As Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic Schindler’s List makes its Blu-ray debut 20 years after its original release, it’s very likely that most everyone already knows whether this is a film they need to have as part of their collection. For many moviegoers, it was a once-is-enough kind of experience due to its harsh depiction of unconscionable brutality. It should go without saying that most folks have a difficult time viewing Schindler’s as a piece of entertainment. At the same time, the film stands as a kind of Holocaust-lite—an easily accessible way to acquire some general knowledge of humanity’s darkest chapter.
For now, I will focus on the Blu-ray presentation itself. Janusz Kamiński’s stark black-and-white cinematography was justly recognized with an Academy Award. If anyone worried that Universal would botch the 1080p, AVC-encode, breathe a sigh of relief. If there’s any way this transfer could’ve been improved upon, it’s beyond me. Everything looks exactly as it should, with deep black levels and a truly impressive variety of shades of gray. Grain is present at a level that seems entirely appropriate. Detail and clarity are never wanting. The restoration was supervised by Spielberg and I can only imagine he is quite pleased with the results.
In fact, as a projectionist in 1993 I ran countless showings of Schindler’s and can attest to this Blu-ray looking better than most of those theatrical presentations. The black-and-white film stock used for the 35mm prints was especially susceptible to breaking. I don’t know how many extra splices I added to the print we ran for months (not to mention the amount of damaged frames removed), but it was enough that some reels needed to be replaced. Eventually the replacements would break, too. As great as a virgin 35mm print, properly assembled, looks on a large screen, Blu-ray does allow for the same great presentation every single time.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix seems to accurately represent the film’s original sound design. It’s not a showy demonstration of the capabilities of surround sound, nor was it meant to be. Instead, every voice and sound effect is expertly prioritized. The bulk of what we hear comes from the front channels, but when the mix opens up to the rears, it’s for good dramatic purpose. John Williams’ unusually sparse, restrained score reaches all channels as needed. There’s simply nothing to fault here, as one senses that this lossless track is also precisely what Spielberg wanted.
I have great respect for Spielberg’s steadfast refusal to create supplemental features based on the making of the film or including deleted scenes and the like. I don’t think that the self-congratulatory comments that usually accompany such retrospective pieces would serve the film’s legacy very well. Maybe something tasteful could be crafted, but I admire Spielberg for letting the film speak for itself in this case (for better or worse). While the Blu-ray contains no features, this release also includes the film in two parts on standard DVDs. The second disc has the same features as the previous DVD edition, a 77-minute documentary Voices from the List and two very brief featurettes (one about the USC Shoah Foundation and the other about a program that gives online access to survivor stories called IWitness).
So anyone hoping for brand new special features is out of luck. If possible technical concerns were worrying anyone, fear not. This is a beautiful film to look at, which perhaps presents one of the problems inherent in staging a fictionalized version of the Holocaust. Spielberg’s film has many virtues. This is the film that launched Liam Neeson to household-name status for his multi-layered portrayal of Oskar Schindler. Few had heard of Ralph Fiennes before his role as Amon Goeth, the murderous Nazi lieutenant. Ben Kingsley turns in outstanding work as well as Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s partner who handles the books for his enamelware business.
The question is, does Spielberg’s vision of the Holocaust—no matter how beautifully photographed, scored, and acted—warrant attention over the many essential documentaries on the subject that are widely available? Spielberg and Steven Zaillian (whose screenplay was adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel) latched onto Schindler as a symbol of humanity at its best. Whether or not this was the case with the real Schindler, a Nazi Party member who employed cost-effective Jewish workers at his factory—thus saving them from execution—will never truly be known. He saved the lives of some 1,200 Jews (the people on his list), but by all accounts his motivations remained enigmatic until his death. An invented scene near the end shows Schindler breaking down in front of Stern, lamenting that he could’ve saved more lives. Why create a “movie moment” like this when Schindler’s unexplained contradictions are the most dramatically interesting thing about him?
I would never claim to be a Holocaust expert, far from it. I do, however, recall seeing the nine-hour documentary Shoah in college, was well as the 30-minute documentary Night and Fog. The former, released in 1985, is comprised entirely of testimonials by people who witnessed the Holocaust. The latter, released in 1955, mixes then-contemporary footage of the former concentration camps with graphic stock footage filmed at the camps during the war. The impact of seeing these landmark documentaries is inevitably much greater than the fictionalized depiction of Schindler’s List.
Yet Schindler’s obviously remains the most-seen film about the Holocaust. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, as Spielberg worked hard to infuse a certain verisimilitude in his film. But ultimately viewers walk away from it feeling positive about the power of one man to save many lives. There’s a happy ending to Spielberg’s film. If it’s the only document on the subject that someone, a student perhaps, is exposed to, they’re likelier to have a skewed perception of the historical truth. The level of commitment is far greater to take in something like Shoah (or to read books), but the value in these sources is great enough to basically nullify the Hollywood production.
I don’t doubt Spielberg or his team’s noble intentions. But a valiant attempt doesn’t make it the be-all and end-all of Holocaust-related films. Schindler’s List is easy to admire as a genuine attempt at artistic expression through film. But ultimately it remains a commercial product that offers almost nothing in terms of insight or information. See it in conjunction with a more substantive work about the same subject for maximum impact.