Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List is one of the most overrated films of all time: It won seven Oscars. It is the 6th highest rated film on IMDB. The critics loved it, and the internet is flooded with reviews where people rave about being "deeply moved" or "touched" after watching it.
It's a shallow failure of a film.
A good drama film needs several qualities. Of these, the most important is the exposition of characters and their interactions. Schindler's List flops spectacularly in this respect. We start out following the tale of Oskar Schindler, an opportunistic, profiteering businessman. But midpoint in the film, this Schindler persona has disappeared, and we have a new character clothed in the same flesh -- a self-sacrificing philanthropist who spends his entire amassed fortune to save the Jew workers. How did we get from one to the other? How did Schindler transform from the evil Mr. Hyde to the benevolent Dr. Jekyll? Steven Spielberg certainly doesn't show us -- maybe it happens via magic, like the bicycle ride in ET?
And what about Amon Göth, the representative Nazi? A "grotesque caricature" if there ever was one. He's an evil, sadistic, Jew-hating Nazi bastard -- but do we get to know why he wakes up every morning, takes a swig of booze and snipes Jew prisoners for fun? No. Spielberg thinks the answer is obvious -- he's a Nazi, and Nazis don't have reasons for the things they do. They're just rabid dogs out for blood, utterly devoid of any moral dimension. But this sort of shallow political correctness can't possibly cut any slack with intelligent viewers. We want to know why Göth hates the Jews so much that he fires his pistol into a pile of decimated corpses, but we never get to know. Apparently, he does it because he's an Evil Nazi, and that's all there is to it.
The attempt to add depth to Göth's character by dwelling on his twisted love affair with a Jewish girl is easily seen for what it is -- a cheap exposure of Nazi hypocrisy. How about trying to dwell on real issues here, Spielberg? How about trying to pass these people off as genuine (albeit twisted) human beings?
This shortcoming is not restricted to Spielberg. When will Hollywood own up to the fact that the men who ran the Third Reich were not mindless monsters? Some of them were cultivated intellectuals and scientists, others compassionate family men and devoted friends. Germany was the best educated country in Europe when the Nazis rose to power. The true intrigue, the true horror of the Holocaust does not lie in brutality alone, but rather in Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil". How can a man (or millions of men) arbitrarily narrow the moral sphere to exclude people seemingly no different from neighbours, friends and family? How can a man fall under the sway of a cruel and hateful racial ideology while simultaneously leading a normal, compassionate family life?
Needless to say, none of these issues are explored by Spielberg.
Another peeve of mine: Accents. There are English-speaking films and then there are German-speaking films. Schindler's List, on the other hand, does not belong to either of these categories. Instead, Spielberg opted to have the characters speak English with a German accent. Why? Listening to Liam Neeson strut about trying to sound like an Anglicised German is pathetic. Spielberg is of course trying to please Hollywood audiences by making the film more accessible to them (hence no spoken German), but for the love of God, we get the point! They're in Nazi Germany. Yes, Hitler's in charge. Yes, it's a nasty, genocidal regime. Please, no cheesy accents.
One of the truly unforgivable aspects of the film is the ending. A mildly touching speech by Schindler about being a war criminal on the run, wanted by the victors of the war, set just the right mood and would have been a perfect ending.
But no, Spielberg couldn't resist messing it up -- he had to have Schindler break down, bawl and cry, grief-stricken and lashed by pangs of conscience. Spare me the anguish, Spielberg. The grief should have been that of the Jews, not Schindler.
When Schindler took off his gold ring and blubbered "I could have saved one more", I experienced a feeling of mild revulsion. Spielberg's invariable resort to sentimentality is quintessentially American, quintessentially cheesy and quintessentially inappropriate for the subject matter of the film.
So what does this film leave us after 195 minutes of running time? Let's see:
Brilliant, Spielberg. Positively brilliant. You really earned those Oscars, didn't you?
All of the above-mentioned flaws are bad enough -- but the way the film manipulates the viewer really takes the cake. Shots of emaciated, shaved potential Holocaust victims starving and screaming, with loud, tragic violin music to top it all off. It has been done in many films before, and will be done again. It's a grotesque form of emotional pornography.
It doesn't take skill for a film-maker to coerce the viewer into sorrow. It takes skill to produce the same feelings without resorting to cheap, melodramatic trickery. Polanski's The Pianist is a superb counter-example. A journey of the mind, a journey of understanding, of quiet and terrible suffering, is so much more satisfying than a mindless journey of the senses...
Like most of Spielberg's films, Schindler's List is technically outstanding. It captures the mood of wartime Germany perfectly. The sets, costumes and cinematography are all top-notch, and the acting is not too bad either, with a few notable exceptions. However, none of these things can overcome the fact that Spielberg is a director of extremely limited vision. His moral and intellectual depth is that of a child.
Stick to making films for children, Spielberg. Stick to making children's films. You're out of your depth.
And on that note, I think it's best to end this review with Stanley Kubrick's words about Schindler's List:
Frederic Raphael [...] recalls Kubrick questioning whether a film could truly represent the Holocaust in its entirety. After Raphael mentioned Schindler’s List, Kubrick replied: “Think that’'s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn'’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’'t.”