Of all the visions of profound shock and terror in Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s staggeringly intense Holocaust epic, there’s one I found impossible to shake: the recurring image of people getting shot in the head. Early on, just after the Jews of Krakow have been herded into the ghetto, an old, one-armed man is plucked from a line of people who’ve been forced to shovel snow. His crime is inefficient shoveling, and so he is led a short distance away and shot as if he were a lame horse, his blood slowly drenching the clean white snow. Later, a Jewish woman trained as an engineer tells her labor-camp commandant that a barracks is being erected on a faulty foundation. With barely a pause, he shoots her-and then orders the structure rebuilt. Glimpsed, at times, in the background of scenes, the killings are frighteningly arbitrary-a reckless assertion of the Nazi will. To describe this executionary madness as punishment is to miss the point: It’s murder as instant gratification.

In Schindler’s List, Spielberg goes beyond ”dramatizing” the Holocaust: He restages it with an existential vividness unprecedented in any nondocumentary film. He makes us feel as if we’re living inside the 20th century’s darkest- and most defining-episode. As the film goes on, we begin to see that the Nazis have, in a sense, unshackled their ids. Authoritarians to the core, they have nevertheless devised a world without true law, a world in which they can behave like anarchic frat-house bully boys giving in to their most hideous whims. And since there’s no definitive pattern to the Nazis’ cruelty-the rules keep shifting-the Jews have no clear way of saving themselves. Whatever they do, they’re damned.

Shot in a rich, subtle black and white that, for all its raw-satin beauty, evokes the authenticity of wartime newsreels and photographs, this 3-hour-and- 16-minute adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s historical novel is organized around the true-life figure of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), the suave German industrialist who built a successful enamelware factory with secret Jewish financing and ultimately saved the lives of more than 1,100 Jews. He did it by using them as factory workers and then paying off Nazi officials to keep those same Jews at work. A hedonist addicted to women, booze, and the good life, Schindler starts out as an exploiter-he uses Jewish labor because it’s cheap- and only gradually discovers his clandestine humanity.

Why, exactly, did this man turn out to be such a courageous altruist? Spielberg -deliberately-preserves Schindler’s enigma, keeping his motivations at arm’s length. For the most part, the Jews are kept at arm’s length too (though their ravaged Eastern European faces sear themselves into your imagination). Spielberg seems to understand that too much conventional empathy would undermine our apprehension of the Holocaust’s unique horror. Neeson, with his overpowering physique, makes Schindler a man of hypnotic charisma, but we never quite feel we’re inside him emotionally. His remoteness often plays as a dramatic ”flaw,” yet it’s a flaw integral to the film’s success. Watching Schindler’s List, the audience becomes, in effect, the invisible protagonist, experiencing the insanity of Nazi Germany directly, with a minimum of melodramatic buffer.

This primal parable of fear and survival is driven by its masterfully orchestrated detail. When a Jewish man stands amid several Nazis while one of them slices off his payess (the curly sidelocks Orthodox Jews are forbidden to trim), the image isn’t shoved at us. We catch it as if we were floating through a crowd-it’s a grace note of cruelty. As the film goes on, the Krakow Jews descend, circle by circle, into the Nazi inferno, moving from the ghetto to the Plaszow forced labor camp to the death factory of Auschwitz. The descent itself is a ritual humiliation. Spielberg has caught the blend of innocence and horrified knowledge that defined the Jewish experience in World War II: the conviction that things couldn’t get any worse followed by the realization that, yes, they could-that the nightmare was still expanding. This pattern culminates in Spielberg’s most lyrical image of human evil: happy, singing children being carted off in trucks-they’re probably on their way to being exterminated-as their mothers run toward the trucks in terror.

Except for Neeson, who succeeds in making Schindler an almost mythical figure, the acting is gritty and life-size. As Itzhak Stern, the saturnine Jewish accountant Schindler recruits to run his company (and then shocks by treating as an equal), Ben Kingsley uses his probing, haunted stare to create a running meditation on the mystery of Schindler. The revelation, however, is British actor Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth, the vicious young Plaszow commandant. Spitting out obscenities in a fey snarl, sitting on his balcony with his gut hanging out as he shoots prisoners at random, Goeth is like a psychotic yuppie brat testing to see what he can get away with. He’s the slovenly underbelly of the Nazi machine, the essence of banal monstrousness.

All of which leads to the question: How could Steven Spielberg, the master fantasist whose ”serious” films (The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun) have distorted traumatic experience into something glossy and saccharine, have created his first mature work of art about the darkest subject of them all? On the one hand, this must be a film he needed to make for personal, moral reasons. I suspect, though, that the sheer horrific magnitude of the Holocaust $ has tapped his genius for spectacle in a way few subjects could. Its valiant title character aside, Schindler’s List is a film whose meanings are to be found less in its uplifting outline than in its harrowing flow of images- images of fear, hope, horror, compassion, degradation, chaos, and death. Documentaries like Night and Fog and Shoah have detailed the workings of the Holocaust and recorded its hellish aftermath. But Spielberg has done something that can’t quite be said of any other film about the Holocaust. He has allowed us-for the first time-to see it. A

Schindler's List
  • Movie
  • 197 minutes