Saturday, September 28, 2013

Schindler’s List: 20th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
schindler coverOne of the most meaningful films of our generation, Schindler’s List tells an extraordinary true story of courage and faith that continues to inspire.  The film’s restoration from the 35mm film original negative was supervised by Steven Spielberg and includes bonus features that shed unprecedented light on the story of Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party who risked his own life to save more than 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust. With its initial release in 1993, Schindler’s List rapidly became one of the most honored films of all time, garnering twelve Academy Award nominations and taking home seven Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture for Spielberg. Liam Neeson (Taken, Gangs of New York) received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Oskar Schindler.  Ralph Fiennes’ (The English Patient) star-making performance as the cruel Nazi commander, Amon Goeth, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, as was Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Hugo) in the role of Schindler’s Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern.  The film also earned Oscars for composer John Williams (E.T., Star Wars), screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Gangs of New York, Mission: Impossible) and director of photography Janusz Kaminiski, as well as art directors Allan Starski and Ewa Braun, editor Michael Kahn and producers Gerald R. Molen and Branko Lustig. 


Film (5 out of 5 stars)  

The fact that this movie exists is a perfect example of how much one man can make a difference and if multiplied several times over, it can start a chain reaction whose influence can be felt forever.  It all started with Oskar Schindler who over the course of time, decided to forgo his Nazi profiteer ways in order to save as many of his Jewish workers that he could and in the end, he saved over 1,100 people from certain destruction.  One of those people, Poldek Pfefferberg was so grateful that he was saved by Schindler that he spent the rest of his life trying to show his gratitude by telling everyone he met about Schindler in the hopes that something could come of it. As he later said, “Schindler gave me my life, and I tried to give him immortality.”  His plan eventually worked when he met writer Thomas Keneally who decided to write a novel about the story and called it “Schindler’s Ark.”  Pfefferberg didn’t stop there as he reportedly called Steven Spielberg’s officer every day for eleven years in an attempt to convince him to direct the movie.
Spielberg went back and forth on whether or not to direct it (he even offered it to Martin Scorcese) before deciding to do it himself.  And the chain reaction continued when  the experience making it, along with what was going on in the world instilled a desire in Steven Spielberg to remind the world that the Holocaust really happened and just how brutal and devastating it was. To achieve that, he launched the USC Shoah Foundation to videotape interviews with survivors and other witnesses that escaped Hitler’s Final Solution.  That’s impressive enough, but the Shoah Foundation has also made the almost 52,000 interviews available to the public through its IWitness website which allows schools and individuals to search for specific points of interest and to learn the truth about Nazi Germany’s attempt to exterminate every Jew and any others that selected for the death camps.  And with every person that learns more about what happened through the foundation, Pfefferberg’s goal of immortality for Schindler becomes possible and each of these acts of kindness will continue on forever.
The film brilliantly tells the story of how a Nazi war profiteer named Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) gradually came to listen to his conscience when the brutality and inhumanity around him finally made him pick compassion over profit.  It wasn’t an overnight change as for a long time he went out of his way to ingratiate himself with Nazi leadership through parties, women, gifts and more. And it all works.  He is given more leeway than most businessmen and he is able to get a factory as he plans to start producing mess kits for the army.  He quickly discovers that while he’s great at the schmoozing and the big picture, he’s terrible at managing the small details needed to run the factory.  He convinces an official from the local Jewish council, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to not only join him, but to also be a liaison to other Jewish businessmen.  In exchange for money, Schindler offers them manufactured goods that they can barter with in the  Kraków Ghetto.
With their capital, the factory is up and running and staffed with Jewish Poles and despite not having trained workers, they do all right until the sadistic SS-Lieutenant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) arrives in Kraków to build the new Płaszów concentration camp.  Once that’s completed, he orders the liquidation of the ghetto where his men round up the healthy men and women for the camp and killing the sick and the old and anyone that resists in any way.  Schindler witnesses the entire event and whatever reservations he had about helping his workers disappeared.  It’s only now that the enormity of just how evil the Nazi war machine is actually sinks in.  Before this, he was able to dismiss bad behavior as a product of war, but the escalating horrors around him finally show him the inescapable truth.  Knowing that he must do something to save as many of his workers as possible, Schindler begins a dangerous game of slowly trying to convince the suspicious Goeth to help him in exchange for bribes.  To save them, Schindler will have to bargain for them one at a time as quickly as he can before he runs out of money or before they fall victim to Hitler’s Final Solution.
Watching Schindler’s List is an emotional experience that leaves viewers shell shocked when it’s over which it should.  I’m sure that gut punch is exactly what Spielberg wanted to achieve.  As moving as it is for viewers, it was even more taxing on Spielberg who had to struggle to get through the filming of it while at the same time approving special effects shots for Jurassic Park. Talk about a dichotomy!  One on hand he’s putting his heart and soul into adding every shred of verisimilitude he can into Schindler’s List while working on the perfect escapist summer movie full of special effects and rampaging dinosaurs.  In fact, Schindler’s List was only green-lit on the condition that he did Jurassic Park first, a fact that he later said was smart as ”He knew that once I had directed Schindler I wouldn’t be able to do Jurassic Park.”
Spielberg also abandoned his traditional methods as he strived to make it feel like a you are there documentary by primarily using handheld cameras.  He also had a limited budget and a short shooting schedule of only seventy-two days which he later said, gave the film “a spontaneity, an edge, and it also serves the subject.”  It was a huge gamble for Spielberg who had always enjoyed using the tricks of the trade on all of his blockbusters to not use any of the tools in his toolbox.  As he later said, he ”got rid of the crane, got rid of the Steadicam, got rid of the zoom lenses, [and] got rid of everything that for me might be considered a safety net.”
Even twenty years later, Spielberg recently said, ”When I went to Poland to start working on Schindler’s List, I quickly realized after a couple of days of filming that this just wasn’t a natural reflex of my film-making instincts — this was going to be something that was going to change my life.  I still feel that Schindler’s List is the film that has made the most amount of material change in the world.  The shelf life of Schindler’s List has renewed my faith that films can do good work in the world, but it’s up to people to allow those images to be impressionable, to last and for people to do something about it.” By stripping all of his signature style from the picture, it really brings the movie into stark focus and it seems like we’ve traveled back in time to bear witness to this unfathomably evil chapter of history.
Another reason that this movie is perfect can be attributed to the cast that couldn’t have done a better job in their roles. Liam Neeson gives a wonderful performance as the very complicated Schindler and brings out every layer of the man.  He believably shows us how a Nazi profiteer of slave labor can change when faced with such horror.  Ben Kingsley is also great as Itzhak Stern, a quiet man that has to hide his all of his emotions lest he be killed too.  In this death camp, it doesn’t take much to be killed, especially when it’s run by the amoral Amon Goeth played brilliantly by Ralph Fiennes.  Goeth kills for the fun of it and has no compunction about who it is as he is an equal opportunity murderer.  The fact that he forcibly takes a Jewish girl to be his servant and mistress against his party’s wishes only makes him more vicious when it makes him feel conflicted.
There’s so many unforgettable images in this movie that will resonate with me for the rest of my life.  Whether it’s a small boy taking refuge in the bottom of a latrine to avoid death, or the sight of terrified prisoners forced to run nude into a shower that may or may not use poison gas on them, to the constantly glowing furnace that showers the area with human ashes like snow, it all just leaves you feeling angry and helpless as you wish you could have done something.  While there’s nothing that we can do about the past (other than learn from it), the film can still serve as a catalyst for people.  While there’s no denying that Schindler’s List as a film is simply a masterpiece but it’s impact also goes beyond the cinema. Thanks to the Shoah Foundation (, people can learn about how intolerance almost eradicated an entire people and perhaps might learn to avoid the mistakes of the past.  After all,  as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
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Video (5 out of 5 stars)  

Much like the stellar effort that Universal put into the recent Blu-ray release of JAWS, this film got the same amount of love and attention.  This 1080p (1.85:1) transfer has been lovingly restored under the personal supervision of director Steven Spielberg and the results are outstanding.  This restoration really makes Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography work shine as the black and white images look fantastic.  Detail is very sharp as you can see every texture on the uniforms and especially during the close ups which look amazing crisp and detailed.  The white, grey, and black levels all look distinct and accurate with the black levels looking especially good and solid throughout the film.  I didn’t notice any digital defects or other issues to detract from this glorious picture quality.  If you thought it seemed like you were there when you saw this in a theater, you haven’t seen anything until you see this on Blu-ray!

Audio (5 out of 5 stars)  

Schindler’s List’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix was also supervised by Steven Spielberg and it is just as good as the video quality.  For a movie that has such a wide spectrum of sound and dialogue, this mix does the job admirably.  Whether it’s the roar of machine guns ripping apart the hiding places of families or the hushed terrified whispers of prisoners wondering if they were about to die, this mix delivers on every front.  The LFE output really packs a wallop when it needs to and the front channels offer crystal clear dialogue even during the chaos of the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto.  The rear channels offer quite a bit of ambiance and accurate directional effects that really add a massive amount of immersion into the film. This is simply an incredible mix that puts you right in the middle of the action for better or worse.

Extras (3 out of 5 stars) 

I have a long history of wanting more extras from each Spielberg film such as director commentaries but despite that, each of his movies usually have some really good behind the scenes extras that help ease my wanting.  For this film, there’s even less than usual which I’m guessing was a deliberate decision by Spielberg to force the viewer to focus on the movie and not be distracted about how it was made.  I can understand that but I still wish that the extras were commensurate with the stature and impact of the film itself.  That’s not to say these limited extras aren’t good as they are fantastic, but I still wish we got more.  In another puzzling move, the extras that are here have been added to Disc Three which is a DVD instead of being included on the Blu-ray of the movie or a bonus BD disc and they are all in standard definition.
Here’s what is included:
  • Voices From the List - At almost an hour and twenty minutes long, this powerful documentary really puts the whole experience into perspective.  Spielberg let’s us know how the movie changed his life and deepened his faith and how the experience made him understand “how one person, not an army, but one person could make a difference.” Which is exactly what he did when he started the Shoah Foundation.  Out of the almost 52,000 interviews already done, we get to see a collection of them here, all of them being firsthand accounts from witnesses who survived to tell their stories.  These are powerful stories and I’m glad that they were recorded before the effects of time erased what happened.  These stories need to be remembered and learned from.
  • USC Shoah Foundation Story with Steven Spielberg  – This is a quick five minute talk with Steven Spielberg who lets us know how making the film inspired him to continue his efforts once it was done by creating the Shoah Foundation, a non-profit effort to record as many firsthand accounts of genocide as possible.  
  • About IWitness - This is a short look at IWitness, which gives teachers and students access to the recorded histories and stories that have been collected.  I thought it was interesting that the Shoah Foundation has expanded its focus to also include other areas that have suffered from genocide such as Rwanda too.
  • Digital Copy of the film (HD)

Summary (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

This film is a masterpiece on its own merits, but it’s also culturally and historically important too. With this film, Spielberg reminded us of the depths of humanity and a history that many would like to forget about or dismiss.  Using every bit of his considerable talent, Spielberg shone a white hot spotlight on this chapter of time and there’s no escaping it – and there shouldn’t be.  Considering that genocide is still happening around the world even today, this film isn’t just a look at our world’s misguided past but is instead a timeless reminder of why that kind of intolerance needs to be stopped right away before it escalates into something like the Holocaust.  This Blu-ray serves as the perfect vehicle for that message with it’s stellar video and audio quality and it’s limited but powerful extras from the people who lived through it all.  In my humble opinion, I think this movie should be in everyone’s collection!
Order your copy today!

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