A New Spielberg; and Others.

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FROM THE STACKS OCTOBER 9, 2013

A New Spielberg; and Others. December 10, 1993

Steven Spielberg has made his own Holocaust museum. In Schindler's List (Universal), an adaptation by Steven Zaillian of Thomas Keneally's book, Spielberg has created a 184-minute account of the fate of Kraków's Jews under the German occupation, centered on the German businessman and bon vivant, Oskar Schindler, who devised a ruse to save 1,100 Jews from the Auschwitz ovens. A closing note tells us that in Poland today there are fewer than 4,000 Jews but in the world there are 6,000 "Schindler Jews," survivors and descendants.

For this film Spielberg has done the best directing of his career. Much of his previous work has been clever and some of it better than that, but Schindler's List is masterly. He has, with appropriate restraint, shot it in black and white (except for two closing sequences in color). Janusz Kaminski's superb cinematography uses shadows like prosody—illuminates with shadows. Michael Kahn has edited with intensity and line, never breathless, always fast. (One demurral: the intercutting between a Jewish wedding in a camp, a wild German officers' party and a German officer's boudoir romp is heavy.) John Williams has arranged a score, with Itzhak Perlman doing violin solos, that for the most part is quiet: Jewish melodies on woodwinds or a small children's chorus under scenes of inhumanity.

Liam Neeson plays--no, inhabits--Schindler with the authority of a round-voiced, juggernaut con man. Neeson bears himself like a Middle European, a comment I can't quite explain but that may be understood by many. He drives forward like a sensualist whose pleasures are food, drink, women and money. And Ben Kingsley—O rare Ben Kingsley!—is the Jewish accountant whom Schindler plucks from a condemned group to run his business and who combines gratitude with disdain, subservience with pride. (Actors who want to study the basis of acting—concentration—should watch Kingsley.)

Spielberg has not used one trite shot, one cheap tear-jerking assemblage. Tears are evoked, but honorably; his aim was to make a film that gripped us with authenticity. To this end he often uses newsreel angles and newsreel cutting. Yet he is not band-held-camera nutty: where a panorama is needed--Jews in a long street assembling for deportation, Jews in a (seemingly) mile-wide file coming over a great field toward liberation--he understands how to present it and leave it alone. (Most of this picture was filmed in Poland.) Imagination, talent, commitment shine in every flame.

Now come two dreadful words: and yet. Is there a need for another film about the Holocaust? Especially after Shoah? Presumably there are at least some people who have never seen a Holocaust film and may see this one because it's by Spielberg and will have mainstream promotion. Let's hope there are many such.

But others may be aware of two bothersome connected points. Both of them demonstrate yet again how good work can be victimized by previous work, good or less good, on the same subject. First, the German commander, played by Ralph Fiennes, though based on fact, is by now something of a film cliché—smooth, cultivated, monstrous. Second, the film takes about two hours to reach the event that the tide promises, Schindler's (not quite predictable) rescue operation. Everything up to then, vigorously done though it is, is—in two senses—terribly familiar.

Still, this film is a welcome astonishment from a director who has given us much boyish esprit, much ingenuity, but little seriousness. His stark, intelligent style here, perfectly controlled, suggests that this may be the start of a new period in Spielberg's prodigious career—Part Two: The Man.

Two films about a woman who plays the piano. The first, The Piano (Miramax), garlanded with Cannes Festival prizes, is an overwrought, hollowly symbolic glob of glutinous nonsense. The New Zealand writer-director Jane Campion, who made an appealing film of Janet Frame's autobiography An Angel at My Table, here reverts to the thick, self-conscious poeticizing of her first film, Sweetie.

In the mid-nineteenth century, a young Scotswoman, played by Holly Hunter, goes with her small (illegitimate) daughter to an arranged marriage in the New Zealand outback. The woman is mute; we're never told the cause, though she sometimes speaks to us on the sound track. She insists on taking her piano with her, so even the dimmest among us can perceive that the piano is her symbolic voice.

Her "voice" is hellishly troublesome to bring ashore on the wild coast and to carry through the dense forest. Once established in her new home, Hunter doesn't respond to her husband, Sam Neill, though in time she dues respond to bet neighbor, Harvey Keitel (here he's a Scotsman with Maori tattooings—more symbolism). The story would be merely another wilderness triangle except for the illogic. When Neill discovers Hunter in bed with Keitel, he hides under the house to listen to them; later, however, he cuts off one of Hunter's fingertips when she merely tries to communicate with Keitel.

All this is ladled over with a rich gravy of tropical foliage, Maori simple wisdom and much assumption on the film's part of our utter sympathy for this quite peculiar woman. At the end she and Keitel leave together, and en route the piano is hurled into the sea. Wow. What a symbol—the piano on the ocean floor. Only a clod like me would ask what it's a symbol of—since, at the last, Hunter is still mute and is playing another piano, her injured finger tipped with metal.

Every moment is upholstered with the suffocating high-mindedness that declines to connect symbols with comprehensible themes. I haven't seen a sillier film about a woman and a piano since John Huston's The Unforgiven (1960), a Western in which Lillian Gish had her piano carried out into the front yard so she could play Mozart to pacify attacking Indians.

On the other hand, The Accompanist (Sony Pictures Classics) is an implicative little gem, It's set in wartime Paris under the Germans. Romane Bohringer plays a 20-year-old pianist who is engaged by a soprano, Elena Safonova, to accompany her in recitals in Paris and on tour, Richard Bohringer, father of Romane, plays Safonova's collaborationist-businessman husband. The accompanist and the soprano become good friends. The accompanist even becomes the singer's confidante about her Free French lover, Samuel Labarthe.

The triangle-with-observer is played out against a wartime background--in Paris and London--that makes it seem both petty (in the face of horrors) and important (the Germans are being fought so that people can still love and move as they choose). The ending is more unraveled than finished, but en route we get subtle performances from all, especially Romane Bohringer as she learns that one cannot live vicariously.

The direction is delicate, precise, reticent—done by Claude Miller, who adapted the screenplay with Luc Berard from a novel by Nina Berberova. Miller has relied a good deal on the secrets and discoveries in his actors' faces and, aided by Yves Angelo's sympathetic camera, he has found them.

And the music! Berlioz, Mozart, Schumann, Strauss, beautifully sung by Laurence Monteyrol and mimed by Safonova with perfect conviction. The singing gives the picture its raison d'être and also provides many minutes of bliss.

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posted in: schindler's list, stanley kauffmann, steven spielberg, movies, film

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