The Liberation of Steven Spielberg

This has not been a memorable fall and winter movie season. If last summer was unusually long on intelligent, well-crafted films, this -- the supposedly "smart" season -- has been largely a string of disappointments, from Scorsese to Eastwood. So it was more than a pleasant surprise to see that a filmmaker I'd given up for dead would present the strongest film not only of the season, but maybe of the year. Yes, I'm talking about Steven Spielberg.

He apparently recovered his box-office touch with Jurassic Park, but the paper-thin characters and thrown-together story in that amusement park of a movie were the summer's real fossils. The word that Spielberg didn't linger at the studio for the standard post-production work, that he was too eager to get at his Holocaust story, was stomach-turning. Here was a filmmaker badly in need of redemption, but I figured he had traveled much too far down the wrong road ever to find his way back. This story -- his tribute to the murdered Jews -- looked to appeal to all of his worst instincts. It would be the story of one man's victory against the odds, and I had long since lost interest in Spielberg's shallow optimism. He would once again be dealing with an abusive and unjust social system, just as he did in one of the least watchable movies of the '80s, The Color Purple. Would his portrayal of the Holocaust be anywhere near as false -- as obscenely false -- as his take on black Southern life at the turn of the century?

These are the fears I carried into the theater, dragging my feet and hoping the print would somehow not arrive. Then Schindler's List began, with a color image of old Jewish men lighting a candle. The camera follows the blue smoke as it ascends, then the screen goes black-and-white, and the smoke is billowing out of a smokestack. This is a clever visual effect, and the scene the image opens into is so striking that Spielberg's insistence on shooting in black-and-white feels right, rather than pretentious.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski simply must win every possible award for his work here. Before the story itself gets rolling, Kaminski's roving, hand-held camera has given the movie a documentary, cinma verite feel, so it plays as a living document, rather than as Spielberg's lecture on the hell of war. But before long, as we first see German opportunist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) charming his way into the Nazi inner circle of Krakow, it's apparent that Spielberg has emerged from a decade-old cocoon and is working with his old self-assurance -- only this time it is applied to the most intimidating of subject matters, rather than his early pop redemption fables.

Spielberg keeps his touch light in the early going, betraying no need to make us despise the Nazis. He trusts his audience to know who the bad guys are and allows himself to present them as corrupt, but recognizable, human beings. He even allows his strange hero, Schindler, a large measure of ambiguity, though I'd never imagined this was a word in the Spielberg family dictionary.

As breezily played by Neeson, Schindler has come to Krakow to profit and party. Strictly amoral, he takes no personal responsiblity for the war, or for the early mistreatment of the Jews. Even though he has joined the Nazi party, he is not an anti-Semite. He's just looking for a way to grease the wheels for his business plans, and in fact has figured out a way to both exploit and help the Jews. He gets them protected work in his enamel factory and, best of all, only has to pay them in pots and pans. The cash he keeps for himself.

Spielberg himself is so unsentimental about these matters that he has sharp, pointed scenes of Jewish leaders trying to negotiate a better deal with Schindler. Despite the horrors that are about to occur, these encounters are about hard-nosed business dealings, and the men involved are businessmen, not prospective martyrs.

Spielberg stays clear of his story's horror for quite a long time. As we follow Schindler's adventures with his mistresses, his business dealings and his parties with the Nazis, the film maintains a bemused, that Schindler is some guy tone, and even gives us a couple of laughs. What's going on here? I wondered. Has Steven Spielberg produced a dark comedy about the Holocaust?

So when the first murder comes in a swift, casual gunshot to the head of someone who simply happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, its cold-bloodedness comes as a jolt rather than a given. At this point I had to acknowledge that Spielberg had done the nearly impossible; he'd made the Holocaust into news. News that stays news, as the man once said.

This may sound like a goal that's worthy but not very enjoyable, but as the story plunges quickly and deeply into its chamber of horrors, Spielberg keeps a surprising and esthetically effective distance. It helps, no doubt, that his point-of-view character is looking on as the Nazis move all the area Jews into a small section of Krakow, then attack in the night to either kill Jews or ship them to a concentration camp. Like Schindler, we watch from a distance. Unlike him, we have to respond to the weird beauty of the filmmaking. The black-and-white effect is almost hypnotic here as we see bursts of gunfire inside the windows of the darkened houses, and as we follow the Jews who want to stay behind as they try to burrow deeper into the darkness, inside a piano, under a bed, into a closet.

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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