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American Cinematographer Magazine

Schindler's List (1993)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1 & DTS
Universal Home Video, $26.99

Steven Spielberg's popular and highly decorated World War II drama Schindler's List begins in 1939, when Germany's Third Reich relocated Polish Jews into the city of Krakow's "ghetto." Based on Thomas Keneally's acclaimed novel, the film uses the biographical framework of a handful of Jews who survived the Holocaust thanks largely to the efforts of wartime mercenary Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson). With the help of Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), whom he procures for financial guidance, Schindler buys an enamelware factory and presses the inexpensive Jewish laborers into service. The egotistical Schindler spends much of his time schmoozing with Nazi officials, particularly Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes, in a startling turn), in order to keep his highly profitable factory running. As the war progresses and the Nazi madness intensifies, Schindler becomes a very different man, and, aware of the Reich's "final solution," he assumes the unlikely role of savior. After compiling a massive list of Jewish workers - while using remarkable skills of manipulation and completely draining his own financial assets - Schindler "purchases" each worker on the list, thus saving more than a thousand from extermination in the death camps.

Universal Home Video has finally made Schindler's List available on DVD, and the disc is discreetly packaged with minimal artwork in a book-bound-style casing that holds a single, double-sided DVD. The picture transfer is generally excellent, though there are minor instances of what appear to be vertical scratches on the camera negative.

The film represents the first of many collaborations between Spielberg and Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who won an Academy Award for his work and was subsequently invited to join the ASC. Spielberg tapped Kaminski to shoot Schindler's List in Poland just 12 years after the cinematographer had come to the United States as a political refugee. Upon his return to his native country, Kaminski vividly recreated the realities of World War II Krakow and the surrounding area on a monochrome canvas. In a 1994 interview with AC, Kaminski explained that "the newsreel quality of the black-and-white seemed to fade the barriers of time, making [the footage] feel like an ongoing horror that I was witnessing firsthand."

Working with many simple, often handheld setups, the filmmakers devised stark visuals that have terse forward motion. The deftly used motifs of travel and movement keep the expansive story expertly on course, giving the film a documentary-like quality that adds to its emotional impact without ever feeling manipulative or forced. (Given the many low angles used to accentuate Schindler's larger-than-life quality, it is hard to avoid photographic comparisons to the work Gregg Toland, ASC did in Citizen Kane.)

The feature-film presentation begins on side one of the disc and continues on side two. Although the feature was never intended to have an intermission and the break is somewhat jarring, most viewers might find the interruption a welcome relief, considering the feature's 196-minute running time. The audio is well represented in both a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation and a DTS track; the latter's only noticeable differences are slightly rangier music and sound effects.

Side two of the disc concludes with a limited group of supplements, including cast and crew bios, a text biography of Schindler, and the outstanding 77-minute documentary Voices from the List. Culled from the archives of Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, this poignant segment features interviews with Holocaust survivors who contribute additional information about many of the scenes depicted in the film. With a liberal nod to Claude Lanzmann's landmark documentary Shoah (1985), the foundation gathers and records the accounts of as many Holocaust survivors as possible. Spielberg appears onscreen briefly to discuss the origins of the foundation and his hopes for its future.

Considering the impact Schindler's List had on the careers of those involved, the complicated and unusual circumstances surrounding its production, and the numerous accolades it garnered, it seems a shame that more supplemental material isn't included on this DVD. Though the existing supplements are certainly compelling, they seem almost insubstantial in light of the fully loaded DVD packages created for other Spielberg films.

That said, with its fair retail price and exceptional transfer, this DVD of Schindler's List will continue to move audiences with its representation of a devastating period in history, and stand as a testament to how the efforts of even one person can change the world. Indeed, as Stern notes, "The list is an absolute good. The list is life."

- Kenneth Sweeney

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.