vicious Nazi camp commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) except that he is a psychopath, which is fine for one man but offers limited understanding of the broader mentality behind the Third Reich.

Yet neither case is necessarily a flaw: Zaillian’s laconic, sparse script leaves you overwhelmingly with the sense that some things - both good and evil - really are beyond the realms of comprehension.

Fiennes is grimly mesmerising regardless, from his thwarted stab at becoming a merciful man (nice while it lasts) to his raving monologue at silent, petrified housemaid Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz); the latter is as potent a portrait of powerlessness as you’ll ever see on screen.

Three hours of suffering and moral conflict should be a chore to sit through. But you scarcely feel the length even on re-watching, thanks to impeccable structuring from Zaillian and a continuous stream of searing individual moments from Spielberg and now regular DoP Janusz Kaminski, here working together for the first time.

Some are visual - the second sighting of the girl in the red coat never loses its gut-wrenching impact - while others are harsh details - women using their own blood as rouge to pass health checks, a young engineer shot at random for doing her job. Others are one-two punches - personal belongings are dispassionately divided into heaps by SS officers, and echoed later on in the piled ashes of their owners.

And amid all this, you can count the mitigating instances of tenderness on one hand.

Schindler is by and large an emotionally removed hero, and his hardness sets the tone for the film around him. Spielberg has his own compelling reasons for not wanting to sugarcoat the atrocious history he’s chronicling, and it’s thanks to his otherwise unsentimental approach that the much-discussed ‘group hug' ending works.

It’s a moment of melodramatic catharsis at the end of a pitiless road, and it’s the mark of a director who knows exactly when to hold back and when to indulge.

There’s a disappointing dearth of new features on the disc - you’d think somebody could at least have knocked up a retrospective featurette for the anniversary, but the only new inclusion is a 16-page companion booklet packed with behind-the-scenes info you’ve probably heard before.

Recycled from the DVD though it may be, 70-minute documentary ‘Voices From The List’ remains a powerful insight into the real lives saved.

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