The Liberation of Steven Spielberg

Freed from his earlier studies in pop redemption, the prince of schmaltz has made what might be the year's best movie

Once Spielberg has his characters inside a concentration camp, the sharp-edged beauty of the camerawork continues. I'm still wondering how the filmmakers got so many extras, from young to middle-aged to elderly, to take off their clothes and run around naked as the Nazis try to determine which of them is still fit to work. But what a scene it is, first in the eerie detail of the doctors' smocks pulled over the Nazi uniforms, and then in the striking realism of the photography. It is so anti-Hollywood, so real-looking, that for a moment I thought I was watching archival footage.

Outraged that he has lost his workers and humanly afraid that people he's befriended -- such as the invaluable plant manager Stern (the wonderfully dignified Ben Kingsley) -- will be killed by his countrymen's inexplicable bloodlust, Schindler makes frequent visits to the camp. There, in another business deal, he strikes up a friendship of mutual benefit with the commandant, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). Fiennes' is a strange portrayal. His nasal voice makes him sound like he's parodying Peter Sellers' parody of Henry Kissinger in Doctor Stranglove. But his wasted, unhappy Nazi is quite interesting. His cruelty has enough of the bored, spoiled frat boy to make him recognizable.

Spielberg takes a few missteps, but the brilliant film technique continues almost throughout. By the film's end, when Schindler has dropped any pretense of exploiting the Jews and is making a cooly superhuman effort to save as many as possible, Spielberg does get into some of the moments of obvious uplift I'd feared, but by this point, I'd say, he's earned them.

This film is full of career-topping work. Liam Neeson is a revelation as the party animal turned moral agent. The fact that he retains his cool, hip facade even after he's become a raving good guy is quite compelling.

But it's Spielberg who is the real star here (esthetically, at least -- I suppose the real stars are the real-life "Schindler Jews" we meet at the film's end). It's easy to say that he has become a mature artist, but after his '80s work that sounds like an oxymoron. He must be the kind of artist that evolves in great bursts, rather than in increments. In any case, it's a thrill to have this dazzling work before us.

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