Winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, it also won every major Best Picture Awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review, the Producers Guild, the Los Angeles Film Critics, the Chicago, Boston and Dallas Film Critics; a Christopher Award; and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association Golden Globe Awards. Steven Spielberg was further honored with the Directors Guild of America Award.
The film presents the indelible true story of the enigmatic Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party, womanizer, and war profiteer who saved the lives of more than 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust. It is the triumph of one man who made a difference, and the drama of those who survived one of the darkest chapters in human history because of what he did.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film, which also won Academy Awards for Screenplay, Cinematography, Music, Editing, and Art Direction, stars an acclaimed cast headed by Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle, and Embeth Davidtz.
Part of the brilliance of Steven Spielberg's 'Schindler's List' is in the title itself. Changed from the book Schindler's Ark, on which the film is based, calling it 'List' is more subtle and ambiguous, removing religious connotations that would otherwise create certain expectations, particularly towards the conclusion. The word also imagines something more immediate, tangible and concrete, envisaging in audiences a larger dramatic scope that's somehow connected to a piece of paper cataloging a series of names. Ben Kingsley's lowly accountant Itzhak Stern later describes it as an absolute good and a symbol for life, and the blank margins are the abyss, implying the empty space and relative closeness between life and death for each person's name.
But before we reach that point and its significance, Spielberg takes us through a gut-wrenching and harrowing journey of suffering, fear, and a constant struggle for survival — which in essence, visualizes Stern's later comments as a very small, narrow space. The film begins in color while observing a Shabbat service prayer, a family standing around a dinner table surrounded by natural sunset lighting. The scene is not only meaningful in and of itself, but also ironic since it marks the beginning for the day of rest. And as we're about to find out, the story is anything but peaceful. It's an emotionally devastating motion picture experience unlike any other, and the prayer is almost as if in remembrance for the survivors and the lives lost, those of which we are about to witness on screen.
On a deeper level, the sequence is significantly important to the film's overall effectiveness. As the picture is suddenly drained of color, the two candles on the table continue to burn brightly and warmly. When they finally reach the bottom and lose their flame, we're left with a billowing smoke that extends into the heavens. A sense of hope and the shimmer of life seems to also burn out with the candles because what we're about to watch is ugly, painful, and nearly unbearable. The metaphor resurfaces much later towards the end when Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) gives Rabbi Lewartow (Ezra Dagan) permission to observe a Shabbat service. The candles are the only source of color — and hence, life — and they become symbolic of a hope regained and a will to live in peace.
The cinematography was done by Janusz Kaminski, and 'Schindler's List' marks the beginning of his long-time collaboration with Steven Spielberg. By shooting primarily in black-and-white, Kaminski seems to have gained a certain liberty with the camera, and he appears to really enjoy this new sense of freedom, utilizing shadows and precise lighting schemes in strikingly beautiful and highly-stylized ways. The plot, as poignant and expressively somber as it may be, is made to feel cold and distant, more true to life than scripted and artificial. From a dramatic standpoint, only Jewish blood is really ever seen flowing, splattering and spraying everywhere, and it's the same color as everything else, the same blackness as their clothes and the shadows they're made to hide in. The visual scheme seems horrifyingly reminiscent of the camp prison uniforms.
Taking it further, the photography works towards characterization as well, making clear representations of the inner conflicts of characters or their lack of moral standing. Neeson's Schindler is shown at the beginning with a confident, ambitious glow thanks to a vivid, plentiful light source, but as the story grows darker, so does his personality. His face and body is often shown with more shadows, prompting dark, gloomy banter with Schindler — his face half covered in obscuring shadows — bribing the Auschwitz camp commander. Then there's the film's most haunting image of all: the little girl in red, suggesting the final spark of life and that which affects Schindler the greatest. The most stunning sequence, for me, is the frightening conversation between Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) and Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz), which demonstrates Kaminski's talent best.
For Steven Spielberg, 'Schindler's List' is not only a very personal and trying production because of his own cultural investment and interest, but it's also a momentous turning point in his filmmaking career. The 186-minute epic shows a kind of maturity and gravity not seen in his work prior to this historical drama, which is not to say they are any weaker by comparison, only that here, Spielberg does away with his familiar approaches and style for something grittier and more genuine. Making it feel more like a documentary and spontaneous, he also does something very unusual: he doesn't shy away from nudity and shocks his audience with graphic, realistic depictions of violence. He doesn't want us to look away, so each display is sudden and unexpected, making the suffering and distress of the people who actually live it that more disturbing and upsetting. What Spielberg achieved in 'Schindler's List' is a magnificently affecting piece of film art, which will continue to be cherished and admired as arguably one of the greatest achievements of American cinema.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'Schindler's List' to Blu-ray in a limited edition three-disc combo pack which commemorates the film's 20th anniversary. A Region Free, BD50 disc comes packaged with a pair of DVDs containing the movie and special features. All three sit comfortably inside a foldout case with clear plastic panels showing elegant artwork and photos from the movie.
The case is housed in a simple but sturdy cardboard sleeve that features a picture of the original poster. Included with the package are instructions and code for accessing an UltraViolet digital copy. The pamphlet also comes with a few words from the USC Shoah Foundation and the IWitness Video Challenge. At startup, the disc goes straight to the main menu with subtle music while two candles burn in the center of the screen.
'Schindler's List' arrives on Blu-ray with a stunning 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that's not only beautiful to watch but is also faithful to the photographic intentions of Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg. We can clearly make-out individual bricks in the buildings and roads of the Kraków Ghetto. Fine lines are razor-sharp and detailed, making every grain in the wood, stretch of barbwire and bolts in the press machines crystal-clear. Tiny pebbles in the road and leaves on trees are visible throughout. Close-ups of actors reveal every wrinkle, pore and blemish with lifelike clarity, and textures on clothing are equally distinct.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography comes with crisp, brilliant contrast levels and vibrant whites. We can see plainly far into the distance the tops of hills and the roofs of faraway buildings during exterior shots, showing a great deal of depth and dimensionality. Meanwhile, indoor sequences are often immersed in shadows from limited, natural lighting, creating an interesting flatter, shallow space without ruining delineation in the darker portions. Blacks are inky rich and penetrating, with remarkably clean gradational steps in the grayscale. Combined with Kaminski's photographic styles and choices, this makes for some hauntingly striking imagery that thoroughly impresses in this high-def presentation of an emotionally epic classic.
Much like the video, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack included on this disc remains true to the original design, which means there's not a whole lot of action going on in the rears. In fact, they're generally silent for the most part, minus the very few times when one or two atmospheric effects are employed for subtly generating an ambience. This is most evident during sequences inside Schindler's factory or in the concentration camp. These moments are excellent with great directionality, generating a wonderful and meaningful sense of space.
The design is really more of a front-heavy presentation with the majority of the action occupying the screen. This includes the understated yet compellingly emotional score of John Williams, spreading across the entire soundstage with outstanding balance, fidelity and warmth. The lossless mix exhibits rich, detailed clarity in the mid-range with terrific instrumentation and distinction between the various sounds. The low-end is responsive and deep on occasion, like the Auschwitz scenes, but not very commanding, which frankly is appropriate for a character-driven drama and giving the subject matter. Dialogue and whispered conversations are precise and distinct throughout, making this an exceptional high-rez track for a brilliant historical drama.
All bonus material is found on the second DVD disc.
Marking a significant turning point in the filmmaking career of Steven Spielberg, 'Schindler's List' is a harrowing, gut-wrenching motion picture experience unlike any other. With stunning cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, the film's story of survival and one man's heroic efforts to save lives features excellent performances from Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes, leaving audiences with several poignantly haunting images of humanity at its best and its worst. This Blu-ray edition, which commemorates the production's 20th anniversary, arrives with an audio and video presentation that's faithful to the filmmakers' intentions, and the results are absolutely fantastic. Supplements could be stronger, but overall, the package is exceptional, sure to make fans and cinephiles alike very happy with the purchase.