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Wednesday, December 15, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Spielberg's `List' A Commanding Holocaust Film

------------ MOVIE REVIEW ------------ XXXX "Schindler's List," with Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle. Directed by Steven Spielberg, from a script by Steven Zaillian. City Centre. "R" - Restricted because of violence, language, nudity, graphic concentration-camp scenes.

Movies about the Holocaust were once overwhelmingly grim and oppressive.

That has changed in recent years with the release of a series of more hopeful fact-based films about resistance and survival under the Nazis: "Escape From Sobibor," "Lodz Ghetto," "Europa Europa," "Weapons of the Spirit" and last year's revelatory documentary, "The Restless Conscience: Resistance to Hitler Within Germany, 1933-1945."

The most visible and ambitious of these, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Thomas Keneally's 1982 novel, "Schindler's List," was recently endorsed by President Clinton, as he responded to a heckler who claimed that the president had done little about the AIDS crisis.

"It's about a non-Jew who as a member of the Nazi Party saved over 1,000 Jews by his personal efforts in World War II from the Holocaust," said the president. "The reason I ask you to go see the movie is you will see portrait after portrait of the painful difference between people who have no hope and have no rage left and people who still have hope and still have rage. I'd rather that man be in here screaming at me than having given up altogether."

Presidential movie endorsements can be scary and self-serving (Reagan and "Rambo," Nixon and "Patton" come to mind), but this one seems quite spontaneous, appropriate - and deserved.

In a severe, uncompromising manner that none of his previous films has approached, Spielberg has captured the terror of the Nazi reign as well as the determination and resourcefulness of those who resisted. He has created one of the most shocking movies yet made about the Holocaust (there were several walkouts at the screening I attended) and one of the most inspiring. It opens today.

VIOLENCE DIFFICULT TO WATCH

The savage scenes of random, cruel slaughter in the Polish ghetto and concentration camps are difficult to watch. Determined Spielberg critics may find it just as hard to handle the final turn toward sentiment. But there's nothing cloying or false about these closing moments (or about John Williams' atypically subdued score). The emotions are earned.

The story of Oskar Schindler, a Catholic businessman who exploited Krakow Jews, then became their friend and protector, seems ready-made as narrative and character study. He kept hundreds in his factory and out of the camps while challenging and manipulating an especially vicious and childish S.S. officer. The characterization of Schindler is one reason the movie is so involving. During the 195 minutes the story takes to unfold, Schindler undergoes a subtle transformation, from hedonistic exploiter of slave labor to savior with a mission and finally to hero in hiding.

In this key role, Liam Neeson uses his watchful eyes to size up dangerous situations, to guess how far he can go with charm, bribery, bluffing and delaying tactics. You don't always know what Schindler is thinking, or what he's willing to risk, but Neeson successfully demonstrates that everyone's a bit at sea in the chaotic world Spielberg so vividly evokes. It's just that Schindler, who's a bit of a gambler, seems more in command than others.

As the S.S. officer Amon Goeth, Ralph Fiennes is simultaneously terrifying and riveting. His performance here is so effective that it's likely to cause nightmares. The character is introduced as a paunchy, overindulged brat, but he's an unpredictable adult brat with murderous power and a snaky sensuality - a Third Reich Caligula.

The other key part is Schindler's Jewish accountant, played with self-effacing brilliance by Ben Kingsley, who gives the movie just the touch of warmth and sanity it needs. Powerless as his character is, he becomes a kind of touchstone, the one person who tries to make sense of ongoing, unmanageable disaster. When his life is endangered, the audience feels threatened.

While Steven Zaillian's skillful screenplay relies heavily on these three to carry the story, there are many vignettes, many scenes about people who did not survive. Children hide in makeshift toilets, a construction expert is cynically shot for suggesting a necessary change, refugees swallow jewels, doctors calmly administer poison to their threatened Jewish patients. More than any previous non-documentary Holocaust movie, this one convinces through the accumulation of such detail.

EFFECTIVE CINEMATOGRAPHY

The decision to film most of "Schindler's List" in black-and-white was a sound one. Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, are particularly effective at using monochrome to capture a mood of oppression: the humiliation of the Jews in the streets, the sudden worthlessness of conventional wealth and status, the realization that "it's not just good old-fashioned Jew-hating; it's policy now."

Some have questioned whether we need another Holocaust film, whether we must go through this once more, whether those who were born long after 1945 need to be exposed to this material. As long as the existence of the Holocaust can be seriously debated, as long as "cultural revolutions" and "ethnic cleansing" continue to be a fact of 20th century life, the answer is yes.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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