“The list is an absolute good. The list is life.”
It had been nearly 20 years since I had seen Schindler’s List. I believe this was only the second time I’ve watched it since seeing it in the theaters back in 1993. It’s one of those films that doesn’t lend itself to repeated viewings. It clocks in at over three hours, and the material is emotionally draining. That doesn’t mean the film shouldn’t be on everyone’s shelf. It should. It should, because it tells a brutal story that civilization must never forget. It’s clear that while the event remains in our collective memories, the reality of the Holocaust has been lost on too many people. Watch this film, and you will be completely amazed that anyone could throw words like Hitler or Nazi to describe anything that could be happening in American politics today. I’m convinced that the people who use those descriptions need to sit down for three hours and watch Schindler’s List, maybe for the first time. It belittles this horrific moment in history to throw it about as a political hit or hate speech. There is nothing in our current American landscape that comes close to the reality of what happened to the Jews in World War II. Saying that there is shows amazing ignorance, an ignorance that this film goes a long way in dispelling.
Oskar Schindler (Neeson) was a factory owner who moved his operations to Poland during the Nazi occupation in order to exploit the cheap Jewish labor and the war profits to be made in a society dedicated to its military industrialization. He was a playboy who loved to use women and booze to excess. On the surface this isn’t the kind of man you would expect to become something of a savior. But Schindler’s conscience began to eat away at him as he watched the way the Jews were being treated. He witnessed atrocities that he found he could no longer reconcile with himself. His exposure to Itzhak Stern (Kingsley), who was a Jew managing his factory, would also provide the humanizing element that was necessary in order for him to see these actions in the horrific light he finally did. He began offering positions in his factory particularly to the Jews in the Krakow ghetto who were most susceptible to being carted off to the death camps because they were considered useless. The aged and the weak became his workforce. Still he profited greatly from their labors. He befriended Amon Goeth (Fiennes), who was the sadistic commandant of the ghetto camp. That friendship was forged to be exploited and save more of the workforce. When Hitler began to implement his Final Solution, Schindler used the wealth he had amassed to buy over 1100 of them for a munitions plant he built in Czechoslovakia where they might be somewhat safer. Of course the factory never produced a single usable shell, and 1100 people were saved from the massive slaughter by the time the war ended.
Long before he was mentoring Jedi Knights or rescuing family members from terrorists, Liam Neeson was rescuing Jews from the Holocaust in World War II. He wasn’t yet the household name he is today, and he’s somewhat unrecognizable to modern audiences due in part to the 25 years that have passed and also in part to the unique black and white cinematography of Schindler’s List. His performance here is rather subtle throughout, and we never truly trust the character’s motivations until all of that is released in a dramatic breakdown toward the end of the film. Neeson sheds the nuance to deliver the film’s most moving performance. Ben Kingsley was an accomplished actor before Schindler’s List, but not quite the household name he is today. This film went a long way to bringing his work to the notice of the masses. Kingsley loses himself completely in the role of Stern. The amazing thing about this character is Kingsley’s ability to produce two conflicting emotions at the same time. Stern is resigned to his fate and that of his people. There is often a lifelessness in his eyes that projects the hopelessness of his situation. But when he’s truly engaged with Neeson, something changes. There is just a nuanced flicker of hope and determination that never really washes the other stuff away, but makes this a moving performance. His chemistry with Neeson drives the film through three hours that can often feel tedious, but never when these two are together. The final leg in this acting triad is Ralph Fiennes as the sadistic Amon Goeth. He represents the very worst of the Nazi occupation. Fiennes delivers glee in his random execution of the Jews under his charge. He relishes his position and considers the ghetto his personal hunting preserve and the Jews within as his own entertainment. His chemistry with Neeson is an uneasy one that leaves the viewer a little on edge. Together these three performers manage to elevate the film beyond the horrific images that are the requisite of any film depicting this moment in history.
And Spielberg does not spare us the horrific images. That’s where I felt the running time the strongest. If I had a bone to pick with Spielberg, it would be the lengths he goes to linger on the brutality and horror. I understand how important those images are, but the film runs the risk of making the viewer desensitized toward those images. He avoids this with impressive cinematography and the strong presence of Neeson, Kingsley, and Fiennes. Without those character moments, the film might have served the opposite of its intent and made an audience numb to the atrocities.
Steven Spielberg was just enjoying his success with E.T. in the early 1980’s when the book written by Thomas Keneally first came to his attention and he was approached to make the film. He found the material compelling but believed he wasn’t in a place where he could make this kind of a film. He waited a decade before finally deciding to tackle the material. It’s not the kind of film that people often associated with Spielberg, particularly at that time. He admits that part of the motivation was a chance to be recognized for his films in a way that his genre material was never given a chance. It was a rather smart move on his part. He managed to film Schindler’s List at a time when age was beginning to take the remaining survivors of the Holocaust. It was the time when a national museum was being built to commemorate the event. The 1990’s became a bit of a hotbed to find a way to preserve this moment in time before any living connection to it was gone. His experience with the film also inspired him to work with USC to create the SHOAH Foundation. He used his film resources to help record over 52,000 testimonials of Holocaust survivors in a searchable record that was made available to museums and educational institutions. Today it’s available over the internet to anyone in the world. So Schindler’s List was more than a box office or awards consideration project. Like Schindler himself, it led to something that allows these survivors to survive beyond their own lives.
Schindler’s List is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The ultra-high-definition 2160p image is arrived at by an HEVC codec with an impressive average bitrate of 60 mbps. This is the very first film that was shot in black & white to be released on the UHD/4K format. Yes, both the Logan and Mad Max films were released in a black & white format, but were shot in color. This film is shot in black & white with a couple of notable exceptions. It wasn’t converted from color. The behind-the-scenes footage is also all in black & white, because that’s the film that was used. Yes, film. Here the HDR isn’t delivering color. It’s providing texture and contrast that make this film more visceral than perhaps will make you comfortable. Long shots are often soft with focus, but that was the original intent. Close-ups provide razor sharp resolution and often, again perhaps more than you might be comfortable having. Because this was shot on film, the 4K presentation isn’t a converted affair. The source is native 4K with just the right element of grain to provide the organic feel of film. Black levels are crucial here, to be sure. They are deep and loaded with fine detail, particularly on the actors. There are a few color moments. The beginning of the film and the coda presenting the survivors placing stones on Schindler’s grave delivers a nice grainy warm and realistic color. The most notable upgrade from Blu-ray is the transition from color to black & white through a wisp of smoke of a candle to a train exhaust. It’s choppy in HD but is now as flawless as it was on the big screen 25 years ago. There is also the defining moment where Schindler’s conscience kicks in as he observes a young girl, and her red coat is the only color on the screen. It’s a wonderfully saturated deep and dark red. It’s not a bright distracting red that might have been tempting to produce with the HDR element. It’s a rather brilliant device that has become somewhat iconic in the film’s history.
The Atmos track defaults to a pretty solid 7.1 mix. Dialog is the focus of this audio presentation, and that remains true here. You can hear every word with a sometimes disturbing clarity. The ring of a gunshot cuts through a serene sound field and makes its impact to the emotional gravity of the film. The score is rather subdued, as it should be. John Williams is known for his sweeping fanfares, but here he allows the music to often default to a solo violin or piano. Often there is no score at all. These are strictly emotional beats that are never allowed to distract from what you are seeing. The surrounds deliver the backgrounds that draw you into the film. Crowds muttering or the bustle of soldiers clearing a neighborhood. It’s the silence that makes the most impact, and that is completely preserved here.
The extras are all on the second Blu-ray.
Schindler’s List – 25 Years Later: (39:56) In 2018 there was a 25th Anniversary screening of the film at Tribecca. After the screening there was a conversation moderated by Janet Maslin that included Steven Spielberg, Ben Kingsley, Liam Neeson, and Caroline Goodall, who played Mrs. Schindler. Their conversation is cut with some rather revealing behind-the-scenes footage from the shoot, which is in black & white.
Voices From The List: (1:17:30) This feature-length documentary is introduced by Steven Spielberg and contains some of the testimonials that were recorded for the SHOAH Foundation project. The film also features vintage photographs and film footage from the Nazi occupation of Poland.
There are three PSA Features for SHOAH Foundation.
You often hear survivors and others say that the Holocaust must never be forgotten. They are wrong. It won’t be forgotten. It’s not enough to remember this kind of event. There has to remain a visceral connection, or the sheer numbers of murdered Jews becomes a meaningless statistic. It’s more than a history class discussion. Schindler’s List helps to provide that kind of connection. This 4K release means that you’ll experience the film in a way that was impossible since its original theatrical run. If you have a UHD player, you’ll want this in your 4K film library. If you have not yet purchased a UHD player, this might be a good reason to do so. You won’t want to be left out of this experience. “I’m not saying you’ll regret it, but you might.”