You've read and/or heard so much about "Schindler's List" by now that this review is probably redundant . . . not that that ever stopped me before.
The good news is that the movie is everything its hype has built it up to be - powerful, emotionally overwhelming, even stunning in places.Taking a real-life story that is complicated and unsettling, Steven Spielberg uses all of his technical prowess to propel the narrative but also allows this very human story to touch the audience on a personal level.
The result is unquestionably his most important work, his most fully realized work, his most rewarding work.
The basics have been well-publicized: The film, shot in black and white, is about a German Nazi who took over a factory in Poland during World War II and talked his powerful acquaintances into allowing him to use cheap labor, in the form of Jewish workers. Ultimately, Schindler rescued more than 1,100 people from the death camps.
But Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) was not a hero on a white horse. Indeed, when we first meet him he is worming his way into the good graces of SS officers for his own selfish purposes. He sees this scheme as an opportunity to get rich and surrounds himself with beautiful women, sips champagne, bribes Nazi officers and suggests his factory is essential to the Nazi war machine.
He's a complex, initially unsympathetic character. But after the first third - the film is more than 3 hours long - Schindler begins to recognize the horrors that are going on around him and feels compelled to do something about it.
Neeson is superb in the role, as are the many prominent supporting players, including Ben Kingsley as the Jewish accountant used by Schindler to keep track of his business, who becomes something of a soft-spoken conscience. But most notable is British actor Ralph Fiennes (who also has a role in Robert Redford's upcoming "Quiz Show"). Fiennes' portrayal of a brutal Nazi monster, the commandant of Plaszow Forced Labor Camp in Krakow, is absolutely chilling.
But Spielberg has always been great at pulling appropriate performances from his actors. The surprise here is how well he pulls off the film's many levels, none of them easy. The casual manner in which Nazis kill Jews, the semi-documentary tone, the horrors and ironies of the war itself and the gradual manner in which the audience comes to see Schindler as a man whose baser instincts slowly give way to compassion.
Shocking and wrenching scenes abound - a Jewish worker is dropped to his knees as the Nazi commandant tries to shoot him in the head with a gun that repeatedly misfires, Jews are forced to strip and run around a compound in order to prove themselves healthy enough to live as workers, a soldier plays a piano in an apartment building as his comrades roam from room to room, randomly firing on men, women and children . . . .
Yet this is not a hopeless film. In fact, it is, in its own way, a very hopeful film, especially in its shamelessly sentimental climax.
Spielberg pulls no punches, and the film's R rating is deserved (for violence, nudity, sex and profanity). This material would be far too disturbing for children.
"Schindler's List" is also the film that should, by all rights, win Spielberg the Oscar. If ever there was a movie that had "best picture" written all over it, this is it.