Close Encounters of the Third Reich

Everybody's a damn movie critic these days. When the president of the United States calls a time-out in the middle of his GATT announcement to give Schindler's List two thumbs up -- way up -- you know the field has become saturated. What's next -- Al Gore urging every American who cares about the environment to see The Pelican Brief? The Pope encouraging good Catholics the world over to attend Sister Act 2? Janet Reno calling a press conference to shill for --perfect World? The possibilities are both frightening and endless.

It's time we film reviewers banded together and returned fire, before the politicians-recommending-movies thing gets out of hand. After all, turnabout is fair play. It's time for Leonard Maltin to come down hard on NAFTA ("My daddy was a union man"), or for Siskel and Ebert to scrutinize our policy vis-a-vis Haiti (Gene: "Now is the time to tighten up the embargo and return Aristide to power, by force if necessary." Roger: "But you have to wonder about the casting of Aristide, a man with documented communist leanings, in the lead.")

While there's validity to President Clinton's basic assumption -- that Schindler's List is a darn good film -- his assertion that it's a movie every American should see owes more to a career politician's gift for hyperbole than to the film's intrinsic merit. If the American people are to believe that his endorsement represents something more than just paying lip service to an acclaimed film, President Clinton should devise some sort of plan to offer tax credits for buying Schindler's List tickets. Of course, our country has never had a leader so obsessed with maintaining the appearance of political correctness, at least not since Jimmy Carter (but he didn't have to work so hard at it). So when a movie comes along that makes the revolutionary observation that, hey, those Nazis were really mean, perhaps the chief executive should be forgiven a little overstatement.

Regardless of the President's credibility, it took guts for Spielberg to make the film in the first place. Schindler, in the form of Thomas Keneally's novel, was in development limbo for more than ten years until America's most popular director rescued the project. It couldn't have been an easy decision to mount a "serious" black and white film about the Holocaust. After all, this is the man who made his millions at the helm of a batch of escapist fantasies revolving around sharks, macho bullwhip-wielding anthropologists, junk food-scarfing aliens, and lifelike dinosaurs. Spielberg's past attempts at straight drama have yielded mixed results: The Color Purple was a winner but Empire of the Sun disappointed. Looking at it from another perspective, the wunderkind's use of World War II as a point of departure has been doubly disappointing (in addition to the aforementioned Empire, Spielberg was also to blame for 1941).

So his choice of the Holocaust as subject matter must have frightened a few studio honchos at Universal, especially given that the movie went into production more than a year before the first box-office receipts from Jurassic Park started trickling in. You're only as good as your last picture, and Spielberg's last picture when he decided to make Schindler's List was Hook.

So here's to our man Steve for having the cojones to take on the Holocaust, and for doing it in black and white at that. It's a timely film, too, what with all the resurgent popularity of neo-Nazism around the world, the chilling spectre of "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Seattle Supersonic Detlef Schrempf's rise to NBA stardom.

Unfortunately, despite the director's and the film's noble intentions (it can't hurt to remind people of exactly where all of that racist dogma leads), it is still a Steven Spielberg production all the way. That means broad brushstrokes. With the exception of protagonist Oskar Schindler, characters are written with a depth and complexity usually reserved for comic books or pulp fiction, and their dialogue runs to treacly lines like, "Franiezca, I would give anything to hear you sing tonight." All the Nazis are sadistic, decadent monsters. All the Jews are noble (except for the collaborators). And even though he resists the urge for 90 percent of the movie, in the end Spielberg cannot override the temptation to canonize Schindler.

But it's a swell --if occasionally overwhelming -- ride for a while. Herr Schindler is a German who arrives in Krakow, Poland, in 1939 with the sole intention of making money. He is an unrepentant, womanizing opportunist, and he wines and dines the occupying Nazis to curry favor. Some receive gift baskets and others cash bribes, but soon they are all in his pocket. Meanwhile, Schindler opens a factory using money raised from Jewish investors and employing Jewish laborers who earn next to nothing. He hires a Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern, who he comes to trust implicitly. (At one point Stern offers him a batch of financial statements and Schindler brushes them aside, reasoning, "I could read this, or I could eat my lunch while it's still hot.")

With Stern managing the operation and Schindler toasting the Nazis, the factory prospers beyond its owner's wildest dreams. But dark clouds are gathering; the Nazis are getting crueler by the minute. Their evil reaches its apotheosis with the arrival of Amon Goeth, the savage SS commandant in charge of the Plaszow forced labor camp. (Goeth is played by Ralph Fiennes, the standout in a cast that's uniformly good.) This Nazi has charming little habits like gunning down Jews at random with a hunting rifle from the balcony outside his bedroom.

Schindler's List is not an easy film to stomach. Spielberg's decision to include so much graphically violent footage (plenty of scenes of women and children executed in cold, spurting blood) accomplishes the desired effect. Certainly, the subject matter calls for much of it, but Spielberg's bad guys are so quick to pull the trigger on defenseless innocents that the cumulative effect of all the carnage borders on cinematic overkill and flat-out manipulation. Just pray that he never directs one of your nightmares.

As the slaughter builds to a crescendo and the prospect of losing his employees to Auschwitz looms, Schindler undergoes something of an epiphany. He begins to see his workers as precious people, not just factory workers. He goes to bat for them in ways that increasingly jeopardize his own goodwill and clout with the Nazis. By the time he's spending his own fortune to retrieve a trainload of his people mistakenly routed to Auschwitz, the transformation is complete. Schindler has made the leap from bon vivant to folk hero.

Unfortunately, Spielberg is not content to end the story with the close of the war. After showing surprising (for him) restraint through most of the film, he returns to form by closing with a heavy-handed, mawkish epilogue.

By the end of the war Oskar Schindler was penniless, having spent the millions he made to rescue more than 1100 Jews. There can be no disputing the profundity of the man's feat: fewer than 4000 Jews live in Poland today, while the Schindlerjuden and their descendants around the world number more than 6000. Spielberg understood that the dichotomy between the profiteering playboy and the selfless savior made Oskar Schindler the perfect enigmatic protagonist to build a feature film around. It's too bad he couldn't leave it at that, trusting the audience to grasp the enormousness of the transformation and the vastness of Schindler's legacy. But that's Steven Spielberg for you. Subtlety was never his strong suit.

Oh, and by the way -- GATT sucks. Whatever it is.


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