Even though Steven Spielberg had made some of the most successful -- and profitable -- films in movie history (E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Jaws, the Indiana Jones series), he was always perceived as a master craftsman but never as a "serious" director capable of making a grown-up film. This is an odd perception, considering that in addition to such crowd-pleasers as Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. (along with the plethora of projects he has been involved with as executive producer -- Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Back to the Future trilogy), Spielberg had directed such serious fare as 1985's The Color Purple and 1987's Empire of the Sun, which deal with such weighty topics as race and the effect of war on children.
One film, released in late 1993 -- the same year that Jurassic Park set worldwide box office records -- changed that perception forever: Schindler's List.
Based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German philanderer, member of the Nazi Party, and war profiteer whose desire to make money from Hitler's European war slowly but irrevocably morphed into a desire to save over a thousand of his Jewish labor force from the Nazis' genocidal "Final Solution," Schindler's List is a powerfully moving film. It not only never flinches from the inhumanity of Hitler's willing executioners -- there are all sorts of terrible things going on in here, including torture, manhunts, mass executions, and random acts of cruelty -- but it also touches on the central belief felt by Spielberg himself that decency and righteousness can triumph over even the most implacable tyranny and hatred.
Working from Steven Zaillian's adaptation of the fact-based novel by Thomas Kenneally, Spielberg chose to film Schindler's List in black and white because most of the documentaries, records and photographs he had seen were in black and white. As a result, whenever he does use color, especially in the key "Special Aktion" sequences where Schindler (Star Wars: Episode I's Liam Neeson) catches a glimpse of a single scarlet-clad girl as the Jews of the Krakow Ghetto are ruthlessly rounded up by SS troops. Spielberg draws the audience's -- and Schindler's -- attention on this single little girl by inserting the coat's red color into the otherwise stark shades of gray, black and white that dominate the film (which is the most expensive black and white movie made, displacing Darryl F. Zanuck's 1962 war classic The Longest Day).
Spielberg also chose to shoot Schindler's List on location in Krakow, Poland, where most of the movie takes place, painstakingly recreating the look and atmosphere of the period. A full scale set of Plaszow Labor Camp was built near the site of the real one from existing maps and blueprints, and a few scenes were filmed outside the infamous Auschwitz death camp.
Neeson's top notch performance is matched by those of Ralph Fiennes (SS Commandant Amon Goeth), Ben Kingsley (Itzhak Stern), and Caroline Goodall (as Schindler's long-suffering wife Emile), as well as Jonathan Sagalle and Embeth Davidtz. Fiennes in particular is outstanding as the homicidal and capricious SS commandant of the Plaszow labor camp, who thought nothing of picking up a rifle and using unwitting and unfortunate inmates for morning target practice.
Schindler's List won popular and critical acclaim, winning seven Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Music (by long-time collaborator John Williams), Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, and Art Direction. It is not only a fine example of filmmaking at its best, but it also serves as a memorial to the six million victims of the Holocaust, as well as a tribute to a flawed but righteous man who gave up his fortune and risked his life to save a handful of his fellow human beings from history's greatest criminal act.
The DVD presents Spielberg's 196 minute masterpiece on one double-sided disc in a digitally enhanced widescreen picture and 5.1 digital sound. The audio and video content are excellent, although fans of extra features may bemoan the lack of "the making of" behind-the-scenes featurettes present in other Spielberg-directed movies on DVD. Instead, there are the dicumentaries "Voices From the List" and "The Shoah Foundation Story."
Nevertheless, the recently-released Universal Studios Home Video DVD is a worthy addition to any serious film lover's collection.