NEW YORK — FEW moviegoers would seriously question Steven Spielberg's skills as a film entertainer. He has crafted several of the top-earning movies of all time, and his name has become a household word for children of all ages.
What many moviegoers do question is Spielberg's depth and seriousness as an artist. Most of his biggest hits, from ``Jaws'' to ``Jurassic Park,'' resemble wide-screen video games - full of snap and crackle, but intellectually empty and emotionally thin. When he has tried his hand with an adult theme, as in ``The Color Purple'' and ``Empire of the Sun,'' he has approached his ambitious material with the same 12-year-old mind that presides over his emptyheaded blockbusters.
Which is why Spielberg's new movie, ``Schindler's List,'' is such an astounding and glorious surprise. Out of the blue, the childlike auteur of ``E.T.'' and the ``Indiana Jones'' epics has tackled the most challenging and troubling subject of our century -
the Holocaust in all its shock, terror, and misery - and endowed the story with a subtlety and resonance that have rarely been so much as hinted at in his previous pictures.
True, traces of his bad habits show through at certain moments, especially near the end, when a long and lachrymose scene plunges into Spielbergian sentimentality of the gooiest kind. But before that unfortunate point, ``Schindler's List'' serves up three full hours of brilliant storytelling that's as humane and compassionate as it is gripping and provocative.
Based on actual events as chronicled in a book by Thomas Keneally, the movie focuses on Oskar Schindler, a loyal member of the Nazi party and a cunning industrialist with a clever idea for making lots of money. Since his government has declared war on the Jews of Europe, seizing their property and subjecting them to escalating torments, he will start an enamel-works factory staffed with low-wage laborers from the Krakow ghetto.
This scheme works fine until Schindler's work force is moved from the ghetto to a labor camp - whereupon the wily entrepreneur draws on his Nazi connections and relocates his factory to the middle of the camp, where it now cranks out artillery shells to aid the war effort.
Snags arise in his operation now and then - when the commander of the camp indulges his fondness for murder by shooting at Schindler's employees, for instance, and when a trainload of ``Schindler Jews'' is inadvertently routed to the Auschwitz death camp. But generally the plan works out as Schindler intended, making him a wealthy and powerful member of the Nazi elite.
What nobody bargained on - including Schindler himself - is that the horror of the Holocaust would prove too appalling for even his well-developed psychological armor to shield him from its impact. Spurred by the events he witnesses every day, including the psychotic violence of the camp commander who has become his friend and confidant, Schindler slowly realizes that his role in the Third Reich could be very different from what it is.
He begins to rescue an occasional Jew from death or torture, not from heroic impulses but because he can't abide the sheer human waste of the Nazi atrocities. Eventually he finds himself as determined to save Jews as he earlier was to pile up profits. He also takes a perverse (and hilarious) pride in ensuring that his factory turns out artillery shells of the poorest quality, doing its part to hinder Germany's success on the battlefield.
It is Schindler's transformation that Spielberg has handled most surprisingly. No sudden inspirations or high-toned motivations are trotted out to account for the change in the Nazi's life. The reason for this may be that Spielberg has never been a strong developer of well-rounded characters, and he has simply failed to convey the causes of Schindler's conversion from profiteer to savior.
The movie's development is so absorbing and compelling, however, that I prefer to think Spielberg knew exactly what he was doing with this aspect of the story. Nobody can fathom the deepest levels of human personality, the filmmaker seems to be saying, so the movie would be false if it claimed to have all the answers to Schindler's regeneration. He was always an obsessive personality, and one day he changed the focus of his obsession from making money to salvaging helpless lives. That such a thing happened is inspirational enough in itself; no further moralizing or psychologizing is needed.
Spielberg's new restraint and maturity are felt in other ways as well. One is his decision to film ``Schindler's List'' almost entirely in black and white, even though today's audiences generally demand movies in color.
Again, a skeptic might suggest that Spielberg wanted to show off the importance of this project by giving it a veneer of austerity. But a more likely explanation is that Spielberg felt the horrors of Auschwitz would be unwatchable if color made them even more ghastly than they are in black-and-white images. The picture conveys the suffering of genocide quite vividly enough, and the impact of color might have proved a distraction rather than an enhancement.
Liam Neeson plays Schindler with probing intensity, getting excellent support from Ralph Fiennes as the concentration-camp commander, whose physical resemblance to Schindler is used by Spielberg to lend an additional layer of dark irony to the film. Ben Kingsley and Embeth Davidtz head the strong supporting cast.
* ``Schindler's List'' has an * rating. It contains many explicit scenes of death, violence, and suffering, as well as some nudity and sex.