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SCHINDLER'S LIST

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle, Embeth Davditz
Director:  Steven Spielberg
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  196 Minutes
Release Date:  March 9, 2004

“Oskar Schindler, they’ll say…everyone remembers him.  He did something extraordinary.

He did something NO ONE ELSE DID.”

Film ****

Considering they’ve kept us waiting for years for Schindler’s List to arrive on DVD, you’d think Universal would have taken the time to give us a really special offering for our patience.  But no…they’ve taken one of their proudest and most heralded catalog offerings and treated it like some B picture.  More on that further down.

There have been a number of truly great films to come out over the last twenty years, but probably none as important or as well crafted as Schindler’s List.  In 1993, it marked one of the most powerful and unrelenting looks at the evil of the Holocaust, while at the same time managing to tell an amazing and true story about an unlikely hero who saved 1,100 lives in the face of last century’s darkest evil.

It also marked the arrival of Steven Spielberg as a true artist of cinema after spending 20 years as an audience favorite.  No one ever doubted his talent; his career gave movie lovers one thrilling spectacle after another, keeping the crowds entertained and the cash flowing at the box office.  But with Schindler’s List, he proved he could deliver a film of enduring critical consequence as well.

Before this movie, many of us knew of the horrors of the Holocaust, but had never contemplated them on so personal a level before.  The Nazi plague that swept across Europe in the 40s not only threatened the security of the entire world, but left in its wake an indelible genocide of some 6 million victims.

Oskar Schindler (Neeson) was a member of the Nazi party and a frequent failed businessman who saw the second World War as an incredible opportunity:  with Jews being relocated into labor camps to give him all the free manpower he would need, and some willing to part with their money to earn something tangible to use in trade, he opened an enamelware factory.  His war profiteering and opportunism made him wealthy beyond anyone’s wildest dream.

But in one of history’s great enigmatic occurrences, Schindler reacted to the horror of the Holocaust by using up his fortune to save the lives of his factory workers and their families.  By the time Germany surrendered to the Allies, the once wealthy Schindler was broke and on the run, but his legacy was generations of people descended from those who would have been erased in the fires of Auschwitz.

That such a shining beacon of good could come from such an unlikely man and at such an unlikely time is the distinctively Spielberg-ian touch to an otherwise bleak and disheartening tale.  But the fact that the story is true, and that so many of Schindler’s Jews participated with their stories and eventual appearance in the film is part of what makes the picture such a remarkable event.

If Schindler represents the light of humanity, the person in the story who symbolizes its darkness is Amon Goeth (Fiennes), a bloodthirsty monster who leads the liquidation of the Polish ghettos and who kills for amusement.  In one setup, Spielberg shows both men in their own bathrooms, shaving and getting ready for the day that will end up defining their characters for all history to judge.

Both actors earned Oscar nominations for their roles, and both gave career defining performances that helped us understand the nature of these men.  With Goeth, Fiennes delivered an unapologetic and icy portrayal of remorseless evil, while Neeson demonstrated the slow brewing process that turned an opportunist into a savior.

Spielberg’s name usually equated to commercial success, which was good in this case, because he had a couple of potential box office strikes against him with this movie.  One, it was shot in black and white, and two, it was over three hours in length.  The stylistic decision, which resulted in an Oscar for cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, was the correct choice.  The monochrome look added authenticity while at the same time reducing the gore of the violence to a somewhat more palatable level.  By adding a stroke of color to a little girl’s red dress, he was also able to step back from the grand scale of the picture and tell the sad tale of the Holocaust in one microcosm of a story…no words, but a definite and memorable conclusion.

And speaking of conclusions, the ending of this picture always reduces me to tears.  Roger Ebert has said that when he’s touched by a movie, he’s more often touched by goodness rather than sadness.  I understand what he means, and that’s exactly the reason why the final contemplative shots of the Schindler Jews in modern day times works with such a naked human beauty.  It’s the proof that an indelible good could emerge from even the blackest of historical times.

Now, on to the unpleasant task of addressing the disc.  For starters, this three hour, sixteen minute movie is served up on a ‘flipper’.  Even though dual layering technology has been available for years allowing up to four hours of information on a single sided DVD, Universal opted for the lazy way out.  This is a four layered disc, but even so, they managed to not get a well-under four hour film on one side. They even chose to cut the film right at one of it’s most startling moments…you’ve got to wait until you can turn the disc to finish it.

And of course, Universal remains infamous for not letting users change audio tracks on the fly.  Which means that when I flipped the disc, it opted for Dolby Digital even though I was watching it in DTS, and I couldn’t do anything except STOP the disc, select it from the main menu, sit through the damned DTS promo clip a second time (in the middle of the movie, mind you!), and then start side two from the START again, even though I had progressed a minute or two into it before realizing I had to change the audio track.  With any other studio, one push of the button would have taken care of the problem.  Then again, with any other studio, I wouldn’t have to be making my video and audio selections a second time in the same viewing period.

I know there was a shakeup in management at Universal a year or so ago, and that’s definitely resulted in a once good studio putting out some inexcusably shoddy product (the horrible looking The Meaning of Life, the misframing of Back to the Future and so on), but this is SCHINDLER’S LIST.  This is a seven time Oscar winner and many fans’ and critics’ pick for best film of the 90s (myself included).  If they weren’t going to use readily available technology to present the best home viewing experience possible, why bother?

The thin bookjacket cover box didn’t do much for me either, but here’s where the real explanation is owed:  I took the plastic wrap off my factory sealed brand new DVD and opened the case…and there were fingerprints covering the surface of the disc.  When I flipped it over to look at side B, the same thing.  There’s a quality control meltdown at Universal, folks.

None of that detracts from the raw power and sheer emotional force and brilliance of the movie, but if I were Steven Spielberg, I think I’d be a little peeved over the lazy and lackluster DVD presentation of my masterpiece film.  Then again, I’d also be a little more involved in the DVD production process.  His lack of participation in his own feature’s futures on disc was bound to bite him in the behind sooner or later.  He probably just never excepted this was the film it would happen on.

Video ***

The black and white anamorphic transfer (full frame also available) is mostly quite good.  At best, some of Spielberg’s images take on an almost luminous quality against the grayness.  A couple of scenes are too dark and a little murky, but nothing demanding a major complaint.  Generally the images are clean and crisp, and the range from solid blacks to pure whites is strong and conveys well on disc.

Audio ***

You have a choice of Dolby Digital or DTS soundtracks.  Both are strong and serviceable, with the DTS track offering just a tad more dynamic range.  Subwoofer use is extremely limited, but the surrounds kick in for some of the bigger sequences to give a sense of ambience and urgency to the proceedings.

Features *1/2

For all the inconvenience of making this a ‘flipper’ disc, you’d like to think maybe it was done because the features package was so generous and required room.  No chance.  You get once decent extra, which is “Voices From the List”.  It’s a short film of interviews with Holocaust survivors and some archival footage that ties in nicely with the presentation of the film.

Apart from that, you get “The Shoah Foundation Story”, which is nothing more than an ad with a “send money here” tag at the end.  “And more” as listed on the back of the box means talent files and a text reading of Oskar Schindler’s story, most of which you will have already seen, down to the girl in red.

Summary:

This is a truly great movie presented on a truly mediocre disc.  Memo to Universal:  nobody else makes discs that require you to flip them to continue the movie anymore…not unless the movie is over four hours and had a scheduled intermission.  This is a troubling indication of the studio’s lack of effort in producing quality product.  Only we, the admirers of the film, are the ones hurt by it.