FILM / Lest We Forget: One of the all-time great films opens this week: Steven Spielberg's 'Schindler's List'. Quentin Curtis reviews it

THERE IS a question that may nag at you during the three hours of Schindler's List: why am I watching this? It may be prompted by one of the summary executions that stain the screen like the blood of their victims seeping through the snow - by the sight of a German soldier murdering a Jew with a prim flick of the revolver, as if giving a final flourish of the pen to a death warrant. Or by the prisoners arriving at a re-created Auschwitz, built for the film alongside the original, to be greeted by an orgy of shouting and the steaming breath of guard-dogs. Why am I watching this? What business has entertainment with atrocity?

The film offers one obvious answer in its moving coda, in which the people saved from the Holocaust by Oskar Schindler parade by his grave. Their descendants, a caption tells us, outnumber the Jews in Poland today. Watching has been not only a remembrance, but a mandate. But every previous frame also answers the question, depicting the horror with a grace and sensitivity that balance the brutality, stating the countervailing values that have endured. Schindler's List shares something of the quality of the concentration-camp survivor Paul Celan's great poem, Death Fugue ('death is a master from Germany'), which was accused of aestheticising the Holocaust. In both works there's a tension between the ugliness of the subject and the beauty of the presentation.

Spielberg's film is as much an intellectual experience as an emotional one. The screenwriter, Steven Zaillian, has boiled Thomas Keneally's compendious non-fiction novel down to one basic narrative: a continually shifting study of the mystery of good and evil. (Only the photography is black and white.) It's shown through two central characters, who are uneasy friends: Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), saviour of a thousand Jews, whom he employs at his Krakow enamelware plant, later buying their way out of a journey to the camps; and Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), Commandant of the Plaszow labour camp, murderer of as many.

But good and evil turn out to wear almost the same face - as well as the same Nazi Party lapel badge. They carouse with the same cronies, and are both fond philanderers. Superficially, Schindler and Goeth are alike, at the core they're worlds apart: two similar vessels, filled with different essences. One of the film's themes is the appalling arbitrariness of the Nazi evil. Goeth's Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz), precariously safe thanks to his obsession with her, confides in Oskar: 'There are no set rules that you can live by. You can't say to yourself: 'If I do this, I will be safe.' ' In the similar figures of Schindler and Goeth, we see that evil is as arbitrary in choosing its agents as its victims.

Nor does Oskar Schindler's virtue conform to any easy notion of morality. His heroism starts as sound business-sense, not to mention exploitation - Jews are the cheapest labour available. The opening scenes show his shyster entrepreneurism - war is his big break. But somewhere his values shift, and business becomes a mask for conscience, instead of vice versa. His rough-diamond pragmatism is shown to be the hard currency for such dire times. He acts when something can be done. In one extraordinary scene, he basks in the sun with the German officers beside cattle-trucks of parched Jews. But when he spots a hose, he starts frantically dousing the carriages.

Liam Neeson gives a stirring performance as this trader in charm, equally at home with hard bargaining and hard liquor, who somewhere in his magnificent self-regard finds a regard for others. Schindler was a German from the Sudetenland, which Keneally in the book describes as 'Arkansas to their Manhattan, Liverpool to their Cambridge' - a plausible swap for Neeson's hometown of Belfast. With his giant frame, always immaculate in white linen and straw boater, he towers over the other Germans not just physically but intellectually - always a beat ahead, keeping them to the letter of their disregarded laws.

As Amon Goeth, Fiennes puts to shame all the Nazis who have sneered across the screen over the years. He's repellent but human, universalising the evil, showing it to be a terminal form of myopia, the same boorish thoughtlessness we see in the hooligan or the braying school bully, taken to its extreme. He murders without relish, but with a mix of manic self- assertion and weary indifference. We see him pick off prisoners with a rifle from his villa balcony - 'Oh, Amon,' his naked mistress groans from the bed at his foible. But Fiennes never allows him to become a monster. That would be to make him larger than life, whereas there's something shrunken about Goeth, as if the flab around his waist had crushed his soul.

He only once stops to think, stammering his feelings to the maid, but shying from the corollary of his sympathy: 'I realise you're also not a person, in the strict sense of the word.' This scene, set in a cellar, is shot as a weird dance, less like wooing than a hunter stalking his prey. Though Fiennes gives a compellingly detailed psychological portrait, Spielberg hints that Goeth's evil may be innate. Oskar has tried to turn Goeth on to mercy, and we see Goeth's sickly amusement at practising benedictions in the mirror, after 'pardoning' a boy who failed to remove a bath-stain. But the scene closes on the smile turning to a black glower. Goeth goes out and shoots the boy.

The duel between Goeth and Schindler fades in and out of the picture, swept away by the tide of suffering. We alternate between drama and documentary-style footage of the noose tightening around the Jewish community, as the decrees harden: relocation to major cities (1939); restriction to the ghetto (1941); liquidation of the ghetto (1943). It's true that in these scenes, and in the film generally, we don't get a great sense of individual Jewish lives - the most fully characterised Jew being Schindler's quietly dignified accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), the brains behind the business. But Spielberg is avoiding the snare of films such as Sophie's Choice, which reduce the Holocaust to individual melodrama. To treat the Jews as a mass is to suggest the scale of the crime.

Here, again, Zaillian's script is flawlessly organised. As Nazi soldiers storm through buildings like high-spirited students, we're shown the different, frantic strategies for survival: a family putting bread stuffed with jewels in their mouths; a man dragging his wife into the sewer; a woman refusing to allow her neighbour under the floorboards, in an act of desperate cowardice; doctors giving their patients lethal potions, and finding that they're still not spared the machine gun.

Spielberg might have milked scenes like these for expressionist horror, but he is judiciously restrained throughout, using a palette of sober greys (see panel, previous page) that echoes the 'terrible gentleness' Truffaut saw in Alain Resnais' great Holocaust documentary, Nuit et Brouillard, or the unretaliatory calm of Primo Levi's early books. Spielberg avoids sentiment or sensation. Even when he colourises the red dress of a small girl who escapes through a doorway and crawls under a bed, giving a sense of the strangeness of life and the ingenuity of the human spirit, he adds a grim pay-off.

And yet, it's argued, Spielberg has brightened the Holocaust's Stygian darkness by lighting a torch to Schindler's heroism. Did such critics miss the film's slumping bodies and mounting pyres? True, Spielberg never goes into the gas chambers, but the film is scrupulously authentic and, for obvious reasons, no accounts of that experience survive. The film's most harrowing scene has no bloodshed or bodies. We watch Jews being told to leave their suitcases on the platform. We then cut to the Germans already sifting the possessions, in a sort of lost-forever property office. The camera, lingering over jewellery and sacred relics, settles on a spread of family photos. What more powerful image could a film-maker give of a people obliterated even from memory?

The odd sniper has already shot at Spielberg, firing off criticisms and comparisons. They are mainly blanks. From the low ground they attack his reverence, as if Nazism required camping-up or satirising (and as if that hadn't been done by Chaplin and Lubitsch). From the high ground, they call down the name of Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's epic filmed collection of Holocaust memories, though it's more a document than a movie. For me, in recent American film-making only Ken Burns' 1990 documentary series, The Civil War, stands comparison with Schindler's List - for its sense of catastrophe recollected in tranquillity, its intricacy, scope and haunting clarity. Up to now, Hollywood's Holocaust record has itself been something of a crime. Schindler's List, with its grave documentary thoroughness and moral complexity, rewrites film history. It is one of the cinema's finest achievements.

(Photographs omitted)

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