Schindler's List, Spielberg's multi-award-winning film from 1993 is, with no sense of hyperbole, a true cinematic masterpiece. I suspect, much like Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, it's a work that many people feel they should have absorbed but haven't ever quite got around to it. Many will have been put off by its three-hour plus running time or devastatingly bleak and harrowing subject matter. But Schindler's List is an essential watch which educates and informs in a manner Hollywood rarely offers. It unflinchingly reveals the extent of the Jewish persecution and subsequent imprisonment and murder at the hands of the Nazis between 1939 and 1945.
Caught up in this time of great upheaval is Oskar Schindler (Neeson) - an industrialist, womaniser and opportunist who spies a great way to swell his coffers by using free Jewish labour to run a factory making army mess kits. Over time, and through Schindler's relationship with Itzhak Stern (Kingsley), a Jewish businessman he employs to run his administration, the entrepreneur begins to realise the magnitude of what it is each worker in his factory might represent. Much of this change of heart is subtly expressed and well hidden from Oskar's superiors who might raise alarm; his generosity and convivial nature, skills essential to grease palms and endear himself to those who're in a position to enable his business interests, soon become weapons with which to bribe and purchase favours and individual factory men, women and children. Neeson navigates Schindler's journey to enlightenment with sensitivity and quiet resignation. There's never any explicit anger in what he sees. Only the muted but certain decision that something must be done. Kingsley likewise is arguably the more compelling character. His Stern is obedient in the presence of his master, sensing goodness, not daring to hope it's true. And rarely has Ralph Fiennes been quite so hypnotically engaging as in his portrayal of Amon Goeth, the designated SS officer to steward the concentration camp at Płaszów. Goeth is a gruesome character but also something of an enigma. We're never sure if his hostility drives his own misery or whether it's the other way around. His conversations with Schindler (who neatly suggests he use forgiveness rather than violence as a way of exhibiting authority) seem to resonate with Goeth, at least for a while, and one questions Oskar's later reasoning that it's the war alone that has brought out Amon's uglier side. But the film is really about the Schindlerjuden - those that were to owe their lives to Schindler. We follow some of their individual narratives through the film and come to realise how ultimately, their importance as simple names on a list. How an inked name can make the difference between life and death.
Artfully binding Schindler's List together is Janusz Kamiński, Spielberg's long-time cinematographer and John Williams, his long-standing collaborative composer. Together, through high-contrast black and whites and violin-led musical elegies, the pair lend the film its desolate beauty. In uncertain times, it is necessary to remind ourselves of the need for tolerance and liberty. No other film has ever been so important.