Schindler’s List hits home

Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece gets a gritty, glorious transfer to Blu-ray.

Picture it: Schindler’s List, a Martin Scorsese Film. Yeah, that almost happened.

Back in the early 1990s, Scorsese had the rights to what would become a masterpiece, but he had decided not to make it. Meanwhile, his good buddy Steven Spielberg was prepping a remake of Cape Fear that he was souring on because it was too violent. At that time, the conventional wisdom was that Scorsese was a brilliant filmmaker with limited commercial appeal, while Spielberg was a great entertainer who lacked the chops to handle serious drama. So they traded scripts, and in the process redefined their careers.

I saw Schindler’s List twice the weekend it opened in Tampa (my parents thought I was insane), then once on TV when NBC aired it without commercials in 1997. Each time I found the film powerful, moving, terrifically made and deeply sad. Though I tend to re-watch almost all of Spielberg’s movies every few years, including his “serious” films, Schindler’s List was one I had to let go of. It’s just too depressing … or so I thought at the time.

Sixteen years have passed since that NBC broadcast, and when I learned of the new 20th Anniversary Limited Edition Blu-ray/DVD release (out March 5, $34.98 MSRP), I thought it time to revisit what many consider Spielberg’s greatest achievement. It turns out time has been kind to Schindler’s List, a brilliant movie to be sure, and one that is aging extraordinarily well. Credit Spielberg’s decision to shoot in (mostly) black and white, giving the film a timeless quality, and his extensive use of handheld cameras (a relative first for a director known for his tracking shots) that provides a documentary, you-are-here experience for the viewer.

Watching the Blu-ray (with a beautiful HD transfer supervised by Spielberg), I realized that I was viewing the film as a mature adult for the first time. (I was 21 the last time I saw it.) As such, I noticed different things than in the past, most notably that I now turn into a puddle whenever a child is in any kind of peril. (They say fatherhood changes you — and they are right.) Beyond that, I admired how flawed a hero Schindler really is, and found his relationship with Ralph Fiennes' sadistic labor camp commandant Amon Göth far deeper than I had realized.

But my biggest takeaway from watching Schindler’s List again was how much it is a reflection of the man who made it. This is pessimistic material, and Spielberg talked at the time about how he had to “throw away his toolbox” (i.e., abandon the cinematic flourishes he had become known for) to tell this story. Yet there he is in every frame, composing brilliant images and sequences (even injecting light humor at times) while guiding the viewer through the nightmare of the Holocaust to a conclusion that could have been a dirge but instead provides uplift and hope.

And finding a “happy ending” in the descendants of the Schindler Jews, whose numbers were greater than all the Jews left in Poland when the film was first released, is perhaps the most Spielbergian moment of all.