1939-1945, and the few years before and after, were arguably some of the darkest in human history. They were also some of the most studied, researched and documented years, and Hollywood has regularly looked to this period for inspiration for countless films and stories, both factual and fictitious. Perhaps the common factor in most of the documentaries, films and stories of this time is of the Holocaust itself, and the misery and suffering that befell millions at the hands of the ‘master race’.
By 1939, the Nazi Party and Hitler had been the elected government in Germany for six years, built up the military, and though the rest of Europe was wary of Hitler, few truly believed that he would just march into countries such as Poland and, with superior numbers and weaponry, simply take the country. However, this is just what happened, and September 1939 saw Poland fall in just two weeks. One of Hitler’s major policies of blaming the Jews for Germany’s woes was enhanced to blame them for just about everything foul that had ever befallen the German people. The result, in Krakow at least, was the establishment of a ghetto where all Jews were to be housed so as to make them manageable.
Few reading this need a history lesson on the Nazi treatment of the Jews, and other minority groups such as gypsies and homosexuals, for it is basic high school history if nothing else. But among the overwhelming statistics, stories and misery are some truly inspiring stories that need to be told, and the story of Oskar Schindler is one of them.
Schindler was an Austrian-born, German businessman, member of the Nazi Party, entrepreneur, opportunist, scam merchant and a womaniser with a taste for the finer things in life. He was the kind of man who knew exactly how to put himself in a winning position in any given situation. As the saying goes, '...he could fall into a bucket of shit and come up smelling of roses”. Schindler knew there was money to be made in Krakow by employing Polish Jews that would cost him virtually nothing. With Jewish financial backing, a Jewish accountant and Jewish workers from the Ghetto, he turned a bankrupt factory into a very profitable enamel works factory, with lucrative contracts selling pots, pans and utensils to the German forces.
One of the benefits of Schindler’s wheeling and dealing was that the Jews who worked for him, at the very least, had the opportunity to get out of the Ghetto daily, allowing them the chance to barter for goods not available inside the Ghetto, no matter that it was an offence punishable by death.
When the Germans, led by a truly evil man in Amon Goeth, the Commandant of the local concentration camp purpose built on the outskirts of Krakow, marched into the Ghetto in 1943 and proceeded to round up the entire Jewish population for shipment to Auschwitz, Schindler lost his workforce. While he genuinely cared for his workers, he was always a businessman first and a humanitarian second, and it was his need for a workforce that inspired him to canvass Goeth to get his workforce back, and eventually house them at his new factory site away from the death camps. There is no doubt that those on Schindler’s List still had a miserable existence but, compared to the misery and cruelty of the Germans and the camps, it was, as some described, a paradise, and most, if not all, the workers knew that what they had was far preferable to their chances elsewhere.
Witnessing much of the horrors first hand was enough for Schindler to ultimately dispose of much of his wealth to ‘buy’ his workers, pay off the local forces and establish a munitions factory that was a model of non-productivity. By the war’s end, Schindler had used most of his fortune just keeping his workers out of the camps, out of the ovens and furnaces, and alive to tell their stories.
The deeds of Oskar Schindler may have gone largely unknown but for a chance conversation between Australian author Thomas Kenneally and a luggage repair shop employee in LA. Whilst waiting for credit card approval, Kenneally struck up a conversation with a Holocaust survivor who happened to have been on Schindler’s List, and Kenneally took the chance to learn more. The novel was published and, deciding it would make a great film, Spielberg set about doing just that.
The result is something of a masterpiece of storytelling. The sets, costumes and casting are first rate, and the decision to film virtually the while thing in black and white adds a level of gloominess and history to proceedings that colour might not have delivered. Neeson, as Schindler, has a real screen presence that is hard to ignore, and Fiennes as Goeth is fantastic, inciting real hatred and loathing.
There are some graphic scenes for the squeamish, although the black and white images do put a distance between them and viewers. These graphic scenes are in no way gratuitous and no doubt the real thing would probably have been even worse. The images of truckloads of children being driven away, and the overcrowded cattle-cars, the mud, the filth and the general squalor, can only partly convey what life must have been like for those on the receiving end of Nazi hatred.
Some have criticised Schindler’s List for being a Jewish propaganda tool, but even if the graphic violence and horrific images are as little as half true, that argument still finds no favour with most. The atrocities are well documented, and those who have lived it have the most incredible and heart-wrenching stories to tell. Sometimes, amongst all the gloom, there are small pockets of happier stories, and the story of Oskar Schindler is just one example.
Unlike many war films, this is not a guns and bombs affair and therefore offers few chances to test your system's capabilities. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks are both worthy, but most will opt for DTS if given the choice for it sounds just a little clearer and punchier. The majority of the film is either general discourse or hushed whispers, with the occasional gun shot or passing train. It is at these times that the DTS distinguishes itself. All dialogue, however, is clear and central, apart from a few of the whispered lines that are hard to make out due to the thick accents. This is where the English subtitles come in handy.
Rear channel action is mostly subdued and ambient, and the subwoofer is rather quiet until called on for the loud trains and occasional factory shots. The original score makes full use of all channels.
There are no issues with such things as synchronisation or hiss and drop out, but there are one or two instances where a conversation pauses, and the sound would appear to also dropout but, I must stress, with no loss of dialogue. It just seems to be very quiet for a fraction of a second or two.