In 1993 Steven Spielberg scored with two critical box-office smashes: Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. Both are very different films, yet both affirmed Spielberg as an innovator, showman and as an adventurous filmmaker. Spielberg never hid the fact that he would rather make a commercial film that everyone saw to an art film that no one saw. However, with Schindler’s List he achieved both with spades. He was also to achieve his first personal success at the Oscars with twelve nominations and seven Oscars. With Jurassic Park he made dinosaurs come alive using some impressive CGI (rather than the rubber mechanical creature used in Jaws, 1975) and with Schindler’s List he envisioned the horrors of the Holocaust in an impressive way. Of course this was not without detractors. Claude Lanzmann, the director of the epic nine hour documentary, Shoah (1986) was one who felt that the film distracted from the real horror of the Holocaust. For some years I worked as a guide taking people on tours of the Third Reich in Munich, Bavaria and Dachau. Many of my colleagues and people who worked closely in interpreting the history of the Third Reich would be hard on Spielberg’s film in that it built the image in people’s minds eye of how the Holocaust was. Yet for me, Spielberg did an excellent job in portraying that horror, even if it was packaged as mass entertainment. By 1994 Spielberg ruled supreme both as a filmmaker and an artist with one of the most successful films of all time.
But the genesis of Schindler’s List was not a moment of inspiration that he churned out in a couple of years, but rather was a project that gestated for many years in his mind. It began with a book written by Thomas Kennally who had met one of the Schindler children in a shop in LA, a story that immediately struck Kennally. The story Leopold Page recounted to Kennally was how as a Jewish child in Poland under Nazi occupation he was forced to work in a Nazi labour camp and then in the factory of a German industrialist in Krakow that enameled steel ware she and 1200 others were spared certain death by the factory’s owner, Oskar Schindler. Schindler had felt those pangs of guilt so rare amongst Germans and Austrians at the time and did what he could to save his Jewish workers and their families while still trying to appease the authorities. The book Kennally wrote became the Booker Prize winning novel, ‘Schindler’s Ark’. When Steven Spielberg read the novel he bought the film rights as early as 1982 but did not think himself as yet a mature enough filmmaker to undertake such a project. Asides from the sentimentality and schmaltz in many of his films and often comic book stories of the Indiana Jones films and ET it took, as he put it “many years to develop his consciousness on the Holocaust.” He did not approach this lightly.
The finished film is instinctual, emotional and for the most important it was not just right to be historically accurate but also shocking. He took the very conscious decision to shoot it in black and white in a classical and romantic Hollywood style. The opening shot panning round a smoky dance hall focuses on Schindler in his sharp suit emblazoned with a Nazi party badge, itself carrying a great deal of aura about it and Liam Neeson as the imposing looking industrialist looks every bit like a Hollywood movie star and deliberately so. Spielberg chose Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to shoot the film and capture that romantic Hollywood style and there is almost a documentary look to the filming. Spielberg’s direction of many of the scenes shot – not least of all the clearing of the ghetto in Krakow as the SS clear the ghetto with aggression, gunfire, murder and dogs has a shockingly realistic appearance. Although the film carries many sub plots throughout its three hours of the film with many peripheral characters, the film largely focuses on the relationship between Schindler, the cruel SS commandant of the labour camp of Krakow-Plaszow, Amon Goeth (brilliantly played by an overweight Ralph Fiennes) and Schindler’s secretary, Itzhak Stern (played by Ben Kingsley). Of course there is much in the way of artistic license played out by the films scriptwriter Steve Zallian and much of the story has been condensed, Spielberg managed to counterpoint this with much in the way of accurate detail. For example Goeth’s villa overlooking the camp was actually shot at the site of a neighboring similar villa to the Goeth lived in, other scenes were shot at Schindler’s actual factory in Krakow (now a museum to Schindler) and outside of the gates of Auschwitz; Spielberg was denied permission to film in Auschwitz by the World Jewish Congress and therefore made the outside of the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau stand in for the imposing Death Camp. Nor too is Schindler spared a character assassination. He is initially presented as a womanizing war profiteer at the start of the film before converting to the savior of Jews towards the end.
Many scenes in the film are shocking, from the clearing of the ghetto to the burning of the corpses, or the ash falling from the sky and the cold brutality of the SS. I remember on first viewing the film at the cinema in 1993 how it stunned me to silence and how it still impresses today. Where it can be criticized is maybe for its flashes of sentimentality, such as the little girl shot in black and white, but with a tinted red mac who finally ends up unceremoniously dumped on a funeral pyre with the countless other nameless bodies or Schindler’s breakdown towards the end for not saving more by selling his wedding ring or his party members badge. But whatever its shortcomings it was a film that brought the consciousness of the Holocaust back into the minds of millions. But Spielberg did not end his fascination for the subject with this film. For those who doubted the director and movie mogul’s motivation for making the film, he has continued this project with his Holocaust Archive Project in association with the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC in which he has documented oral histories from survivors of the Holocaust on film. Much of this project is being drip fed to publications which have found its way into bookshops of former concentration camps and museums, as well as the Holocaust Museum in Washington and in this way Spielberg has taken a long hard look at his heritage as a Jew in a project that proved to be his most emotionally draining film making experience to date.