The Holocaust film can be like television: when it’s good, there’s nothing better; when it’s bad, there’s nothing worse.
There is Liliana Cavani’s erotic psychological drama, Il portiere di note (1974), the love story between a concentration camp survivor and her guard (yes, you read that correctly), which exploits the Shoah the most offensively this critic has ever seen.
Then, there is Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa (1990), a subtle, sometimes satirical study of racial politics in Nazi Germany.
As for Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), it may be the most well-known of its ilk, but is it one of the greatest?
If you don’t know what to watch next, Schindler’s List is available to stream on Netflix. The historical period drama won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture as well as Best Director, out of twelve nominations.
Steven Zaillian’s Best Adapted Screenplay is based upon the 1982 novel, Schindler’s Ark, by John Keneally.
It is World War II Poland, and Oskar Schindler (Best Actor nominee Liam Neeson), an ethnic German from Czechoslovakia, opens an enamelware factory in the Kraków Ghetto.
Together with black marketeer Itzhak Stern (Sir Ben Kingsley), the businessman bribes local Nazi insiders and and hires Jews because he can pay them less, effectively saving them from the death camps.
Meanwhile, SS-Untersturmführer Amon Göth (Best Supporting Actor nominee Ralph Fiennes) supervises the construction of the Plaszów concentration camp, terrorizing Kraków.
John Williams’s original score, Michael Kahn’s editing, Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography, and Ewa Braun and Allan Starski’s art direction are the rest of the Oscars the movie took home, in addition to its sound, makeup, and costume design nods.
As with any Spielberg vehicle, it is a technical revelation. Its black and white photography contributes to the documentarylike, newsreel realism of its setting, inviting audiences into the Final Solution like few mainstream releases have before or since.
For all its feats of filmmaking, this Spielbergian epic is minimalistic by the director’s standards, which plays to the picture’s strengths.
As a member of the film school generation, his feature-length debut, Duel (1971), is his New Hollywood masterpiece, over Jaws (1975), which would be, if not for the corporatization of filmmaking its groundbreaking “summer blockbuster” status is responsible for.
But these two works force Spielberg to do more with less, keeping him from crossing the line from “crowd-pleasing” to “sentimental” and “saccharine” like he’s known to do, and this sugarcoating would have crippled Schindler’s List.
Still, it has been criticized for peripherizing Holocaust victims in favor of mythologizing a German capitalist. While Schindler’s heroism is indisputable, and came at the price of his safety, he was still an opportunist first, almost more of a sympathetic antihero.
The cast of Jewish characters are dehumanized into an unindividualized horde of props for his redemption arc – one of them would have made for a more sensitive protagonist, such as Stern.
But Spielberg is shrewdly commercial above all else, and Schindler’s List is much too important a moment in cinematic history to fade into obscurity because of a Semitic leading man; as wrong as it is, how many readers out there can say they’ve even heard of Europa Europa?
This is a story the masses need to hear, and it is a story that needs to be celebrated. With far-right ideologues rising to power globally as the memory of fascism dies off with the generation that lived it, streamers would do well to rediscover Schindler’s List.