In 2008, the American Film Institute revised their previous 2007 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is Schindler’s List (1993), #8 on the list.
For most audiences, Schindler’s List is the quintessential Holocaust film, but that implies that its 3+ hour runtime is a grueling experience. For this very reason, I avoided watching Spielberg’s Oscar winner for decades, only recently forcing myself to catch up with it a few years ago. Though it’s undoubtedly distressing at points, I was shocked at how watchable it is, at times even flat-out entertaining. That may sound like a condemnation of the film’s intent or a criticism of Spielberg’s failure to accurately depict the horrors of the Holocaust, but I contend that the film’s brilliance is in how it refuses to serve as merely a representation of the the most appalling period in recent history. Spielberg, America’s most tender storyteller, offers the least sadistic version of what a film about the Holocaust could be. He doesn’t sanitize the material, but by narrowing the focus of the story to a man wielding his power to enact positive change, Schindler’s List becomes far more potent, moving, and uplifting than any other film that tackles that horrific period of history.
Initially, the film plays like a classic Hollywood film framed within World War II, with the lighting, compositions, and Neeson’s charismatic portrayal of Oscar Schindler all reminiscent of contemporaneous films. It’s nearly 45 minutes before the first onscreen murder, and from there the film begins to shift, incorporating more realism through the depictions of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. These two seemingly conflicting tones – elegant classical melodrama and unflinchingly violent war film – blend together perfectly, thanks to Spielberg’s direction and the strengths of his team. The closing stretches, while emotionally powerful, are a bit too sentimental for my taste – a Spielberg trademark, but somewhat jarring in this context – though I applaud his ability to make the daunting material palatable to a wide audience without sacrificing thematic weight. It’s a far more accomplished and daring film than people even give it credit for.
Does it belong on the list?