30 November, 1993, represents the dividing point in the career of director Steven Spielberg. Prior to this, he was primarily a director of ebullient, exhilarating popcorn movies; since then, he has primarily been a director of largely serious dramas, with even his genre films tending to be more about investigating society than providing easy thrills. The break between these phases of his career is simply identified, for it was on 30 November that his 196-minute Holocaust drama Schindler's List premiered in Washington, D.C.

There's not another film in Spielberg's CV that comes with so much baggage hanging on it: the widespread certainty that it's his best film (an opinion I don't share) on the one side, the way that it has been used as the thickest club with which to beat up the director for his perceived faults as a sentimentalist on the other. There was Stanley Kubrick's famous judgment that "The Holocaust was about 6 million Jews who were killed. Schindler's List is about 600 Jews who weren't killed" (and bless his heart, Stanley was off by almost half - the number was upwards of 1100), and Shoah director Claude Lanzmann was downright apoplectic that something so trivial and saccharine could be summoned into the world eight years after his own self-appointed definitive masterpiece came out. 20 years later, it's still the easiest thing to find people who respond with feverish hostility to Spielberg's attempt to do something accessible and populist about the greatest moral crime of the modern age.

On the flipside, the film has also never shaken its media imposed narrative that it was the absolutely be-all and end-all of movies about the Holocaust, a perception that the director at no point attempted to dispute, and which he very well might have agreed with. Spielberg, of course, might be the worst major filmmaker in the world at understanding what makes his own movies work, and I must strenuously disagree with the idea that Schindler's List is the greatest film about the Holocaust (Shoah is certainly better, and so is Night and Fog), or even the greatest non-documentary (right off the top of my head, The Pianist is clearly more serious about its topic). It is a great film, one of the greatest of the 1990s, even, but not just because it is about the Holocaust, and it does nobody any good to pretend that it is somehow a world-changing exercise in that regard.

So let's play a game. Let's not start by wallowing in two decades of conventional wisdom, of fame and infamy, starting with what we already know Schindler's List to be, and look for proof that we're right; let's start with the movie itself, and try to figure out what it is from there. Because I must say, the first thing that the movie itself suggests to me is neither a pandering wallow in tacky sentiment slathered all over the gravest event known to history, nor the profoundest filmed exploration of the Holocaust yet made: it is a morality play about a craven bureaucrat finding his soul. Bureaucracy, at any rate, is the first thing that Schindler's List presents, long before it gets to to the Holocaust, or even its first named Jewish character: after a brief prologue that simply establishes a tone of reflection and Judaic ritual, the first thing that happens in the legitimate plot is watching the isolated moments of a man whose face we do not see assembling himself for a party, putting on his fine clothes, his costly accessories, and lastly, the punchline of a Nazi Party pin. Taken as a whole, this opening scene very efficiently and cleanly presents to us a man putting on Nazism with the same blitheness as his fancy cufflinks, and for much the same purpose: to impress people. And that is very much who this man, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), reveals himself to be: a glad-handling entrepreneur who sees the onset of World War II as an irreplaceable business opportunity, and the military officers of the Nazi Party nothing but the objects of his schmoozing, nothing but the cogs he must grease to ensure that his own money-making endeavors will be as untroubled as possible.

The film tracks this charming but merciless war profiteer as he determines how to use the worn-down, ghettoised Jews of Kraków, Poland as a cheap and anxious-to-impress labor force, allowing himself to be slowly, almost accidentally goaded into regarding them with fondness and a protective eye by his Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), until he finally reaches the point that he would rather drive his career and fortune into the dust in order to save as many of them as he can, making up a list of all the Jewish workers he can afford to "buy" from the particularly psychopathic SS Untersturmführer, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), in charge of the concentration camp from which Schindler's workforce had been culled.

Schindler, with his factory just outside Kraków, had a good opportunity to witness much of the persecution of Poland's Jews firsthand, and Schindler's List, over the course of its long running time, alternates between depicting his gradual transition from amoral man to savior, and showcasing several aspects of the Holocaust from the degradation of the Jews in the ghetto (including humiliation and summary execution), to the debased life in a camp, to the horror of the Final Solution, though since this is a story about 1100 Jews who didn't die in the Holocaust, the full depths of evil practice in Auschwitz and elsewhere are left mostly unexplored. As it is, Spielberg and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (this is, by a ridiculously lopsided margin, the best screenplay of his career), already get themselves into trouble by trying to include too much "Encyclopedia of the Holocaust" material in their film: the one completely spurious and ineffective scene in the film follows a group of women mistakenly routed through Auschwitz, sent to the showers, and washed off. It's one thing that this is unnecessary baggage in an already long movie; the real problem here is that, to dramatise a scene in the death chambers in his movie that's very specifically about people not dying, Spielberg is obliged to stage this non-fatal event in the language of a horror-thriller, and while from a purely mechanical standpoint, it's absolutely great filmmaking (the women's arrival in Auschwitz at night, with white "snow" - revealed at the end to be human ashes - falling against a deep black backdrop - is the most recnognisably Spielbergian moment in the entire feature), there's something immeasurably distasteful about something as real, and incomprehensibly inhumane, as the gas chambers at Auschwitz used as the "gotcha!" moment in a thriller sequence. There might be a film that uses horror imagery to depict the death camps and have it not come off as crass exploitation, but Schindler's List isn't built to be that film, and Spielberg wouldn't be the man to direct it, anyway.

One scene in 196 minutes is a pretty great track record, though (and I'm also counting the problematic epilogue as successful, I guess, as I don't really know what else to do with it). For the most part, the transition between "Schindler's character arc" scenes, and "the complete history of the Holocaust" scenes is done cleanly and effectively, and given the shape of his arc, Schindler makes a tremendously effective witness to the events of those years in that place. Allowing the criticism that The Story Of The Holocaust shouldn't be told from the perspective of a German, I'd counter that Schindler's List isn't The Story Of The Holocaust in any real way, and thank God for that - it's much better as something more like a fable of human behavior in the face of utter depravity and cruelty, one that is able to explore the Holocaust in a way that had never been done in mainstream pop culture before 1993. So it's the best of both worlds: a fascinating and deeply engaging human story married to a Very Important Lesson that, for once, actually manages to be largely instructive (and this, I think, is what someone like Lanzmann misses: that in order to make this story, Spielberg needed it to have a dramatic spine; Schindler's story is a hell of a good one; mass audiences wouldn't want to go to a unrelievedly death-focused Holocaust movie, but would go to an almost unendingly grim one if it had an uplifting ending; and nobody but film nerds will ever be persuaded to watch a 9-hour documentary, something I know from having attempted and failed to persuade many, many people to have a Shoah marathon with me).

Spielberg is never not a populist, and this ends up being a huge part of the reason that Schindler's List works: he's able to effectively condense things into easily-absorbed emotional beats that build up over the long term to have a profound cumulative effect. For something so damn long - it is, not by a small figure, the director's longest movie - it's epically efficient filmmaking, using emphatic, almost ironic editing (courtesy of Spielberg's ever-reliable collaborator Michael Kahn) to hammer meaning home in swift, sharp blows. It is not, to be certain, a subtle movie: there's almost a certain fatalism to the way that juxtapositions carry home meaning like hammer blows. But the Holocaust was not subtle, and refusing to treat it cinematically like it was is certainly a defensible aesthetic choice. See also the black-and-white cinematography, gorgeously severe and shot by Janusz Kaminski in the first of the many truly essential collaborations between him and Spielberg: the director's state decision for the choice was that, to him, the Holocaust was a deadening event that stripped all the life and "color" from the world, but it could just as easily be noted that the film is a series of visual extremes, contrasty with very little greyscale, and that it is literally in black and white and very little else. It's visually expressing a Manichean idea of morality - here is Good, and here is Evil. There is no mistaking one for the other. And since very little in human history better justifies a Manichean approach than the Holocaust, this works, almost unbearably well.

(At this point, an aside: the Little Girl in the Red Coat (Oliwia Dabrowska). One of the most contentious elements in the film, and one that, regrettably, I have no settled opinion towards. I'll say this much, if there wasn't just that one shot of her inside a building, still in red, I'd feel a whole lot better about her presence, since in every other shot we see her in color, it's from Schindler's POV, and in this regard she is a great element. Her first appearance is the moment where he's struck by the inhumanity, and not just the meanness, of the German's approach towards Jews; her second, as a corpse, is where he is so outraged that he commits himself fully to a path of righteousness. It would be better for the film if she were never otherwise seen, perhaps.)

Does Spielberg manipulate us? Of course he does, it's what he's best at. It is manipulation in the service of great moral truths, though, and I like that Schindler's List doesn't dance around its themes, but blasts them home with intense righteous passion. It's not even that it lacks subtlety as a character drama, for the way it sketches Schindler's growing awareness of his conscience is a tribute to both the director's and the actor's skill (it's Neeson's career-best performance, easily). I am particularly fond of the emphasis placed on the two times that Schindler is called "good", by a Jew: once at 40 minutes into the film, in thanks from a worker, once at 93 minutes, from a woman looking for help. In both cases, Neeson both delicately and broadly demonstrates Schindler's embarrassment and anger at hearing that word: the discomfort of a man who knows he isn't good, and that knowledge is the first step on the path that leads to his climactic, and often-parodied breakdown at the end. There's no moment in the whole film I feel more compelled to defend: it is syrupy and over-the-top, but it is that way only because it is completely unprotected and sincere: a film about a single man abandoning his careerist cynicism is itself the most sentimental and uncynical scene in the movie. It's easy to mock, because all mockery is itself cynical, and broad-strokes, I-will-make-you-cry filmmaking is the diametric opposite to such cynicism. It is the release valve being turned all the way open after hours of misery, and no matter how vividly aware I am that Spielberg, and the shameless, shameless John Williams score are demanding that I feel exactly what they mean me to feel, I also appreciate being given a piece of catharsis. No, the Holocaust was not cathartic, but as established, Schindler's List is not the Holocaust.

Less subtle and more in the realm of moral fable is the sparring between Schindler and Goeth, played by Fiennes in a devastating performance that, love Tommy Lee Jones as much as I do, is probably the single most ridiculous loss of an acting Oscar in the last quarter-century. It's a portrayal of evil that is at one unmodulated (there's nothing decent in the character's entire onscreen appearance), and thoroughly human - Goeth has feelings and sensibility, he recognises suffering, he doubts. His first line includes what I believe to be the first use of the word "fuck" in Spielberg's filmography. There's a scene where the editing nervily implies that the two men are each other's reflection (they're both shaving, and Kahn deliberately confuses eyelines in cutting between them), and this plays out in small ways throughout the film, as Schindler becomes aware of essential morality and thus leaves behind the pragmatic ideology he adopted, while Goeth uses a fierce commitment to ideology to deflect and flickers of morality he feels. A sufficiently eager symbolic reading could even position him as the devil tempting Schindler while Kingsley's Stern (a third truly great performance, but unlike the other two, not a career-best one) is the angel saving him, but I can't quite go there.

Still, I think that's the right register in which to appreciate the film best: with nuance, without subtlety, as a rich depiction of one man's struggle to moral awareness presented in bold, essentialist tones. Schindler's List is a furious movie, in which sharply-defined images batter us constantly, weeping violins lacerate us, and human behavior is presented in emphatic scenes that are so distinct in themselves (the narrative flow of the film is actually quite jumpy, when you stop and think about chronology and the links between consecutive moments) that it almost feels like a pageant. There's nothing about this that's meant to be clever, and like most of Spielberg's work, it is more anxious to engage with the viewer's emotions than thoughts. It does this with an impact rare even among his films, and clarity of purpose, and visual precision, all of which are enough to make it one of the essential films of its decade. Not so important socially as it thinks it is, perhaps, but even more important aesthetically and thematically, and no less necessary now than 20 years ago, 20 years before that, or 20 years in the future.