One could make a case for Schindler’s List as the ultimate Steven Spielberg film, and not just because the picture picked up seven Oscars – including Best Picture and Best Director – at the 1994 Academy Awards Ceremony.  Since his first theatrical feature (1974’s Sugarland Express), Spielberg has favored historical dramas and popcorn adventures, and these styles have continually vied for supremacy within his oeuvre, often inharmoniously so.  Critics pilloried Spielberg for his 1985 epic The Color Purple, and it isn’t hard to see why; in dramatizing the horrors that plagued the African-American slave experience, Spielberg creates a lush, stylized version of the antebellum South that wouldn’t be out of place in something like Green Pastures.  He tried to course-correct, and the result was 1987’s Empire of the Sun, an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical WWII memoir that might be the most remote film Spielberg has ever made.  Its strengths (Christian Bale’s lead performance, Allen Daviau’s sweeping cinematography) are undeniable, but there’s a coldness that keeps Empire of the Sun from becoming the emotionally wrenching Oliver Twist-meets-Destination Tokyo drama that it really wants to be.

And so it goes.  Amistad finally offered that clear-eyed look at the life of a slave that The Color Purple promised, but it subordinates that very real pain in favor of a Matthew McConaughey-starring courtroom drama that is, essentially, A Time to Kill: 1839 Edition.  Munich‘s retelling of Israel’s covert retaliation to the 1972 Black September terrorist attack pumped raw human drama into a beyond-ruthless revenge mission, but Spielberg’s mix of “men on a mission” adventure and graphic violence proved too much for most viewers, and his jaundiced critique of both Israeli and Palestinian foreign policies pissed off everyone else.  And while the critically and commercially successful pairing of Lincoln and Saving Private Ryan seemed to escape greater scrutiny, there will always be those who find the former too talky and the latter too grim until its labored, sentimental ending.

Schindler’s List exists on another plane.  I remember first seeing it, long after its initial theatrical release, and feeling incapable of processing what I had just viewed.  That sensation has stuck with me through every subsequent viewing, and I attribute its power to how expertly it reconciles Spielberg the Historian with Spielberg the Showman.

Spielberg’s eye for detail is kaleidoscopic.  In recounting the story of how full-time business magnate and part-time conman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson, who’s so good here you can forgive him his paycheck transgressions in the Taken/A-Team/Unknown/Grey wilderness) used his enamelware and munitions factories as a front to save more than 1,200 Jews from the brutal realities of the Holocaust, Spielberg packs the film’s 196-minute runtime with information about life in Poland during the Nazi invasion.  There are two worlds at war with one another, the battle crossing, political, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic divides.  On one side, the Nazis, who alternate between wanton cruelty towards the Jews and their decadent nightlife, and on the other, Poland’s Jewish population, reduced to third-world citizens in a few hours.  Quick transitions from a gaudy Reich hotspot to a group of Jewish scroungers trying to survive in the ghettos is all Spielberg needs to demonstrate the differing priorities governing both sides, despite their relatively close physical proximity to one another.

Furthermore, we quickly see that not all Jews and Nazis are made equal.  Ralph Fiennes’ Nazi commandant Amon Goeth has a bloodlust that is horrifying in its detached zeal, but Spielberg also takes pains to show us Nazis who aren’t Insta-Psychos, who are grudgingly carrying out Hitler’s orders.  And while Ben Kingsley’s lovely, understated turn as Schindler’s right-hand man – and de facto conscience – Itzhak Stern puts a kind face on the Jewish people, we also see Jews driven to self-serving betrayal.  For an event that is as totemic in its devastation as the Holocaust, Spielberg and screenwriter Steven Zaillian maintain a historical fidelity that ensures no one gets away clean.

At the same time, Spielberg’s command of the cinematic medium itself is peerless.  The reason we can engage with such atrocities is because the same instincts that makes films like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and Catch Me If You Can so deliriously entertaining are working overtime here.  Spielberg structures Schindler’s List as a series of virtuoso setpieces.  The liquidation of the ghettos, which moves with the relentless, unstoppable force of a night terror.  The Jewish children evading their Nazi oppressors inside the death camps.  The sequence when Schindler has to save Stern from a train heading to Auschwitz, a scene made more wrenching because Schindler cannot reveal his concern for his friend.  The creation of the list itself.  Schindler’s climatic breakdown, which a) is emotionally manipulative but b) reduces me to tears every time.

The film sails along, and it leaves the viewer with a curious mix of heartache and exhilaration.  We weep, but only because we’re swept along in the drama of Spielberg’s story.  Looking back at Schindler’s List, it’s easy to say that this is the film he was born to make.  But it’s only now that we realize why, that Spielberg never let the gravity of history interfere with the allure of the cinema, and vice versa.

From a technical standpoint, Universal’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy is a revelation.  Spielberg supervised an all-new restoration of the film, and the results are splendid – detail is sharp and clean, with little-to-no softness and print effects.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is robust and vital, and it immerses the viewer.

Features are a little slight (and only in standard definition on a DVD).  We get the quite-good “Voices from the List” documentary which finds Spielberg collecting the stories of Holocaust survivors and two brief featurettes: the “USC Shoah Foundation Story with Steven Spielberg” and an IWitness promo.  While many may lament the lack of any behind-the-scenes production materials, I respect Spielberg’s decision to let the film stand for itself.

And stand it does.  In the right light, Schindler’s List is a curious thing: the best film Steven Spielberg has ever made.

Schindler’s List streets on March 5th.  Click HERE for the Blu-ray’s Amazon listing.

Culture Movie Review: The Two Spielbergs, Working Together on SCHINDLER'S LIST