Deemed an instant classic upon its release in 1993, Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List has always seemed impervious to criticism, as if to question its artistic and cultural value were somehow tantamount to the deepest historical insensitivity. When a movie gets yoked with an agenda, no matter how noble in intent, it tends to lose accessibility as a work of art, because there seems only one appropriate way to respond to it, without regard to its flaws and ambiguities. As a subject, the Holocaust can also put filmmakers in a box, because it's an absolute evil, a black hole that swallows humor and humanity, which severely limits how it can be depicted onscreen.
With all of these pitfalls in mind, it's nearly miraculous that Schindler's List goes well beyond the merely solemn and tasteful, honoring history without cardboard villains and heroes, and without putting the shackles on artistic expression. Cynics might blame Spielberg for salvaging uplift from the ultimate tragedy, but the film's hopefulness cannot be so easily extracted from its searing, vivid horrors. On the contrary, it's a film that above all holds precious the continuity of the Jewish people, which is exactly what the Nazis tried to extinguish.
Brilliantly photographed in black and white by Janusz Kaminski, Schindler's List looks alternately luminous and stark, with a bracing contrast between the elite German bacchanals, lit with an elegance worthy of Marlene Dietrich, and footage of Polish labor camps, which have a newsreel immediacy. In these purely visual terms, Spielberg describes the moral predicament facing Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a Czech-born entrepreneur whose taste for the good life comes into conflict with his nagging conscience. After the Germans invade Poland and rob the Jews of their rights and properties, Schindler strikes a devil's bargain with sadistic Nazi commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) and reopens an abandoned enamelware factory, using Jews as cheap labor. With Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) running the books, Schindler finds enormous success supplying the Germans with field kits and other supplies, but his war profiteering also makes him an accidental savior, because it spares his workers from a grim fate. Once his eyes are fully open to Nazi atrocities, Schindler liquidates his assets and bribes the Germans into allowing him to secretly shelter roughly 1,100 Jews destined for the death camps.
The creation of the list in Schindler's List is a cathartic experience, much like a visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.: Though Schindler saved lives and assured generations, the list itself isn't affecting for its end result so much as for its symbolism, for what it means to be acknowledged as human, as a life. It's a shame that Spielberg falls prey to sentimentality in the final minutes, when the emphasis shifts toward absolving Schindler's lingering guilt instead of restoring some humanity to the faceless survivors. Until that point, the film uses Schindler as a window into awful realities that aroused his conscience as they woke the conscience of the world.
With Spielberg leading the charge, Schindler's List has since become a catalyst for programs that archive testimonies and raise awareness of global intolerance and genocide. To that end, the DVD eschews the usual making-of features in favor of disappointingly slim materials about the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Of these, Laurent Bouzereau's cut-and-paste documentary Voices From The List contains some powerful accounts from "Schindler's Jews" that rhyme well with Spielberg's interpretation of the events. But a film this dynamic deserves to be treated as more than just an educational tool.