Schindler's List (1993) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Since Steven Spielberg is now an unassailable cinema God, it may be difficult for many of you younger readers to realize that it was not always that way. In fact, that is a comparatively new phenomenon. If you could travel back in time to 1992, you would discover that he was then considered a talented but trivial man, a shamelessly commercial mainstream director whose goal in life was to achieve massive box office results with movies that were sentimental and shallow, albeit technically brilliant.

That was not necessarily an accurate perception of him, but it was a widely held belief. It really had more to do with the movie industry than with Spielberg. Hollywood has gone through many cycles in estimating its self-worth. The people of Hollywood, from the earliest days until now, have always been the best entertainers in the world, but they have not always been consistently guilt-free about that fact. In the 1950s, Hollywood was truly proud of being an entertainment center, and routinely awarded the Best Picture statuettes to entertainment films with razzamatazz, like Gigi, Around the World in 80 Days, and even The Greatest Show on Earth. That didn't last. The cultural revolution of the late 60s and 70s hung some existential guilt on Hollywood. That reached its apex in the 80s, and lingers to this day, perhaps finally expunged by Lord of the Rings. During the late 70s and 80s, even though they continued to make great entertainment films, and to make their fortunes from such films, Hollywood's filmmakers often applauded mediocre message films at award time. In one eleven year span, the Best Picture Oscars went to Out of Africa, Ordinary People, Chariots of Fire, Driving Miss Daisy, Gandhi, and Dances with Wolves. It was during this period that Spielberg made his best entertainment pictures, which always seemed to lose to second-rate films with noble intentions. Spielberg made Jaws (#79 of all time at IMDb), E.T. (#241), Last Crusade (#142), Raiders (#16) and Close Encounters (just barely out of the top 250) within a fifteen year span. He became rich, but received not one Oscar for best picture or best director, although the actual winners were often forgettable films, and Spielberg's movies became the universal defining elements of American popular culture.

Hollywood trivialized him completely by awarding him the Irving Thalberg award when he was only 40. He must have felt like crying out, like a Monty Python character, "I'm not quite dead yet."

Well, he wasn't even close to being dead.

With Schindler's List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan, he simply kicked everybody's asses. He continued to use his own highly refined skills at great storytelling, and his knack for connecting emotionally with audiences, but he also took on the most important themes of the past 200 years: the sacrifices of WW2, the holocaust, and slavery. The results were a way of subtly thumbing his nose at the independents and intellectuals and "message" filmmakers by saying, "Looky here. You can make 'important' movies, but you don't have to sacrifice a great story, or human warmth, to do so." Within a decade, Spielberg had been elevated in status to the Shakespeare of cinema. And you know what? The sumbitch deserved it. Of course he had deserved it all along, but the point is that his recognition finally matched his production. He is a master. Compare Schindler's List to last year's much-praised 21 Grams. The latter just consisted of an unparalleled wallow in misery, but Spielberg, who could easily have wallowed in misery in a holocaust film, chose instead to find dozens of real human moments reflecting the delicate shades of light and darkness inherent in the human condition. He dug in and found human truth instead of delivering lectures. For example:

  • The women in the Pleszow forced labor camp argue whether the liquidations at Auschwitz are a myth. They conclude that the stories must not be true, because if they were true, who would be around to tell the story?

  • Stern, the brilliant and efficient Jewish business manager, chastises Schindler, the Nazi business owner, because the factory is not making properly working armaments for the German Wehrmacht! Stern just wants to do his job properly, and knows that Schindler is a chronic screw-up, so he tries to bring his boss in line as he has always done. Of course, this time Schindler isn't screwing up, and Stern somehow fails to see the more important point.

I think the most beautiful moment in the film is an impromptu one. After the story has ended, there is an epilogue which takes place in the present day. Each of the surviving members of the Schindlerjuden walks hand in hand with the actor who plays him in the movie, and both people place stones on Oskar Schindler's grave in Jerusalem. It all seemed too drawn-out and saccharine, until one lady, stooped with age, placed her stone as she had been instructed to do, and then hesitated for an instant, looked at the grave, and softly rubbed the side of the stone with a couple of fingers, even though she had to bend over in obvious discomfort to do so (right).

It was only a tiny unrehearsed moment in the scope of a monumental epic film, and yet it was the one which made my eyes tear over.

The film has its bad moments as well. Two come to mind:
  • Oskar Schindler's closing monologue, which was over the top. Liam Neeson took some flak for overacting this scene, but I think he came up with a reasonable interpretation of a very difficult, overwrought, overwritten speech that seemed out of character. Perhaps Neeson might have played it by maintaining his composure and choking back his emotions instead of letting them flow, but this scene would have made any actor cringe to read it.
  • The clumsy transition used to resolve the Jews' last crisis. Stern walks in to say that they are out of money. They have nothing left for food. They have nothing left to bribe Nazi officials. The crisis seems irresolvable. Then, abruptly, the scene shifts to a radio broadcast from Churchill saying the war was over. Just like that. Introduce a crisis that has no solution, then solve it in a facile manner. That played out like a Popeye cartoon. A very false moment in an otherwise brilliant film.

You may be interested to know that there are some historical inaccuracies in the film. In my opinion, Spielberg got to the real truth of the situation, beyond and beneath the facts, but for the sake of accuracy:

(1) Amon Goeth, the brutal commandant at Pleszow, did not shoot random prisoners from the balcony of his house. His house still stands, and the location of the camp is still known (see details here). The camp is on the other side of a hill, so Goeth could not have seen any prisoners from his balcony. Goeth did shoot prisoners at random from the top of the hill, and he did parade around his balcony with a rifle (picture shown on this website), but the incident in the film is an urban legend caused by blending and blurring the two facts. This was not Spielberg's decision. He followed the story as it was told in Thomas Keneally's eponymous book. It was Keneally who accepted verbal reports of the incidents without checking the plausibility of the accounts. It doesn't really matter. The film ultimately portrays Goeth's actions correctly in a moral sense, albeit with some dramatization.


(2) Goeth was arrested in September of 1944 by the Nazis, in connection with his having stolen the property of the state to enrich himself.  He had used some of the prisoners' private possessions to enrich his own bank accounts. He was also stealing food intended for prisoners and selling it on the black market. An internal SS report confirmed that Goeth and others were guilty of (A)" Individual criminal acts - in these cases having broad implications - included: the assumption of a license to kill by commandants and subordinates concealed through falsification of medical death certificates." (B) "Arbitrary conduct, chicanery, unlawful corporal punishments, acts of brutality and sadism, liquidation of no-longer-convenient accomplices, theft and black-market profiteering." Spielberg left out the account of the internal Nazi housecleaning, since it would have tended to provide some ostensible exculpation to the Nazi higher-ups.

I should point out here that the Goeth arrest does not really show that the Nazis and SS were more human than normally believed. It would seem so on the surface, but this is actually a complicated issue which requires some depth of study. (1) Goeth was not being arrested simply for taking the property of the prisoners. He was supposed to do that. He was arrested for hurting the war effort by taking that property and keeping the wealth for himself, instead of turning it over to the Nazi Party. (2) He was not supposed to be running a death camp. He was running a forced labor camp for the production of war materials. Therefore, the prisoners under his command were to be kept healthy enough to produce uniforms, and furniture, and whatever else was deemed war-essential. The mistreatment of those prisoners was objectionable to the Nazis, but not on moral grounds. The production of those prisoners was considered essential to winning the war, and those people were the slaves of the state, intended to serve the aims of the state, not the personal aims of Amon Goeth.

To illustrate this point clearly, the Nazis did not charge Goeth with any wrongdoing in the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, which resulted in the wholesale slaughter of thousands of people. The investigators were simply concerned that their labor camp "assets" were being improperly used by their commandants for personal gain, contrary to the interests of the state.

Spielberg did not want to include all the complicated "what ifs" and "on the other hands". Who could blame him, since he already had a three hour movie? Although his film up to that point had been about both Goeth and Schindler, Spielberg simply let Goeth disappear from the story and shifted the focus entirely to Schindler and his Jews.


(3) Thomas Keneally, author of the book "Schindler's List", admits that the story about the rescue of the women from Auschwitz may be apocryphal. Nobody seems to be very clear on where those women went, or how they were rescued. The women aren't sure where they were. The only person who could clarify the story is the man who rescued them, Oskar Schindler himself, and he is long dead.

DVD info from Amazon

  • "Voices From the List" featurette

  • "Behind the Shoah Foundation With Steven Spielberg" featurette

  • Widescreen anamorphic format


  • Embeth Davidtz - wet t-shirt.
  • two unidentified Schindler mistresses - breasts.
  • Magdalena Komornicka - breasts and a brief open crotch shot when her pajama bottoms are pushed aside.
  • full frontal and rear nudity from various concentration camp victims being forced to undress, shower, etc.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: four stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 4/4 (top film of the 1990s), BBC 5/5.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.8/10 (#7 of all time),  and Yahoo voters call it an A.

Awards ...

  • It was nominated for twelve Oscars and won seven, including Best Picture.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is an A. It really has no serious detractors: beloved by audiences, critics, and industry insiders as well. It's considered a cultural treasure and, unlike most so-called cultural treasures, is a spellbinding story as well. May I also recommend a series of interviews with the surviving Schindler Jews - Voices of the Shoah - which is on the DVD as a special feature.

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