Schindler’s list

Steven Spielberg’s ordeal and rebirth

Cult. On the occasion of the masterpiece’s comeback, in restored version, let’s focus on a high-risk experience from which the director barely emerged unscathed.


By Philippe Guedj

Twenty minutes. On two hour HBO documentary called Spielberg, dedicated in 2017 to the director’s career, Schindler’s List takes 20 minutes. Well ahead of the genius’ others films. The gap says a lot about the decisive dimension, to the eyes of the director, of his career’s most controversial film, during which the man of Jaws litteraly burnt and resurrected. While the 25th anniversary of the film is celebrated through his comeback in theatres, last March 13 in France, in restored version in 4K, we’ll always try to figure out if Spielberg commited a moral mistake with the Schindler’s list, just like Claude Lanzmann, Shoah documentary’s director (1985), said.

According to him, in a significant opinion column in Le Monde published on 13 March 1994 (Holocaust, impossible representation), how could his American colleague pretend “depicting what was the Holocaust telling the story of a German who saved 1300 Jews, since the huge majority of Jews was not saved?”. Far more benevolent, twenty years later, towards the terrifying Son of Saul, directed by Lazslo Nemes (2015), whom he considered as the “anti-Schindler’s list“, Lanzmann still blames Spielberg for adding unbearable Hollywoodian trappings to the Jews’ extermination by the Nazis, betraying the memory and truth of this tragedy. Raging debate.*

Seeing Shindler’s list again today, especially in the light of the sad revival of anti-semitic facts in France and everywhere, doesn’t help deciding. But we can never take away Spielberg’s emotional power and sincere vision, his directing’s pared-down perfection, the educational content of his film (we still remember these Americans coming out from the theatres, back to these days, astounded by the vision of something horrible they could never have imagined). And finally, the huge personal courage of an artist risking to lose it all.

The commitment was radical for the 47-year-old director who lived a tough ordeal of 72 days during the shooting, in Poland, in March 1993. Born in an Orthodox Jewish family coming from Central Europe, with several members who died in death camps, Spielberg has known anti-Semitism in deep America, during his teenage years in Phoenix, Arizona. Excluded from several mates because he was a Jew (memories he evokes in the HBO’s documentary), he ended up almost forgetting his identity growing up- “I just wanted to fit in and being a Jew, back to these days, meant I couldn’t fit anywhere”. When in 1982, his former mentor in Universal, Sidney Sheinberg, gave him the book Schindler’s list written by Thomas Kenneally, convinced the young Steven has to make a film out of it, the director has given up on his religion for a long time. But he devours the book and ends up being stunned by the true story of Oskar Schindler, German manufacturer who saved in 1943 hundreds of Jews who escaped the deaths camps working for him in ammunitions’ and enamel’s factories. Spielberg buys the rights for the book but, depressed to the idea of adapting it himself, he tries to offers the job to several of his colleagues: Scorsese, Polanski, Pollack… But they all rejected. It took ten years of reflexion before the entertainement’s king, who progressively tackled more serious subjects with The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, took the plunge. Or it was rather a baptism of fire, a true torture for the creator who entirely reinvents himself. Facing all the doubts: those of Universal, those of his colleagues (included his friend Stanley Kubrick), those of journalists and his own doubts.

A demanding shooting

But his religious wedding with his second wife Kate Capshaw in 1991 and the awakening of anti-Semitism in Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall feeds the director with a new creative strength. It’s hardly a luxury. Produced for 22 million dollars, Schindler’s list remains today his most demanding personal experience. The shooting, starting in cold and snowy Cracow and then around Auschwitz (and not inside the camp, like the Polish government offered), almost causes him a depression. Overtaken by the subject’s seriousness, the harmful atmosphere on the set and reconstitution of one of the script’s most awful scenes, Spielberg confronts his old demons. His shots of elimination of Cracovie’s ghetto leave him morally worn out and he regularly finishes the day crying in Capshaw’s arms, who came on set with their children.

On the morning, the team discovers swastikas tagged on the set. An article in L.A Times reveals that in the hotel where the extras are staying, one of them was a Jew and was violently taken to task by an old man who asked him what was his religion and then imitated a hanging while insulting him. As he witnessed the scene, Ben Kingsley (aka the accountant, Itzhak Stern in the film), gave the swine a good hiding. Ralph Fiennes (unforgettable in the role of the terrible SS officer, Amon Göth), wearing his character’s outfit between two scenes, was also the victim of the awful comments of a passer-by, nostalgic of nazism. Extras burst out crying, two of them ended up depressed. “Even the good days were sad” Spielberg confessed later, even though Robin Williams regularly tries to cheer him up on phone.

The boss’ days finish, late at night, with tough call-conferences with ILM who finalizes Jurassic Park‘s numerical effects, shot before at Universal’s request. The blockbuster with dinosaurs, released in June 1993, is the symbol of “the former Spielberg” because Schindler’s list forces the director to rethink completely his methos. Collaborating for the first time with director of photography Janusz Kaminski (emigrated in the USA in 1980), Spielberg thinks black and white is essential in order to immerge the audience in the documentary dimension of the film. The absence of colours (except a handful of key scenes including the final scene, set nowadays, in Israel), allows to ease the trauma induced by the most unbearable scenes.

It’s precisely one of the most serious reproaches made by Spielberg’s detractors, the fact he tries to solve an impossible equation between realism and a relative mental “preservation” of the audience. Black and white also serves Oskar Schindler’s characterization, who progressively  moves out of the shadows and into the limelight as he turns into a saviour. Unlike what he’s used to, the director films from the shoulder, without any storyboarding in order to guarantee the film’s spontaneity. A long time after the shooting, Spielberg will have to make long breaks on editing table, next to his accredited film editor Michael Kahn, depress by several scenes.

Spielberg wants to throw in the towel


Despite the price to pay, the director comes out of this experience stronger, even though it could have meant the end of his career in case of failure. Exhausted by all the shots, he considered quitting directing for a while. Seven Oscars (including the one of the best and best director) and 321-million takings later, but especially thanks to a positive critic on the whole in spite of controversies, Steven Spielberg is reassured enough not to hang up his camera. The film’s receipts, which he directed without receiving any fee, allowed him in 1994 to pay for the creation of a Foundation to the memory of the Holocaust, dedicated to receive a thousand of survivors’ testimonies.

After Schindler’s list, nothing will never be the same for the director, who regularly dares facing other History’s wounds, from Amistad to Lincoln, and also Saving Private Ryan, Munich or The War of the Worlds (his SF parable of post September 11’s trauma). Even though he takes popcorn films up again sometimes (Tintin, Ready Player One…), Spielberg recently confessed, during the projection for the film’s anniversary in Tribeca’s New York festival in April 2018, that none of the films he made had brought him as much pride as Schindler’s list.

The huge 3-hour masterpiece remains, 25 after his release, a bottomless object of cinema, darkened by only few flaws… Like the famous “shower scene”, suggesting the gassing of the frightened deportees, whereas only water comes out of the shower heads. Was it necessary to make Schindler’s list? The question doesn’t need an answer. But, beyond that, it’s a devastating humanist breath which is really the matter of this film, whose final scene, with a harrowing violin’s melody composed by John Williams, makes us cry everytime.

* In an interview to Le Monde in 1998, Spielberg claims that “no film, included Schindler’s list, no documentary, even Shoa, can properly depict what the Jewish world in Europe had endured and survived to. My feeling was that I needed to talk about it, or at least try. I have failed in a certan way, just like Claude Lanzmann, Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel.”