The List Is Life
A review of Schindler's List, (1993) Universal Studios DVD (2004), $26.98
By Mitchell Bard
When Schindler's List was released in 1993 it was rightly hailed as one of the most powerful films ever made and won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It is hard to believe now that Oskar Schindler was virtually unknown at the time, but as with so many aspects of history, it is likely that he was quickly forgotten again and young people have no knowledge of Schindler or other rescuers. The release of the film on DVD is therefore particularly welcome because it offers a renewed opportunity to educate young and old about the man and his times.
Even after studying the Holocaust, and writing several books on the subject, I find the film as moving and shocking as the first time. You can’t stop asking yourself, “How could this have happened?” “Did human beings really do these things to other people?”
It is common these days to hear events around the world compared to the Holocaust, and the especially despicable calumny equating Israelis to Nazis. No one with the remotest knowledge of what took place during World War II could hold such views.
One scene in the film highlights an important distinction. A Jewish woman who is forced to work for the sadistic commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp, Amon Goeth, tells Schindler, “There is not a set of rules you can live by. You can’t say to yourself, If I follow these rules, I will be safe.” Throughout the film it is clear the Nazis have the ability and the will to torture and kill without reason. Goeth dramatically demonstrates this power when he stands on the balcony of his villa randomly shooting Jews in the camp.
As he would later do with Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg has not spared audiences the gory reality of the Nazis’ actions. When he shows blood splattering from the brains of Jews on Goeth’s face, it is clear this was not an antiseptic process where the killers were far removed from their victims. The Germans knew what they were doing and many did it with relish.
The Internet, in particular, is rife with Holocaust deniers. Schindler’s List is a weapon against these revisionists. More important perhaps is the documentation of the real victims made possible in part by the profits of the film. Spielberg used the money to create the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which collected more than 50,000 testimonies of survivors, liberators, and others associated with the war, and has made them available in a massive database. The Foundation has also created educational programs and documentaries covering additional aspects of the Holocaust. The DVD contains a special feature that describes the Foundation and its work.
The quality of the DVD itself is outstanding. Spielberg purposely used black and white, with a few key highlights in color, and the clarity of the picture is spectacular, reinforcing DVD’s superiority over VHS. Watching the widescreen version on a big screen TV is like watching it in the theater. It also has fabulous audio, with the choice of DTS or Dolby 5.1 surround sound enhancing John Williams’ moving score.
The film is so long – 3 hours 16 minutes – you have to flip the disc over to see the entire film. Unfortunately, the switch does not come at a particularly good moment in the story to have to stop and turn over the DVD, and when you flip it over, rather than resuming the film, the disc began to play the special feature on the Shoah Foundation.
Besides the 10-minute featurette on the Foundation, there are text screens on the careers of the cast and crew, including Liam Neeson who plays Schindler, Spielberg, and the author who wrote the book on which the film is based, Thomas Keneally. The DVD also has a very good 70-minute documentary, “Voices From the List,” that incorporates survivor stories and archival footage (which looks incredible despite its age) to tell a broader story of the period. As with the Foundation’s testimonies in general, I wonder how many young people have the patience to watch this form of “reality TV.” The benefit of the film is that it is more captivating and more likely to make an impact on young people, though the graphic nature of the story and R rating makes it unsuitable for young children.
The DVD has its own web site, http://www.schindlerslist.com/, which contains information about the film, clips from the movie, survivor testimonies, and educational materials, including a link to the Jewish Virtual Library. The site also has the actual list of names of the Jews that Schindler saved.
After waiting so many years to bring out a DVD, it might disappoint some viewers to find that two special features common to most new DVDs were omitted. The DVD doesn’t have a “making of” feature or a commentary track that would have given viewers insight into the craftsmanship involved in the production, and Spielberg’s thought process as he worked on the film. The packaging of the DVD also has very little information; I couldn’t even find a reference to the length of the film.
These are mere quibbles, however, that do not detract from the importance of this project. Schindler’s list is an essential DVD for every home library, and should be part of the curriculum in every high school. Hopefully, the lessons it teaches will have an enduring impact on the hearts and minds of people around the world.