”The man was real.” So declare the ads for Steven Spielberg’s movie of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 historical novel Schindler’s List. But as adapted by Spielberg and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer), how closely do Schindler‘s reels match the real man?
By Keneally’s account, Spielberg’s vision actually stints on Schindler’s beneficence by omitting some of the man’s most unabashedly heroic actions. For instance, he constantly risked exposure by securing illicit food for his ) workers. Moreover, Schindler’s salvaging of frozen, dying prisoners from a boxcar misrouted to his factory-camp was filmed but didn’t make the final cut.
On the other hand, philanthropist Schindler did even more philandering than the movie depicts. He kept a household where mistress and wife lived together (”He liked to have a nice, solid ménage à trois to come home to,” says Keneally), carried on a longtime affair with his secretary, and kept up a stream of one-night conquests, including a factory rendezvous with an SS Fraulein. When Schindler was discovered in this dalliance, Keneally says witnesses remember he was ”not abashed at all.”
At the end of the film, Keneally says, ”Spielberg’s Oskar is rather more unqualifiedly heroic than in the book.” There’s a focus and resolution in the filmic Oskar’s last scenes that seem at odds with the recollections of the Schindlerjuden Keneally has interviewed. ”A lot of the prisoners say that by the end of the war, Oskar was just about out of control,” says Keneally. ”He was traveling around with pockets full of diamonds doing [black-market] deals. He was deliberately running along an edge of risk because it suited his temperament. That factory-floor speech [bidding the guards and inmates farewell] didn’t [make the workers] misty, it made the hair stand up on the back of their heads. [Schindler’s]) getaway car was also stashed full of diamonds in the seats and the hubcaps, although if you show that, you’ve got to show that later they were all confiscated or stolen.”
It’s Keneally’s take that Schindler’s strongest motivation may simply have been the joy of scamming the biggest possible target — the Nazi extermination machine. Still, the Schindlerjuden seem to find the screen portrait perfectly faithful. ”I met one of the prisoners at the New York screening,” says Keneally. ”He’d been in Oskar’s camp a long time and he knew the ambiguities of Oskar, the contradictions. When I asked him if he thought Oskar wasn’t idealized too much at the end of the movie, he said, ‘No. What Oskar did was so remarkable, you can’t overdo the idealistic side.”’