From the EW archives: How Steven Spielberg brought Schindler's List to life
This article originally appeared in the January 21, 1994 issue of EW.
The cold could snap bones. And for the actors filming the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp scenes during their first weeks on location in Poland, the work itself was a chilling business that tore them out of their own place and time and engulfed them in nightmarish history. In one horrific scene, 300 naked actresses in shorn wigs crowded into an Auschwitz shower and were told to stare up at the menacing nozzles. As Jewish prisoners just transferred into the death camp, they were supposed to appear unsure if the fixtures would produce water or gas—if they were meant for cleansing or for killing.
Their tears were real. Israeli actress Miri Fabian held a young girl close. She herself had been born in a concentration camp and had not yet told her mother that she had taken the role. The tension was unbearable. She had trouble breathing, then began hyperventilating, and was barely able to finish filming the sequence.
Other Auschwitz scenes played out against similarly haunting visions of hell. One member of the company recalls ”guard dogs going mad everywhere, huge burly guards with whips, chaos, blinding snow, a red haze coming from the chimney stacks.” And this was just the beginning. For the next two and a half months, Steven Spielberg, directing with precise, singular vision, led the cast and crew of Schindler’s List to the heart of the Holocaust’s horror. ”I said to myself, ‘How can I bring truth to these impossible images?”’ Spielberg admits. ”There wasn’t even an attempt to alleviate the sadness. Constantly, every week, somebody would lose it.”
Miraculously, the finished work brings audiences to the same awful place, securing Spielberg’s position as perhaps the nation’s preeminent filmmaker. He is a front-runner, alongside The Piano‘s Jane Campion, for the Best Director Oscar, an honor that the Academy has begrudged him so far, placating him only with 1986’s Irving G. Thalberg Award for his work as, ironically, a producer. Schindler‘s very existence is a victory against astounding odds. It took a decade to adapt journalist Thomas Keneally’s sprawling 1982 novel for the screen—and the film’s tight schedule required Spielberg to edit his other 1993 triumph, Jurassic Park, from Poland early last year. This month, Schindler’s, which has made an impressive $10 million in limited release, opens in more than 250 theaters, with more to come—a heartfelt monument to an event so ghastly that it stands oceans away from the reaches of art. This is the story of how Spielberg, an entertainer until now associated with soaring flights of fancy, hunkered down and bridged that gulf.
Steven Spielberg, 46 and known to brood on occasion, has lately been cheery in a way that befits a director who has new critical esteem to go with four of the 10 biggest movies in history—Jaws (1975), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), and Jurassic Park (1993). Standing outside his Amblin Entertainment office at Universal Studios in jeans and sneakers, his salt-and-pepper beard matching long hair unfettered by his usual baseball cap, he greets Marvin Levy, Amblin’s marketing consultant, who offers glad tidings.
The National Society of Film Critics has just given Schindler’s Best Picture and Spielberg his first Best Director honor this year; other groups had chosen Campion. ”Great! Wonderful! This means we’ve swept all five critics’ groups!” Spielberg says with a grin.
When Schindler’s List was published, Spielberg had recently finished E.T., mining his boyish nightmares and fantasies to great effect but earning a reputation as the Peter Pan of filmmaking. MCA president Sidney Sheinberg brought the novel to Spielberg’s attention. The story, a moving record of what happened to 1,100 Polish Jews—the Schindlerjuden—whose lives were saved when German war profiteer Oskar Schindler ”bought” them as factory workers to spare them from the death camps, intrigued Spielberg. After scanning one review, he recalls saying to Sheinberg: ”It’ll make a helluva story. Is it true?”
Keneally himself had been talked into writing the book while standing in a Beverly Hills leather-goods store, waiting for a credit-card authorization from the proprietor, Schindler survivor Leopold Page (born Poldek Pfefferberg). Page had first helped sell Schindler’s story to MGM in the 1960s. The studio hired Casablanca coscreenwriter Howard Koch to work on the film, but the dubious character of Oskar Schindler—a womanizing, boozing bear of a man who profited from the war by employing Jews—may have made his story a difficult sell. The project was dropped and lay dormant for years before Spielberg decided to take it on.
Page, 80, insists that from their first meeting, Spielberg knew he would do the movie. ”When I met him,” he recalls in thickly accented English, ”I asked him, ‘Please, when are you starting?’ He said, ‘Ten years from now.”’ But as those years passed, Page worried that he wouldn’t live to see the film.
”Schindler’s was on my guilty conscience,” says Spielberg. ”Page was heaping on the fact that he was going to die.”
Like Schindler’s motivation for saving his employees, Spielberg’s reluctance to take on the project was both spiritual and pragmatic. He gave the project to two other directors, Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese, before tackling it himself. ”He didn’t think he was ready,” explains the film’s screenwriter, Steven Zaillian (Awakenings, Searching for Bobby Fischer). ”He didn’t have kids yet. He had to come to terms with his Jewishness. He kept putting it off.”
Spielberg wasn’t the only one who doubted his abilities. Australian director Fred Schepisi (Six Degrees of Separation) implored him not to do it, warning him that his big-studio gloss would be the film’s downfall. ”Give it to me,” he told Spielberg. ”I don’t think you have the courage to not use the crane and dolly.”
”Survivors would come up to me in Poland and say, ‘What a strange choice,”’ recalls Spielberg, ”and I’d have a sinking feeling in my heart, (worrying that) the world wouldn’t accept Schindler’s List from me.” Now, as he sits cross-legged in a soft armchair in his office, the fear has fallen away. Spielberg leans forward and boasts: ”There is not one crane shot!”
While Spielberg was making other films, the Schindler’s script was proving no easier to crack than it had been two decades earlier. Keneally himself took the first pass, writing a 220-page tome that was more miniseries than movie. “In my draft, Schindler had relationships with a whole range of people,” he says. “I didn’t coalesce the stories enough.”
Unhappy with Keneally’s lack of focus, Spielberg next hired ex-journalist Kurt Luedtke, who had won an Oscar for Out of Africa. Luedtke labored for three and a half years before giving up, unable to conquer his own doubt about the heroism of Schindler, who had begun his Moses-like mission merely as a way to make a buck. “As a reporter,” says Spielberg, “he had some journalistic conflicts about not believing the story.” Spielberg then handed the project to Scorsese. “I thought Marty would do a great job with it,” explains Spielberg. “He wouldn’t back down from truth or violence. But the minute I gave it to Marty, I missed it. I’d given away a chance to do something for my children and family about the Holocaust.”
So the two directors worked out a trade in which Spielberg handed Scorsese a project he’d been developing — Cape Fear — and reclaimed Schindler’s for himself. Back on the film, Spielberg read the script Scorsese had commissioned from Zaillian. At 115 pages, it was strong but “too contained” and without enough Jewish faces, says Spielberg. “I didn’t tell the story from the survivors’ point of view,” says Zaillian, “but from Schindler’s. I wanted it clear that he didn’t do what he did out of friendship. He didn’t feel sorry for them. He did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Spielberg kept asking Zaillian to add more material and treated him to a field trip to Poland for inspiration. “By the time we were done, we had 195 pages,” says Zaillian, who originally penned the savage liquidation of the Jews in the Krakow ghetto — some of the film’s most brutal scenes — at only two pages. Spielberg insisted on stretching the evacuation into a grueling episode that ultimately took three weeks to film. “He thought I had lost my mind,” recalls Spielberg. “But really, I felt very strongly that the sequence had to be almost unwatchable.”
While some critics have faulted Schindler’s List for telling its tale from the Germans’ point of view, Spielberg knew how he wanted to present the story. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to go all the way into The Diary of Anne Frank, where we’re telling a detailed portraiture of a family in hiding. It wasn’t the story of eight Jews from Krakow who survived — it was a conscious decision to represent the 6 million who died and the several hundred thousand who did survive with just sort of a scent of characters and faces we follow all through the story.”
As he developed the script, Spielberg waged a quiet battle with Universal. The studio was concerned that he was making an apparently uncommercial project even more difficult. He knew he wanted to shoot the movie in documentary-style black and white with Polish emigre Janusz Kaminski (The Adventures of Huck Finn) as his director of photography. Universal chairman Tom Pollock begged Spielberg at least to shoot in color and then transfer to black and white, so the studio could eventually release color videocassettes. The director refused. “It would have looked like pink and white,” he says. Disputes over how to tell Schindler’s story were just as intense.
“The studio, of course, wanted me to spell everything out,” says Spielberg. “I got into a lot of arguments with people saying we need that big Hollywood catharsis where Schindler falls to his knees and says, ‘Yes, I know what I’m doing-now I must do it!’ and goes full steam ahead. That was the last thing I wanted. I did not want to bring in a Camille moment, some kind of explosive catharsis that would turn this into The Great Escape.”
Finally, MCA’s Sheinberg gave Schindler’s List the green light on one condition: Spielberg had to film Jurassic Park first. “He knew that once I had directed Schindler’s I wouldn’t be able to do Jurassic Park,” says Spielberg. (He does plan to produce, but not direct, a Jurassic sequel.) As casting began, Spielberg first focused on the character of Itzhak Stern, a composite of several of the men who ran Schindler’s enamelware company while the boss pursued women and good relations with the Nazis. “Stern whispered in Schindler’s ear,” says Spielberg. “He’s the unsung hero.” The role went to Ben Kingsley, the Oscar winner for 1982’s Gandhi and the biggest name in a non- American, nonstar lineup.
As Nazi commandant Amon Goeth, the film’s emblem of evil, Spielberg cast Ralph Fiennes (pronounced Rafe Fines), whom he had seen as Heathcliff in a little-seen remake of Wuthering Heights. South African actress Embeth Davidtz was handed the role of Helen Hirsch, the reluctant recipient of both Goeth’s and Schindler’s odd affections. Spielberg cast Israelis, many of them children of survivors, for the key Jewish speaking roles and used local Catholic Poles for the remaining Jewish faces.
While Spielberg had tested Irish actor Liam Neeson at the start of the casting process and had spurned interest from Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson, it wasn’t until December 1992 that he firmed up his choice. After seeing Neeson on Broadway in Anna Christie, Spielberg went backstage with his wife, Kate Capshaw, and her mother. Overcome by the performance, Spielberg’s mother-in-law met Neeson, who put a comforting arm around her. As they were leaving, Capshaw turned to Spielberg and said, “That’s what Schindler would have done.”
When the Schindler’s company arrived in Krakow in February, the punishing Polish winter welcomed them with temperatures of 15 below. “Nobody complained about how we were suffering from the cold,” says cinematographer Kaminski, 34, who hadn’t returned to Poland since he left 12 years ago, “because our suffering was so little compared with what the actual prisoners were subjected to.”
But their reception was cold in other ways. A clash with the World Jewish Congress over Spielberg’s request to film inside Auschwitz-Birkenau wasn’t resolved until Spielberg proposed an ingenious compromise: A train would be backed into the camp and then be shot emerging into a mirror replica of Auschwitz’s interior that had been built just outside the actual camp. And during their stay in Krakow, the filmmakers were welcomed with anti-Semitic symbols scrawled on local billboards. One night, Kingsley and a friend were unwinding at the bar in the Hotel Forum, a hangout for the cast and crew. “Good night, Jew,” a middle-aged German businessman said to Kingsley’s friend. Kingsley lost his temper, screaming at the man until crew members hustled the offender off the premises.
Meanwhile, Spielberg was fighting his own shooting schedule. Some days, he and Kaminski filmed as many as 55 setups, often with a handheld camera. Screenwriter Zaillian, a novice director who had just completed his first film, Searching for Bobby Fischer, recalls the process with amazement. “They were shooting fast, with a cool, unsentimental, matter-of-fact approach. On one shot, the camera pans over to catch something. The first three times it didn’t quite catch the action completely.” Spielberg simply decided to continue, imperfections and all. “Okay,” he said, “let’s move on to the next one.”
“Actually,” says Neeson, “Steven’s direction on Schindler was a bit like Woody Allen. We didn’t know how he was going to shoot a scene. You just had to be prepared in not being prepared.” In fact, many of the film’s most important shots were mapped out at the last minute. Just before filming the pivotal scene in which Schindler persuades Goeth to let him remove 1,100 of his prisoners to safety, Spielberg shouted to Neeson, “I know how to do it! You’re going to be outside, and I’m going to be inside with the camera on you, and I’m gonna just keep the camera steady and you walk into the shot and walk out again. The scene is so important I’m going to throw it away.”
“He wanted it to not be perfect,” says Zaillian. “It was a catch-what-you-can style of filming, which is just as hard to do as to plan out every shot.”
If the crowning achievement of Schindler’s List is its authenticity, credit may belong to the Schindler Jews who offered their own experiences to the filmmakers. Page, who accompanied the cast and crew, recalled masquerading as a recruit when he realized that the Germans were shooting every Jew they caught hiding during the Krakow ghetto annihilation: “I told them I had been ordered to clear the road. They started to laugh. An order is an order. They had time to kill me later. I was among the last 40 to get out of the ghetto alive.”
Among the other survivors who lent their memories was Nuisa Horowitz, who as an 11-year-old factory worker was kissed by Schindler — an offense that briefly landed him in jail. Horowitz’s story became the basis of a scene in which a family presses its diamonds into bread and then eats them during the liquidation of the ghetto. And Page pointed out the actual bluff from which Schindler, on horseback, watched the SS officers attack the ghetto. “There’s only one place that Schindler could have parked his horse to watch,” Spielberg says with visible enthusiasm. “A lot of it I just got from witnesses who came back: ‘Oh, this didn’t happen over here, this happened over there!'”
Another survivor told of the Plaszow prisoners pricking their own fingers and coloring their cheeks with blood during a horrifying endurance test in which prisoners were forced to run naked to prove their health-and sent to death camps if they were judged too sickly to work. Spielberg pushed verisimilitude to an obsessive level when he asked for volunteers to prick their fingers; two agreed to do it. For the health sequence, he paid all the extras who were required to run naked double the California extra-day rate of $65 — more than the average monthly salary in Krakow.
To give the audience one last dose of realism, Spielberg decided to fly 128 surviving Schindlerjuden to Jerusalem to appear in the film’s final sequence, in which, following Jewish tradition, they place stones on Schindler’s grave. Since the idea for the sequence came to Spielberg midway through filming, his production team scrambled to import the survivors. The night before Spielberg filmed the coda, the actors met their real-life counterparts at a party at the King David Hotel. “We had such a time that night,” says Neeson. “It was wonderful to hear all these anecdotes from all these people, little gems of stories about what somebody did for somebody one day, nothing horrific.” Former prisoner Henry Rosner, who had once played his violin at Goeth’s villa, played once again, and Spielberg sat surrounded by Holocaust survivors. “He was so exhausted he wasn’t sure he’d get through the evening,” says Caroline Goodall, who plays Schindler’s wife. “But I’ve never seen him look so happy.”
On cue, Spielberg can rattle off the number of shooting days for all of his films. (E.T.: 60; Hook: 125). Schindler’s List, with its 126 speaking parts and 30,000 extras, came in at 71 days — about the same as Jurassic Park — and $23 million, about a third of Jurassic‘s cost. This was the good news. The bad news — at least to Universal — was that the film originally ran close to four hours. Cutting the film to a just-releasable 3 hours, 14 minutes became an ordeal. Kaminski and producer Gerald Molen miss the gruesome delivery of a boxcar full of frozen corpses to Brinnlitz, Czechoslovakia. “It was a striking visual,” says Molen. And Neeson lost his favorite scene: a game of 21 between him and Goeth for Goeth’s maid, Helen Hirsch, that is only implied in the final cut.
“We did this amazing game,” says Neeson, “and he shot it wonderfully, turning over the cards. As Ralph studies the cards, I’m looking at him with loathing. It shows the lie that Oskar has been living.” Spielberg, however, dismisses the scene as “too Hollywood. It was The Cincinnati Kid. Everything that reminded me of another movie I cut out of Schindler’s List because I made a career of reverberating my past in my films, if not flagrantly, then subtly. I knew by the fourth setup that the scene was too entertaining and it would be cut. I did not,” he adds, “want this to be a Hollywood story in any way.”
At Wometco’s Shadowood 12 theater in Boca Raton, Fla., manager Morrie Zryl, a child of Holocaust survivors, tells each audience not to be surprised if some among them cry and sing during the movie, and that anyone whose relatives were victims or survivors of the Holocaust should sign the scroll in the lobby. There are now 18,000 names. They are being sent to Spielberg. “I was relieved to find that survivors seemed to like it,” says Keneally. “They find it cathartic.”
Although the movie has won almost unanimously admiring reviews, there are notable voices of dissent; a review in the Forward, an influential Jewish newspaper, lambasted Spielberg for hailing a Nazi hero while depicting Jews as ineffectual victims. Still others, including Keneally, have been put off by the apocryphal climactic scene in which Schindler breaks down before making his getaway at the end of the war, crying for the Jews he could have saved if he had tried harder. In fact, Schindler disappeared quietly into the night, his car packed with jewels. “It was absolutely necessary,” insists Spielberg. “He’s not speaking for himself, he’s speaking for all of us, what we might do someday.”
These days, Spielberg is spending time with his wife and their five kids (one each from their first marriages, two together, and one adopted), overseeing the production of three Amblin films as unlike Schindler’s List as possible — The Flintstones, The Little Rascals, and Casper, the Friendly Ghost — and weighing what to direct next. Going back to making conventionally commercial pictures may prove difficult — while Schindler’s may have been liberating for Spielberg, it did require him to change. “The whole idea was that if I made a real good chair the same way all my life and everyone feels comfortable sitting in it, it’s kind of tough to suddenly build a car,” Spielberg explains. “My intuition led me to conventional choices, so I used a lot of mind over instinct.”
At least one instinct paid off: The first scene in Schindler’s List came to Spielberg toward the end of filming, when he was shooting a Sabbath prayer sequence at Brinnlitz. It is a tight shot, in color, of two candle flames. “That gave me the idea to start the film with the candles being lit,” he recalls. “I thought it would be a rich bookend, to start the film with a normal Shabbes service before the juggernaut against the Jews begins.” When the color fades out in the film’s opening moments, it gives way to a movie in which black-and-white tendrils of smoke convey unspeakable horror as they curl from the ovens into the stark sky. Only at the end do the images of candle fire regain their warm luster. They represent “just a glint of color,” says Spielberg, “and a glimmer of hope.”