It's certainly been a while since I've seen it, but I'll stand up as a Schindler's List defender. Do I have to list as a disclaimer that I find Night and Fog more formally interesting and Shoah more intellectually challenging? Or is that disclaimer unneeded?
The first criticism usually levied at Spielberg is that this isn't the right story to tell about THE HOLOCAUST. This isn't the story of the Holocaust, however; it's the story about Oscar Schindler and this group of Jews that were rescued from the Holocaust. Yes, the story of survival against a horrific outside force is not the story of the Holocaust itself, but in true auteurist fashion it's the story that Spielberg likes to tell. In this case, it was a factual event. There will never be a story of the Holocaust; it's simply too monumental.
Another criticism is that all the Nazis are too evil. Ironically, the protagonist is a member of the National Socialists. Schindler is not wholly evil. He's a political bureaucrat. One of the most widely acknowledged aspects of the Holocaust's uniqueness was the bureaucracy of Nazism. Schindler as protagonist ranks with 2001's Conspiracy in showing the important position the bureaucracy held.
Schindler's List shows one person attempting to subvert the bureaucracy. This isn't done in some jokey way, as in Brazil, it's shown to be worthwhile, but not all-encompassing, which is how it should be depicted. It's very clear that Schindler can't save the world, which is the purpose of the much derided final scene. Of course, in a world of kapos and politicians, as seen in literature such as Maus, trading a piece of bread often meant the difference between life and death.
How do bureaucrats, then and now, lord over people's life? That question centers on the politics of power, which, in my view, is the point of the Ralph Fiennes character. The "pardoning" scene explores the temptation of power. Even this particularly vile Nazi can be tempted to save a life if it fits his ego. Although, rightfully in the scene, killing shows more control than supposed empathy. This isn't as in depth as Christopher Browning's excellent book Ordinary Men, but Fiennes isn't the same Nazi as would be found in Indiana Jones.
As for the criticism that the Jewish characters are minimized, Ben Kingsley does an excellent job fleshing out his character, and for a story about Oscar Schindler's journey called Schindler's List, Spielberg does spend time on the peripheral Jewish characters. At the end of the film, during the actual movie, the Jews march to Israel and are given focus to their names and faces. You wouldn't find that treatment for peripheral characters in any other narrative film. The most moving scene in the film is the liquidation of the ghetto in which the plight of the Jewish characters is the primary action. Schindler watches on in order to continue his dramatic arc, but the horror of the scene for the Jewish characters is palpable.
The words "dramatic arc" may ring hollow, but this is indeed a narrative. If you want Night and Fog, just leave the theater. Surely, the form is a manipulative one, but I think Spielberg gets unfairly targeted. Many of the favorite films on this forum are melodramatic narratives. Is Grand Illusion (the film, not me) not melodramatic at parts? Does its form negate any statement it makes? How about any Mizoguchi film about women?
Drama is Spielberg's preferred medium, and, since Duel, his strengths are in showing the magnitude of a threat while keeping the emotions (not necessarily the intellect) grounded on a personal level. Spielberg is great at making the audience imagine what they would do in the construction of the scenario, precisely because of his flawed protagonists which he describes as "Mr. Everday Regular Fella," echoing the title of Christopher Browning's book.
Regarding the girl in the red dress, nitpicking the technology of the effect is just that. Do you know how many bumpy dolly rides we forgive? How many scratched film prints? How many botched stunts? The girl is individualized by her dress. If she was given full character development only to be killed off, the accusations of manipulation would be flying. Again, people ask for a film about THE HOLOCAUST. This is not that film, although by attaching our sympathies to a single individual girl, we are, indeed, manipulated when she dies. But for the greater effect, we are meant to think about this one girl and then extrapolate that feeling to all of the greater masses. It's particularly effective because the girl is not given a characterization. The effect works because the girl is personal, yet synecdochal for a greater number of people.
Another criticism is that the film has nothing to say. Of course the ending may be the most expressly political of all of Spielberg's works, but there are two things that prevent it from being seen as such. First, the clear Zionist message ("Where are we supposed to go?") given by the film is seen as a separate issue, completely divorced from the events in Poland and Germany. And second, the message may not be kosher with many of the left-leaning film critics. Much like his masterpiece Munich, Spielberg's true political reasoning (and possibly the raison d'etre of the entire project) is left until the end.
Schindler's List is not the definitive statement on the definitive industrialized catastrophe of the twentieth century. It is not THE Holocaust film, even if it is made by today's most popular filmmaker and master of melodrama. It's a powerful, and flawed, dramatic narrative that thematically deals with bureaucracy, deal-making, ghettoization, and European anti-Semitism. It successfully places the viewer in a variety of survivalist situations. It will never be the only Holocaust film. The Holocaust doesn't need one story, it needs a tapestry. Schindler's List is a more-than-worthwhile companion to pieces like Conspiracy, Lacombe, Lucian, Night and Fog, and Shoah.