Category: 95%+ Masterpiece

I dislike the word ‘masterpiece’, it’s been bastardised like the word ‘genius’. However I think it is perfectly acceptable when used with restraint; I will be very selective when considering what enters the highly prestigious 95%+ Masterpiece category.

Schindler’s List (1993)

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Schindler’s List is a masterful blend of direction, cinematography, scope, score and performances, resulting in an epic of overwhelming power that only a cynic would dismiss.

WWII and The Holocaust were events of mind bending statistics and proportions. Tens of thousands dead in single bombing raids, 20+ million Soviets dead, 15+ million Chinese dead, 6+ million Poles dead, 7+ million Germans dead, 11 million the victim of Nazi genocide – it just beggars belief. The European and Pacific theatres were so dreadful, so massive, that it’s impossible for one to fully process it emotionally.

Schindler’s List is one of the finest cinematic depictions of those dark years; a sweeping, brutal film that brings a remarkable story to the attention of millions of viewers. However, as with all historical films, it does not serve as the definitive source of information. It should be viewed not as a documentary but as a vivid gateway into the subject.

The film follows Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a Sudeten German businessman who reaped the benefits of slave labour during WWII. A man of imposing presence and great magnetism, he effortlessly charms his way through Nazi circles with sumptuous feasts and the sheer force of his personality. His networking soon rewards him with an enamelware factory in Kraków using Jewish labour. At this point Schindler appears largely indifferent to the persecution all around him, or rather he avoids confronting the ugly truth of the Nazis’ approaching final solution.

He eventually becomes acquainted with Amon Göth, the callously evil commandant of the Płaszów concentration camp who is performed excellently by Ralph Fiennes. Göth was an incredibly violent man, a psychopath. The extent of his crimes were such that his sentencing was phrased as following: ‘Amon Göth himself killed, maimed and tortured a substantial, albeit unidentified, number of people.’ 

Göth’s violence is depicted with no expurgation, he shoots dozens of defenceless people and never shows even a modicum of remorse, so fanatical is his hatred for them. The film is starkly brutal, there is no cinematic sheen, the scores that are shot bleed profusely as they fall to the ground like rag dolls.

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Fiennes, whose face can be both that of a mild-mannered Englishman and sinister villain all at once, delivers a performance that’s nuanced and restrained yet hauntingly evil. Just like an inundated office worker, Göth complains to Oskar about the pressures of the job, which at the time is the exhumation of thousands of rotting corpses – ‘Can you believe this? As if I don’t have enough to do they come up with this? I have to find every rag buried up here and burn it.’ 

Like Adolf Eichmann, the logistics man responsible for the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews, Fiennes’ depiction of Amon Göth is another example of Hannah Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’. It is a compelling depiction of one of the Third Reich’s most committed adherents, a man deeply entrenched in Nazi ideology that has lost almost all humanity.

The relationship between Schindler and Göth and his SS cronies is quite uneasy for the viewer, for Schindler enjoys pushing the boundaries, he thrives off being a renegade. In one scene he kisses a Jewish woman in the presence of a whole party of SS officials, who cannot believe what they are seeing.

As the film progresses and Schindler realises both the abhorrence of the situation and his power to do something about it, something of a good vs. evil dichotomy arises. Deriders may say this is a simplistic construct, but it isn’t, they are two complex characters. Their exchanges shows that Schindler is the strongest leader between him, he has personality and charm, whereas Göth only has ruthless barbarism, something Göth realises and struggles with.

The film has grand scope and many brilliant set pieces. A notable example is the famous ‘Red girl’ scene during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, it is very impressive logistically, there are countless extras who all need directing. Schindler, who is atop a hill witnessing the brutality below, is the camera’s point of view, following this little girl in a red coat (famously one of the few moments of colour in the film) as she navigates her way through all the murder and pillaging. The scale of the scenes at the Płaszów concentration camp is also considerable, particularly as great masses of prisoners, naked and completely dehumanised, are shuffled around like cattle for inspection.

Interestingly, Spielberg said that Schindler really did see a red girl walk down the street unharmed during the liquidation; Spielberg then said that her bright red coat represented the obviousness of the Holocaust and how the Allied governments were aware of what was happening yet didn’t take any decisive actions in stopping it. I am not one for finding grand metaphors in an item such as a red coat, I think the scene is most interesting as a re-enactment of Schindler’s account,  however I’m sure many would.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski said that the film was shot in black and white so it would look ‘timeless’. I think the colouring achieved the desired effect, and I also think the film’s visceral edge and authenticity was achieved through the hand-held, shaky cinematography that would later work so well in Saving Private Ryan (1998). 

A great film will almost always have a great score, and it is no different with Schindler’s List as Spielberg once again found a masterful auditory companion in John Williams, whose beautifully melancholy score, particularly the central violin melody, has become instantly recognisable to many people.

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The depiction of the mass exhumation at Chujowa Górka (pictured above) is set against the backdrop of Immolation (With Our Lives, We Give Life), the stirring operatic vocals and chords of which make the scene almost apocalyptic. There is also notable use of Hebrew music, such as the ebullient Yerushalaim Shel Zahav and the haunting Oyf’n Pripetshek/Nacht Aktion. Even the trailer leaves a huge impression through music. ‘Exodus’, a work by the celebrated Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, has a brooding subtlety that emphasises the trailer’s ominous ambiguity, making its two minutes and twelve seconds most moving and unsettling.

Despite massive universal acclaim, the film inevitably had its detractors, most notably Stanley Kubrick, who said:

The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.’

Firstly, around 1200 were saved, not 600. Kubrick suggests that ‘Schindler’s List’ is somehow a sugar-coated account of the Holocaust, it certainly isn’t. It is a true story, Oskar Schindler really did save 1200 people, it isn’t a fanciful, maudlin figment of a screenwriter’s imagination. It is an emotionally affecting yet tactful depiction of both the systematic murder of scores of defenceless people and a complicated man’s remarkable act of humanity in the face of unimaginable suffering.

97%

 

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange

That iconic wide shot of the flatblock marina.

‘A Clockwork Orange’ is a deranged piece of required viewing that has entered the annals of popular culture.

I distinctly remember the first time I watched ‘A Clockwork Orange’. I was only 11-years-old and it was a rainy, overcast afternoon – perfect conditions for watching a film. I was aware of the film’s notoriety; I remembered my dad’s excitement when he managed to find a copy of it in France in the late 1990s, telling me that it had been banned by the director in our country.

Stanley Kubrick died in 1999, and sometime between then and 2004 a newly released English copy had been bought, presumably by my dad. With a certain degree of espionage, I managed to find the VHS and slip it into my all-in-one television and VCR player.

As soon as the stark red and blue colouring of the opening scene flooded the screen, I was captivated. The strange aesthetic and Wendy Carlos’ haunting Moog synthesiser soundtrack was unlike anything I had ever seen, I was utterly compelled by it and I knew I was watching something really special.

The film follows Alex and his three ‘Droogs’, a gang of amoral young men who spend their evenings beating, stealing and raping. Since my initial viewing all those years ago, I have realised that it was the terrific energy of the film’s first hour or so that gripped me as an 11-year-old boy. Yes, you’re watching the Droogs ‘tolchock’ and rape, however Alex’s completely unhinged life unravels on the screen with such vitality; it’s a thrillingly deranged trip that swiftly grabs and immerses its viewer like few films manage.

There is no other film that is quite like ‘A Clockwork Orange’. It is riddled with idiosyncrasies, with its gaudy costumes, futuristic interior design and particularly ‘Nadsat’, the Droogs’ esoteric language, some of which has since entered common parlance. It is also a film that truly feels British, particularly in its humour, which comes chiefly through the comments and sometimes rather slapstick actions of the eccentric central character. One of its foremost merits lies in Wendy Carlos’ wonderful score. It blends classical pieces such as Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Carlos’ Moog synthesiser renditions of  Beethoven and Baroque music including Henry Purcell’s March.

There’s no doubt that the film aestheticises violence and indeed glorifies the central character Alex DeLarge. Malcolm McDowell gives Alex an undeniable charisma that charms you, making him an antihero that you find yourself very much rooting for. During all of his nastiness he is never hateful, not in the slightest; he has that infamous sideways grin that’s menacing and amusing in equal measure. I consider McDowell’s iconic, oddball performance to be one of cinema’s greatest.

All of this, of course, poses something of a moral dilemma. As the film progresses, our charismatic antihero who has both charmed us and appalled us finds himself up against the government. What ensues appears to be somewhat dubious and confused in its stance and meaning.

Some may think the film advocates delinquency, but I disagree. The key to the film’s success is that it doesn’t give any definite answers; instead, it explores the complexities and difficulties of crime and punishment, presenting us with this dystopian vision of sheer state control. While Alex is certainly a great character, those who idolise him are far too impressionable to be watching the film.

‘A Clockwork Orange’ is a spectacular synthesis of absurd aesthetic, striking cinematography, innovative music and an exceptional lead actor supported by a strong, interesting cast. It is a piece of required viewing that’s entered the annals of popular culture.

96%

The Godfather (1972)

The Godfather

A twisting, dramatic masterpiece whose success relies on perfect casting and Mario Puzo’s excellent novel.

It’s hard to judge a film like ‘The Godfather’, especially for someone of my generation. Since its release in 1972, The Godfather has accrued a legendary status; it’s difficult to watch a film that is often touted as the best of all time with an open mind and no preconceptions. However, after watching The Godfather many times and reading the novel on which it was based, it’s clearly something very special. The film is a sprawling epic that rewards the viewer with a savagely twisting, multi- faceted plot. It’s a mobsters’ coming of age tale that’s laced with tension, deception, tragedy, violence and death.

Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is introduced on the day of his daughter’s wedding, a very special day in Sicilian tradition where the father of the bride is to deny no man a special favour. The beneficiaries’ utmost respect for the Don is illustrated in the opening scene, their displays of courtesy coming in the form of personal address and greeting rituals. The Don is a man of respect and principle, a man who puts emphasis on what’s fair, denying to avenge, for example, a father’s anguish over the rape of his daughter by means of murder – ‘That is not justice; your daughter’s still alive’.

In other circles however; the Don is not so respected. Vito Corleone is an old fashioned Don, what is referred to as a ‘Moustache Pete’; he is reluctant to delve into the business of drugs, unlike the contemporaries from the rival New York crime families. The Don’s refusal turns the relationship between the Corleones and many of the other families sour. It is how the ensuing violence is regarded as just ‘business’ that is the cold, harsh danger of the film. Its depiction of violence is visceral and often occurs when not expected. Rather quickly, the Corleone criminal empire falls apart; the next generation having to revitalise the family and reclaim their place at the top of the five families.

The film is probably the most perfectly cast in history. The primary characters of Vito (Marlon Brando), Sonny (James Caan), Michael (Al Pacino), Fredo (John Cazale), Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano) and Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) are all expertly interpreted from Mario Puzo’s magnum opus. The scores of supporting actors are also without fault. After reading the novel, it’s remarkable how faithfully envisioned the characters are in the film, which is thanks to a combination of uncanny physicality and astute interpretation.

The Godfather is a brilliant adaptation of Mario Puzo’s masterfully told story; the 1969 novel was written with such an authenticity that it almost seems like non-fiction in certain passages. I think it’s true that when one thinks of a gangster, they picture the omnipotent Vito Corleone sitting back in his chair, his glum face contemplating with that infinite sagacity and authority.

The Godfather is a true spectacle in both mediums; deciding which is best is a difficult task. The only aspect that I felt was stronger in the book was character development. The character of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is given greater depth in the novel; Michael’s transcendence seeming comparatively abrupt in the celluloid interpretation. The character of Luca Brasi is abundantly more powerful in the book, whom whilst is an ally of the Corleone family, is penned as an ominous villain with a dark, brutal secret.

The film, meanwhile, essentially depicts Brasi as an oaf. This depiction is understandable, Brasi is an old-timer who is firmly within a closing chapter of the Corleone family, however I was surprised by how markedly less intimidating a figure he was.  Additionally, many of the supporting characters are also given interesting back stories by Puzo, notably Captain McCluskey. Of course, that level of intricacy is possible in a novel, while a film could easily become bloated with such detailing.

Ultimately, ‘The Godfather’ is a film made by a highly talented crew who combined the seminal prose of a skilled author with brilliant direction, perfect performances, effective cinematography and the utterly beautiful, iconic music of Nino Rota and Carlo Savina to produce one of the best, well rounded and moving films ever made. It is a film that is wholly deserving of the term ‘required viewing’.

98%