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FILM / A long road to recovery: Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List is every bit as distressing as a film about the Holocaust should be. But how good is it? By Adam Mars-Jones

The surprise about Schindler's List is not that it comes from the maker of Jurassic Park or the Indiana Jones films, with their buffoon Nazis. Anyone is entitled, like Graham Greene, to undertake entertainments as well as more challenging projects. The surprise is that it comes from the maker of Empire of the Sun, another narrative of suffering and survival, and one that seemed in prospect perfectly chosen to help Steven Spielberg make the passage from entertainer to serious artist. Even those few years ago (when it was already his ambition to film Schindler's List), he was unable to kick his addiction to spectacle. He cared too much that his extras be visible in their full numbers; he wanted the focal depth of his sets to be appreciated. He sought to convey extremes of human experience, but still he lusted after crane shots.

Most of Schindler's List is very different. Shot in black-and-white, and making extensive use of hand-held camera, the film has in parts a pseudo- documentary intensity quite opposed to Spielberg's usual style, which is hyper-realistic (with all the paradoxes attendant on being exaggeratedly real) rather than merely realistic. The film is also three- and-a-quarter hours long, and as distressing as a conscientious film about genocide must be.

Some sequences have the force of ghastly newsreels, while others convey extremity by understatement. Schindler's List makes the setting-up of a little row of collapsable chairs and tables in the open air - a repeated image - the arrangement of typewriters, sheafs of paper slips, endorsing stamps, seem to contain the horror they represented. How chillingly casual it looks, how lightweight, the bureaucracy that administered a people into ash.

The screenplay, by Steven Zaillian from Thomas Keneally's fact-based novel, is like a mirror-image of Istvan Szabo's great film from the 1980s, Mephisto. There, a moderately well-meaning actor who started off as a Communist gradually became suborned by the Nazis until his soul was wholly owned. Though it was hard to identify the precise moment at which his rot became definitive, there could be no doubt that it had occurred. Schindler's List is about an inverted corruption. A moderately ill-meaning Nazi, content to profiteer, is thanked for good deeds he hasn't intended, saves lives half- selfishly and gradually becomes encrusted with virtue. Over time the base metal of his nature corrodes to gold.

Where Mephisto was cautionary, Schindler's List is inspirational, but that doesn't condemn it. It is as close to a feel-good story about the Holocaust as you can responsibly get, but that isn't very close. There's nothing wrong in emphasising that one person can make a difference, although it isn't true that absolutely anyone can always make a difference. Oskar Schindler wouldn't have had the power to save if he hadn't already acquired the power to exploit, when he took over a confiscated enamelware factory in occupied Krakow, and found that Jews cost less to employ than Poles. (Their wages also went directly to the authorities, which created good feeling all round.)

Early on, Schindler's argument against the destruction of the Jews was at least in part economic - it was bad business to kill a docile, in fact enslaved, workforce - and there is no clear indication of a moment at which it became moral. The screenplay is content to leave virtue a mystery.

Spielberg grants his audience intermissions of grief in the narrative of horror. John Williams' music is let loose, and emotion openly vented. Sometimes the effect is of deepening feeling, sometimes of reflex manipulation, when we are already in the state of mind that manipulation pimps for. In particular, Spielberg throws away the implacability of the sequences that show the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, which Schindler (Liam Neeson) witnesses by chance from an overlooking hill while horse-riding. Schindler's attention is caught by a child in a red coat, which the director tints for our benefit.

This gimmick is in every way counter-productive. It singles out a child from a panorama of violence, it insists all over again on the artificiality of images whose authority has been painstakingly earned, and above all it alienates us from Schindler's deceptions in the very act of dramatising them, since, whatever it is that draws his eye to the little girl, it can't be that she is the only splash of colour in a black-and-white world. It's as if the withdrawal symptoms of giving up his addiction to spectacle had become too much for Spielberg, driving him back to his habit for a quick fix of cartoonishness. Certain sorts of truth go stubbornly against his grain.

If the screenplay is content for Schindler to remain enigmatic, it is perversely curious about the psychology of Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), commandant of the Plaszow forced-labour camp. Schindler's List shows no understanding of low-level evil, fellow-travelling evil. We see monsters laughing in the middle of the suffering they have created, monsters playing Bach on the piano in mid-massacre. There is no acknowledgement that brutalisation is a fact, that if you force a group to live in inhuman conditions you can make them disgusting even to people who did not start off loathing them. Even perhaps to themselves.

And yet a large portion of screen time is given to an arch monster, who added arbitrarily to the atrocities that were demanded of him professionally. The screenplay wants Goeth to have a psychology, but doesn't go to the trouble of supplying him with one. Schindler suggests that, in other circumstances, he might be a nice guy. Spielberg, with baffling crudity, cross-cuts between the two men's equally fastidious shaving on the day Goeth happily announces the end of Jewish Krakow, as if uncovering a profound correspondence. Zaillian writes a monologue in which Goeth expresses sexual attraction to his Jewish housemaid and then blames her for trying to seduce him, but Fiennes can do nothing with it. Spielberg adds more crass cross-cutting, between Goeth beating the maid, a ramshackle wedding in the camp and Schindler enjoying the high life. No film of 195 minutes is actively too short, and considerable economies could have been made in this unrewarding area.

In any case, the odd echoes are not between Goeth and Schindler, but between Schindler and Hitler (the syllables have a teasing parity). The poetry of the story comes from the fact that Schindler's neutralisations of Nazism looked like continuations of it. His counter-bureaucracy rhymed with what it opposed. Hitler set up death factories, and death camps served by death trains. Schindler's factory produced life for those who worked there, his sub-camp at Plaszow preserved people, the trains he filled took people to safety. The gas chambers were disguised as showers: Schindler's people-conservatory at Brinnlitz in Czechoslovakia, where he took his workers from Krakow, was disguised as a munitions factory, though the machinery was miscalibrated so that nothing it produced could destroy. Hitler caused Jews to be killed, and their teeth to be pulled from them for the gold lodged there. But Schindler caused a Jew to offer his own living tooth for the wrenching, so that a ring of thanksgiving might be forged in his honour. Hitler's legacy is a vast absence. Schindler's is a descendance of other people's children, people whose cancellation he cancelled. When in the film Schindler is given the ring, he is so moved that he drops it.

Liam Neeson has plenty of presence, which he must rely on in an all but impossible role. Schindler doesn't reveal his emotions much even to his wife; he has a gambler's instinctive unreadability. Even the Jewish accountant Stern (Ben Kingsley), who makes the enamel business possible, has to deduce his goodness rather than observe it directly. Kingsley gives the film's finest and most necessary performance: he is particularly good in early scenes at conveying a man in deep shock, who only understands that for some reason those who are destroying his people demand that he not show he has noticed. He becomes the audience's stand-in, as his face slowly dramatises the dilution of fear by hope.

In the big scene at the end, when Schindler on the last day of the war takes leave of those he has saved, Neeson must send his performance into full reverse. In one sense this is a highly theatrical moment, of rhetorical redress to a large audience, but it is also the opposite. A lifelong actor drops his mask at last, when it no longer matters, and speaks from the heart, but discovers a new sort of pain as he does so, blaming himself for keeping a car that was worth 10 people, even a gold Party badge that would have bought two lives.

There are several separate big scenes compressed into this one big scene, and perhaps only in the theatre, on a good night with the right audience and everybody flying, could such a mixture of intimacy, community, relief, desolation and joy come off, once or twice in a long run. Spielberg seems to acknowledge this by supplying a coda, an alternative discharger of audience emotion, with present-day survivors from among the survivors paying tribute at Schindler's grave escorted by the actors who played their younger selves.

Schindler's List is three partial films in one, a harrowing pseudo-documentary, an effective melodrama, and an embarrassing piece of kitsch movie- making. Authentic intensity, emotionalism and botch: the first two marry unexpectedly well, and the third element is by far the smallest, but it is there, and it means that the film is less than the touted breakthrough for the cinema. But it is a considerable achievement for Spielberg, hyperbole addict on the long road to recovery, though still sometimes in denial about the scale of his problem.

(Photographs omitted)