The Believer, Dave Egger's addictive lit/pop culture magazine, ran a piece in their December 2003/January 2004 issue comparing The Pianist and Schindler's List. The Pianist, writer Jim Shepard points out, presents a more impressive but less accessible hero. While both movies are based on true stories, The Pianist's Wladyslaw Szpilman is erudite, genteel, accomplished -- yet mildly distant. While audiences feel for Szpilman, reduced to scrabbling about in the rubble of Warsaw with only a tin of pickles for company, it's Oskar Schindler's trajectory from self-serving businessman to unlikely hero that really stays with us -- and that has as much to do with his flawed, womanizing persona as his deeds. Szpilman survived the Holocaust, but Schindler used his power and influence to save others - though only after first profiting from their misfortune.
I love Schindler's List (which is just out on DVD this month), but it troubles me that I love it. There is much in Schindler's List that is beautiful - from Itzhak Perlman's haunting violin solo and how its use in the film underscores both a sense of tradition and ruination, to the end shot of a long line of Schindler Jews paying their final respects at Schindler's grave. And Spielberg's decision to shoot the film in black-and-white was pure genius - not only does the medium ape both the Leni Reisenthal propaganda films and the glamorous fare coming out of Hollywood during that era, it also lends itself to the pure, silvery light that Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski use to such great effect. There are moments from the film -- Ralph Fiennes' terrifying monologue to his Jewish housemaid comes to mind -- that have stayed with me for more than ten years.
Steven Spielberg, however, is never more ingratiating than when he's making an Important Statement. Liam Neeson's otherwise astonishing portrayal of Schindler is marred by an emotional eleventh-hour meltdown that feels more like Spielberg crawling into our laps to make sure we got the point than anything else. In similar fashion, one of the extras on the DVD is essentially an infomercial on behalf of the Shoah Foundation. The Shoah Foundation does genuinely valuable work, but it feels oogly to be asked for money right after watching a film like Schindler's List.
Watch the film - it's as relevant today as it was 11 years ago. But the extra material can wait a day or two, once the spell of the film has subsided.
Publication date: 03/17/04