I did not see the movie that ruined Steven Spielberg when it came out, as shocking as that may come to you, my loyal reader. I was lucky to get out to see Aladdin that year, and happy to see that Spielberg had genetically engineered actual dinosaurs for his Jurassic Park. But sitting in a theater for 3:10 watching a Holocaust-themed drama seemed, shall we say, unappealing. Or at least a poor use of my limited theater time.
But I did sort of feel it ruined Spielberg as a director, as he could never again make just a fun movie, in the vein of Jaws or, say, Indiana Jones. Which is not to say he didn’t try. But his Jurassic follow-up The Lost World was roundly thrashed, and he never really got back into just plain fun stuff until the questionable The Adventures of Tintin.
I mean, Catch Me If You Can was relatively light, next to Amistad or this movie, say. But something like Minority Report or War of the Worlds, which should’ve been great and fun was needlessly heavy (and both were actually gray, come to think of it). Not bad but lacking a certain joie de vivre. And, actually, if you looked at the way the aliens in WotW vaporized people and realized the source of that was this movie (and the attendant research, of course), it gets even worse.
But it’s a little weird to sit in the theater 25 years later, after one has seen literally dozens of Holocaust (and Holocaust-themed) movies and watch this: This is still, hands down, the biggest budgeted film in the genre. Its slickness feels odd, and Spielberg’s cinematic tropes—immortalized as they were in such popcorn fare as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark—were particularly rattling to me.
The Boy didn’t notice particularly, except in retrospect, so that’s probably just me.
John Williams, thankfully, composed a beautiful score without the heroic musical stylings that made him famous. Although I did find the use of a Bach Suite over the Nazi murders in the Warsaw ghetto rather bizarre—that was the point, to be bizarre. (The Nazis misidentify it as Mozart, curiously.) The ending of the film, and the music thereby, may feel a bit ham-handed (as Spielberg can be) but it’s earned.
The story itself is almost subtle for Spielberg. Schindler is not a swell guy. He’s a womanizer. He’s greedy. He may not actually be lazy but he’s certainly exploitative. He’s selfish. What he isn’t, however, is a monster. And somewhere in bridging the gap of his sins and not being a monster, he becomes truly great, risking (and losing) everything but his life to save the lives of over a thousand Jews.
Liam Neeson—The Boy commented, “I didn’t know he could act!” I guess after a bunch of Taken movies, it’s an easy thing to overlook. But he’s great here, as is the pre-Valdemort Ralph Fiennes. Spielberg gets good performances, as always. Ben Kingsley is the Jewish accountant—a kind amalgam of real-life characters, including one who used his power for self-enrichment.
That level of subtlety we’re not going to get here. If you want that, check out Lansmann.
But of course, Kingsley is great, and Embeth Davidtz, as the Jewess who has caught Goeth’s eye (Fiennes) is absolutely heartbreaking.
The highest praise, perhaps, The Boy and I can offer: At 3+ hours, it moves by like a great movie. Is it a great movie? Currently, it’s ranked at #6 on IMDB’s (increasingly dubious) top 250, well ahead of Spielberg’s next highest entry, Saving Private Ryan, which is in the 20s. The RT scores place it after Close Encounters and E.T., more or less tied with Jaws.
I don’t know. We both liked it a lot. Spielberg does a lot of things to make a movie watchable. The novel The Color Purple, I’m told, begins with the heroine being raped by her father. Well, hell, you don’t start off a movie like that if you want people to come see it. A lot of the most compelling stories about the Holocaust, the camps, the round-ups are very, very difficult just to hear. When movies illustrate them, things get very weird and uncomfortable.
The experience, seeing it at this late date, is akin to seeing a horror movie for the first time decades later. It’s almost quaint. A little hard to judge. Certainly worth a watch. Very difficult to categorize.