Like no other film, Schindler’s List changes Spielberg not only as a director, but also as a person. For the first time, Spielberg confronts his Jewish identity and the Holocaust in one of his films. What Spielberg always feared in the anti-semitic suburbs of his childhood (and beyond) now comes only naturally to him: embracing his Jewish faith.
In his novel Schindler’s Ark, Thomas Keneally tells the story of several Jewish families between 1939 and 1945. They are saved from being murdered in concentration camps by the Sudeten German Oskar Schindler who hires them for “war-critical production” in his Krakow factory. The book is based on interviews with 50 of the 1,200 so-called “Schindler Jews”.
One of them is Leopold “Poldek” Pfefferberg. After the war, he makes it his life’s mission to thank his savior by communicating Schindler’s story to the world. As early as 1963, he tries to produce a biopic, but the project gets cancelled. In 1980, he meets Thomas Keneally and sparks his interest to write a book about Schindler. Spielberg later signs Pfefferberg as a consultant for the location shoot in Poland.
When Keneally’s novel is published in 1982 Universal studio boss Sid Sheinberg purchases the film rights for $500,000, with Steven Spielberg attached as director. However, Spielberg hesitates and nearly passes the project over to colleagues such as Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski and Billy Wilder, before he finally takes it into his own hands (encouraged by Billy Wilder). “I didn’t go to work on it right away because I didn’t know how to do it. The story didn’t have the same shape as the films I have made. […] I needed time to mature within myself and develop my own consciousness about the Holocaust.”
Spielberg’s decision to make the film is triggered by the growing media presence of Holocaust deniers and the rise of the neo-Nazi movement after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Spielberg waives his fee as a director and any profit sharing.
Screenwriter Steven Zaillian focuses on Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) and combines several people to create the figure of Schindler’s accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley). Spielberg adds more stories of Schindler Jews that he is told. “I wanted the story to be less vertical – less a story of just Oskar Schindler, and more of a horizontal approach, taking in the Holocaust as the raison d’être of the whole project. What I really wanted to see was the relationship between Oskar Schindler – the German point of view – and Itzhak Stern – the Jewish point of view. And I wanted to invoke more of the actual stories of the victims […].”
Spielberg avoids simple explanations for Schindler’s motivation to help the Jews, and put at risk his business and his life. He portrays Schindler in an ambigious constellation similar to Faust & Mephistopheles: torn between the life of luxury and liquidation, represented by camp commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), and his human conscience, represented by Itzhak Stern. His accountant eventually helps him to set up the titular list of persons that Schindler signs to work in his factory. Spielberg lets Itzhak Stern speak the famous phrases from the novel that are missing in Zaillian’s screenplay: “This list… is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its cramped margins lies the gulf.“
For the first time, Spielberg works with the Polish-born cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (and continues to do so in all his movies to this date). The two of them develop a cinematic language that has little in common with the techniques of Spielberg’s previous films and instead follows a documentary approach. To emphasize the authenticity of events, large parts of the film are shot with a handheld camera. Spielberg feels “like more of a journalist than a director of this movie. I feel like I’m reporting more than creating. […] I’m sort of interpreting history, trying to find a way of communicating that history to people, but I’m not really using the strengths that I usually use to entertain people.” „The authenticity of the story was too important to fall back on the commercial techniques that had gotten me a certain reputation in the area of craft and polish.“
Spielberg insists to shoot the film in black and white and categorically rejects advances by the studio to shoot the film on color negative (for a potential release of a color version). “The Holocaust was life without light. For me the symbol of life is color. That’s why a film about the Holocaust has to be black-and-white.“ In front of the black and white ghetto scenes, Spielberg can effectively employ his concept of the girl in a red coat: here, it is a symbol for life, but shortly after, Schindler and the audience discover the girl on a pile of corpses. The girl is a cipher, representing approximately 6 million murdered Jews.
Unlike Jurassic Park, the film he has finished just three months before, Spielberg directs Schindler’s List spontaneously – like in a fever – and abstains from using storyboards, creating up to 40 shots per day (the film wraps 4 days ahead of schedule). Some ideas emerge only a few hours before the shooting or on the film set. Amidst principal photography, Spielberg conceives a new epilogue in which we see the actual survivors together with their performers – building a bridge between past and present, reality and film.
Before the credits roll, Spielberg dedicates his film to Steve Ross. The philanthropist and CEO of Warner Communications has inspired Spielberg during the development of the film character Oskar Schindler: “Steve Ross gave me more insights into Schindler than anybody I’ve ever known. […] Before I shot the movie, I sent Liam all my home movies of Steve. I said, „Study his walk, study his manner, get to know him real well, because that’s who this guy is“. Ross supports Spielberg as mentor and – like Itzhak Stern – helps to turn a non-political showman into a mensch who is committed to contribute to a better world.
During the 72-day location shoot in Poland, Spielberg is drained physically, and pushed to the limits of his emotional strength. Kate Capshaw and his children rent a house near the set for the duration of filming, so they can give him support. Robin Williams calls Spielberg on a regular basis in order to cheer him up.
For Schindler’s List, film composer John Williams collaborates with famous violinist Itzhak Perlman (with whom he worked on the 1971 film adaptation of the musical Fiddler on the Roof). Williams creates a mournful score that remains one of his most cherished accomplishments. “When he showed me Schindler’s List,” says Williams, “I was so moved I
could barely speak. I remember saying to him, ‘Steven, you need a better
composer than I am to do this film.’ And he said, ‘I know, but they’re
all dead.’ ”
At the film’s release, the critics response is almost unanimously enthusiastic. Filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Lanzmann and Michael Haneke accuse Spielberg of using Hollywood techniques to depict the Shoah.
At the Academy Awards, Schindler’s List receives 12 nominations and is awarded in the categories Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. This is Spielberg’s first Oscar for Best Director. Brilliant actors Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes are nominated, but go away empty-handed.
No one expects the enormous audience appeal of the more than three-hour black and white film. At a budget of $22 million Schindler’s List grosses more than $320 million worldwide. All proceeds from the film are used for the Shoah Foundation. It is founded by Spielberg with the goal of providing an archive for the filmed testimony of as many survivors of the Holocaust as possible.