Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter

We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.

No one can say that Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List isn’t appropriately titled. If there’s one point the three-hour film manages to drive home, it’s the significance of lists in Nazi-occupied countries. The film’s ubiquitous lists become symbols of Nazi bureaucracy, and the inability to distinguish between people and lists becomes symbolic of the Nazi capacity for dehumanization.

Chronicling the institution and eventual “liquidation” of the Kraków ghetto, day-to-day life in that city’s Plaszów prison camp, and, in time, the conclusion of World War II, Spielberg’s film is nothing if not panoramic. But breadth without depth has its limitations. Though it does lend Holocaust statistics a measure of three-dimensionality and Holocaust horror stories a measure of immediacy, Schindler’s List doesn’t have the impact that seems requisite for such subject matter. “Serious” subject matter does not guarantee skillful filmmaking, and, ultimately, Spielberg just doesn’t seem to have much to say.

Though it omits a great deal, Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is scrupulously true to facts presented in Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novelization of Oskar Schindler’s story. Schindler (Liam Neeson) was a German war profiteer who came to Kraków to make a quick buck following the Nazi invasion of Poland. This he soon did, operating a confiscated enamelware factory staffed by unpaid Jewish prisoners from nearby Plaszów. As the film opens, Schindler is doing what he would do until the war ended, namely, sucking up to influential Nazis in order to further his own humanitarian ends. Foremost among those whom it is Schindler’s business to flatter and bribe is Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), Plaszów’s sadistic commandant.

Of course, no one knows when Schindler registered disgust with what he saw happening around him, or when he resolved to actively work in opposition to the Nazi party. Nonetheless, aided by his company’s Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), Schindler began to use his influence to improve conditions for the Plaszów inmates. He undertook first to make his factory a prison camp unto itself, an enclosure in which conditions were relatively sumptuous and to which SS guards had limited access. Later, as the war was drawing to a close, he managed to move the whole operation to relative safety in Moravia (it is the industrialist’s list of “crucial workers” who would make the journey that provides the film’s title).

Keneally’s novel includes tales of traitorous Jews and of penitent SS men, but Spielberg’s film doesn’t traffic in nuance. Good and evil are as clearly delineated here as they are in Raiders of the Lost Ark. This may be one reason that, despite the emotional resonance of the material, Schindler’s List is as flat as a pancake. Very little personality is accorded its three main characters, and the film shrinks from exploring Schindler’s complex relationships with Stern and Goeth. In fact, the same criticism can be made of Spielberg’s film that has historically been made of Milton’s Paradise Lost, i.e., the bad guy is its most intriguing character (it’s surely a failure of sorts that Fiennes’ loathsome Goeth steals the movie). Nor does it offer implicit comment on what would seem to be one of the film’s central issues, namely, what is it that gives ordinary people the impetus to do extraordinary things?

It seems absurd to complain that a film about the Holocaust is excessively violent. But Schindler’s List‘s cumulative violence is almost numbing. Once it is confirmed that Goeth—who recreationally shoots people in the prison yard from his villa—is a depraved sadist, the fact must be demonstrated again and again. It is more than apt that the road into Plaszów is paved with the tombstones that formerly stood in the Jewish cemetery on the camp’s site. Less symbolic depictions of violence are often less compelling, and there’s no way around the fact that one scene, in which a group of naked women are herded into what they are told is a shower room, is tastelessly voyeuristic.

Not to say that Schindler’s List is lacking in powerful images. The most evocative of these are small actions that convey monstrous meaning, as when women inPlaszów cut their fingers and smear the blood on their cheeks as rouge prior to a “health check.” As a rule, Spielberg’s understated moments are more effective than his grand-scale ones. Hence the impact of ash thickly layered on the leaves of a tree, compared to that of its cause, a stories-high pyre of blackened bodies that smolder to the soundtrack’s accompaniment of choral music.

The depiction of Schindler is frequently an immoderately messianic one. The industrialist voices biblical comments like “I know your sufferings” and strides into the sea of workers that crowd his factory floor like a debonair Moses in a double-breasted suit. The film doesn’t dodge the fact thatSchindler was an unrepentant womanizer who gloried in life’s luxuries, but both these attributes are presented as glamorous ones. It doesn’t help that, though ostensibly shot in black-and-white to capture the look of documentary footage, the film—with its evening clothes and smoky rooms—ends up looking like a stylish nod to film noir instead. And while it emphasizes Schindler’s film-star appeal (Keneally’s book repeatedly compares him to George Raft), it plays down Schindler’s conscious determination to subvert the Nazi government, making it appear that saving his workers is a scheme into which he elegantly drifts.

Though the film’s brief, printed epilogue says more about Schindler the man than all that precedes it, that’s still not very much. The body of the film gives little inkling of the postwar Schindler who never prospered in business again and who ended his life dependent on the financial support of the Jews he had rescued. Nor does its suavely detached Schindler seem the sort who would, in his old age, spend part of every year in Israel with these same people, and ultimately ask that he be buried there. Indeed, it is at Schindler’s graveside that the film’s final scene is played out. In an unfortunate parallel with Dorothy’s arrival in Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, Schindler’s List bursts into color as its location shifts to Jerusalem. The surviving people upon whom the film’s characters are based then pass by Schindler’s grave arm-in-arm with the actors who portrayed them, as if to underscore the film’s tie to reality. This it does, but in emphasizing that so many of the survivors are still alive, it makes one wish the director had opted for documentary instead of dramatization.