Schindler's List (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits Spielberg's first grown-up film in HD, including comparison caps...
On the third episode of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras – a satirical look behind-the-scenes of the modern movie-making machine from the point of view of underpaid film extras – Kate Winslet played herself starring in faux-movie about a nun hiding Jews during the Holocaust. The joke here is something about the easy road to an Oscar for any actor willing to be a part of a Holocaust drama (coincidentally, Winslet actually won an Oscar for her role in The Reader, where she played an illiterate Nazi concentration camp guard). At this point in mainstream movie history, it’s easy to make these jokes, because we have been saturated by Oscar-baiting Holocaust melodramas. This saturation would never have been possible without the success of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. In the early years following WWII and the discovery of the concentration/extermination camps, the Holocaust was mostly either ignored or pushed to the boundaries of mainstream period films. Hollywood eventually took an interest with movies like Edward Dmytryk’s The Juggler, Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg, Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, and Max Nosseck’s Singer in the Dark, all of which dealt with the tragedy in hindsight and flashback. The ever-popular story of Anne Frank was twice adapted before the 1970s, but Anne and her family never actually witness the horrors of the gas chambers.
Then came the ‘70s and with it the advent of Nazisploitation. Celebrated movies like Bob Fosse’s Cabaret and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter dealt with Nazi guilt without spending screen time on the intricacies of extermination, while exploitation filmmakers found the ‘courage’ to make notorious bad taste ‘classics,’ like Don Edmonds’ Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, Sergio Garrone’s SS Experiment Camp, and Cesare Canevari’s Gestapo’s Last Orgy. Some might say these films are actually less exploitative than post- Schindler films that soften the horrors of the Holocaust (many of the Nazisploitation films have shocking roots in historical reality), but there aren’t a lot of people jumping to defend their lack of tact. The grindhouse finally gave way to mainstream in the form of a miniseries, entitled, plainly, Holocaust and directed by Marvin J. Chomsky. Released only one year after Roots took aim at another, even longer ignored historical horror called slavery, the success of Holocaust seemed to prove that American audiences were interested in the subject – they just weren’t interested in harsh realities. Then, in the ‘80s, Holocaust star Meryl Streep birthed the Likable Nazi = Oscar Gold phenomenon when she appeared in Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice, which, again, mostly dealt with the Holocaust in flashback and personalized the tragedy.
Even Spielberg, the prominent (happens to be Jewish) filmmaker of our times, had his doubts when it came to creating a mainstream film that could effectively display the grotesque terrors of the Nazi extermination machine without entirely alienating his audience. Spielberg’s obsession with WWII permeates throughout his entire filmography, which in itself could be perceived as a lead-up to Schindler’s List, but the obvious ‘prequel’ would be 1987’s Empire of the Sun – a still underrated look at the somewhat less terrifying life in a WWII-era Japanese internment camp (well, less terrifying for the British kid Christian Bale plays, in reality the Japanese were committing many of their own atrocities against their mostly Chinese prisoners, specifically in the notorious Unit 731 research facility). Apparently still unprepared by Schindler’s List-lite, Spielberg wasted some time on an Indiana Jones sequel (with a strong WWII influence) and made two of his worst movies – Always and Hook – before finding the courage to couple Schindler’s List’s production with one of his biggest mainstream slam-dunks – Jurassic Park. Even if Schindler’s List had been a failure, he would have a surefire popular hit on his hands (as a producer, Spielberg considered pawning director duties off on Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, and even Billy Wilder, who worked on the script and whose influence can be seen in the film’s surprisingly funny moments). The important thing for many people isn’t the time it took, or the fact that the film wore the director out so much that he didn’t make another great movie again for another five years, but the fact that a filmmaker with the clout and popular acceptance of Steven Spielberg was able to bring a mostly honest portrayal of The Shoah to multiplexes across the world.
Schindler’s List’s sometimes unfortunate legacy aside (Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, Peter Kassovitz’s Jakob the Liar, Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, for example), it is a massive achievement in filmmaking and one that, despite an last minute influx of sap and an unneeded documentary coda, deserves the accolades it received over the last two decades (that’s right, in case you weren’t feeling old enough today, Schindler’s List turns 20 this year). Like many popular films about touchy subjects, Schindler’s List has gone through a period of varying acceptance. Originally, audiences were so moved by its shocking, sorrowful images that the idea of saying anything negative in regards to the film was more or less an unbreakable taboo. Only the bravest/most obnoxious critics and filmmakers dared to discuss shortcomings in tone or Spielberg’s apparent loss of nerve during the film’s climax. Then it became a bit of a joke, thanks largely in part to an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry is chided for making out while watching the movie. By the time Schindler’s List won seven Oscars backlash was is inevitable. Now we have two decades worth of perspective on the film and enough truly terrible, Holocaust Chic, Oscar-bait pretenders to revisit Spielberg’s film without the burden of guilt, resentment, or expectations based on The Beard’s pre- Schindler films.
Spielberg had many choices when it came to visualizing the Holocaust on the big screen. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who Spielberg would continue to collaborate with in the years following Schindler’s List’s release) chose a spontaneous, cinéma vérité look. They didn’t spend a lot of time prepping or lighting shots. Black and white stock was also chosen in an effort to make the film appear ‘timeless’ and stark, which was in keeping with most images available from the actual event. What is often forgotten in the mix is the fact that Schindler’s List is the only black and white film to crack the top ten grossing film charts since Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein in 1974. Every time I see the film, I’m shocked at how accurately Spielberg and Kaminski capture the period look. Recognizable actors and modern sound techniques aside, it would be very easy to convince even an expert that Schindler’s List was shot early in the post-war era. The harsh white and black contrasts and grainy grey diffusion aren’t faux-noir, either – they’re authentic-looking period images.
This newly remastered 1080p, 1:85:1 transfer is precisely what we were all hoping for when this Blu-ray release was first promised. Ever since the Spartacus debacle, videophiles have been unfortunately suspicious of Universal’s more prestigious catalogue releases. First things first – I see no overt signs of DNR enhancement here. The wonderful grain has all been perfectly preserved without any grotesque smoothing effects. Kaminski uses a lot of wide angles and deep-set details, but diffuses most of the finest textures pretty well in his soon-to-be-trademarked fashion. The limits of the 35mm, B&W stock also keeps the backgrounds from ever appearing needle-point sharp and leads to some understandable edge enhancement, but, a handful of really dark shots aside, there are no unnatural-looking sharpening effects. The detail increase over DVD is not mind-blowing, of course, because certain limits are built into the film’s style. The bigger upgrade is in the purity of complex patterns, which were previously damaged by bayer effects and similar compression noise. Now only the most aggressively decorative tweed jacket shows signs of moiré effects. Despite being generally more purely monochromatic than the DVD, this transfer is also a bit warmer in its grays (the brief sequence where Germans discover Jews hiding in the walls and floors of the ghetto late at night has some bursts of faded yellow that probably aren’t an intended part of the equation). Blacks are noticeably deeper than the DVD release as well, without crushing the finer details of the darker grays (which are pretty muddy on the DVD). Kaminski’s patented smoky blends feature nothing significant in terms of banding effects.
I remember Schindler’s List as a largely low-impact film in terms of audio design, but this uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack proves those memories false. I should’ve remembered that it was an early digital sound production and that Spielberg’s sound designers would want to show off their new toys and skills as often as possible. Jurassic Park was DTS’ first rock concert, but Schindler’s List was its first proper symphony. The sound design is rarely aggressive, save some punchy steam engines and factory machinery; rather everything is encapsulated with natural warmth that gives all six channels plenty to do without drawing attention to the modernity of it all. The subtle cacophony that flutters throughout the speakers doesn’t spike oddly or sound ‘canned,’ which is certainly better than the norm for the early days of boisterous digital mixes. The use of handheld camera and tracking shots gives the sound plenty of chances to move off-camera noises around the audience. Good examples include the party sequence that introduces playboy Schindler to the audience, sequences of German soldiers shouting as they round up Jews from the ghetto (the crack of gunshots through the rear channels widen the scope as things grow quiet), and the horrifying thunder of Auschwitz. The flatter, strictly dialogue-based scenes are certainly drier and feature their share of minor pops and fizzles, but there’s no real high-end distortion to speak of, nor are there signs of the material being compressed. John Williams’ score has its down moments when it comes to the more obviously melodramatic moments (I’m not a huge fan of the New Age-y acoustic guitars here), but works incredibly well while moving the film along its narrative track, especially during the early montages, where he uses traditional Jewish melodies and rhythm signatures. The best thing about the score is that it’s entirely absent for much of the film. Williams and Spielberg don’t cram music in where it isn’t needed.
Spielberg has made it pretty clear over the years that he isn’t interested in audio commentaries. He’s also hinted that he’s uncomfortable talking about Schindler’s List altogether, specifically in terms of his behind-the-scenes process, so the lack of special features on this release is not surprising. It’s still disappointing, though, especially considering the wealth of documentary material the USC Shoah Foundation has created since the film’s release. Still, not unexpected. What is a little obnoxious, though, is that there are literally zero extras on the Blu-ray, unless you count BD-Live links to Universal trailers. All the special features are delegated to the second of the two included DVD discs, which means that Universal just reprinted the old discs and crammed them in the box set. These include Voices from the List (1:77:30, SD) a feature documentary with testimonies from the surviving Schindler Jews, USC Shoah Foundation Story (4:40, SD), and a sort of promo spot for the foundation with Spielberg, and About Iwitness (3:50, HD), another promo spot for the USC SF’s Internet archive.
Schindler’s List is still a great film and twenty years after it was released the minor shortcomings are starting to fade into the even-handed, honest approach, powerful performances, expert editing (…right up until the end), and stunning photography. Universal’s remastered Blu-ray fulfills all realistic desires in audio and visual departments, but they and Spielberg have missed another chance at retrospective special features and new historical documentaries, which is a minor disappointment.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and original DVD release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 5th March 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS 5.1 Spanish and French
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Voices From the List, USC Shoah Foundation Story with Steven Spielberg, About IWitness, DVD Copy, Digital Copy, UltraViolet Copy (All Extras On DVD Copy Only)
Easter Egg: No
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagall, Embeth Davidtz
Genre: Drama and War
Length: 186 minutes
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