The initial skepticism surrounding Steven Spielberg's directorial undertaking quickly dissipated when Schindler's List, an alarmingly powerful and affecting tale of an unlikely German-Czech industrialist who manages to save 1,100 Jews from the Nazi death camps, hit theater screens late in 1993 during the holiday season. In March of the following year, Spielberg won an Academy Award for "Best Director" and Schindler's List went on to win "Best Picture." But the climb to capture the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' most prestigious award – Best Director – has been a long (twenty years) and arduous one for the "wunderkind" filmmaker, whose 15 films to date have grossed more than four billion dollars worldwide, making him the most successful filmmaker of all time.
It is not as though Spielberg hadn't tried to capture this top Oscar before, especially when he turned to directing serious dramas like The Color Purple (1984) and Empire of the Sun (1987), both of which were based on novels, or his remake of A Guy Named Joe, an old black & white love story that he updated and retitled Always. But it was clear from these films that Spielberg was trying to find his way with his new literary directions. Film critic Brian D. Johnson noted in MacLean's that "Spielberg's attempt at serious drama… [has] been disappointing." And so the idea of a Holocaust story as told by "Hollywood's emperor of escapism" was, for that reviewer "at first glance, alarming," since "reality has never been [his] strong suit."
The Schindler project actually began in 1982 when Sidney Sheinberg, MCA/Universal's president, bought the movie rights to Thomas Keneally's novel with Spielberg in mind. But he wasn't ready to make it, because "in '82 I wasn't mature enough," Spielberg told Newsweek in 1993. "I wasn't emotionally resolved with my life. I hadn't had children. I really hadn't seen God until my first child was born."
Novelist Keneally was the first to create a screenplay based on his own book, but when he produced nothing shorter than a mini-series, the project was turned over to screen writer Kurt Luedtke, who penned Out of Africa. After three years of diligently working on Schindler's List, however, Luedtke gave up. At various times the project was considered by such notable directors as Syndey Pollack and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom brought in writer-director Steven Zaillian, who made Searching for Bobby Fischer. It was Zaillian who successfully transformed Keneally's novel into a workable screenplay. By then, Spielberg had decided to direct Schindler's List after filming Jurassic Park. Spielberg was quoted in a Newsweek article by David Ansen as saying, "[Making Schindler's List] was a combination of things: my interest in the Holocaust and my horror at the symptoms of the Shoah again happening in Bosnia. And again happening with Saddam Hussein's attempt to eradicate the Kurdish race. We were racing over these moments in world history that were exactly what happened in 1943."
A number of critics, including Johnson, intimated in their reviews that Spielberg's choice in directing Schindler's List was highly unusual, considering his previous dramatic attempts. But Spielberg had consistently tried since 1983 to rid himself of his "shark and truck" director's image when he alluded to "turning to the written word" in his acceptance speech upon receiving the Irving G. Thalberg Award in the mid-1980s. But nothing could have been more "non-Spielbergian" than Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple: a stark and brooding story of an abused black woman named Ceilie who finds love, and ultimately her self-worth, in a lesbian relationship. By contrast, Schindler's List was much less of a stretch for Spielberg, who by now realized that his previous cinematic style, noted by Donald R. Mott and Cheryl M. Saunders as "Spielbergesque," was perhaps incompatible with most serious types of dramas. Spielberg had to discard his usual style of filmmaking in favor of something more congruent to the visual mood of the story, a style that would be dictated by the material itself. The end result in Schindler's List, therefore, is a much restrained and subdued film than any of Spielberg's previous works, something that was imposed partially by the black and white cinematography – noted by Johnson as "both appropriate and haunting" – and the documentary style that Spielberg occasionally employed throughout the film, engendering critic Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic to comment, "To this end he often uses newsreel angles and newsreel cutting. Yet, he is not hand-heldnutty: where a panorama is needed – Jews in a long street assembling for deportation, Jews in a (seemingly) mile-wide file coming over a great field toward liberation – he understands how to present it and leave it alone."
If Schindler's List was considered unusual material for Spielberg, it was because he was making yet another film about the Holocaust after the stunning documentary Shoah and the TV mini-series "Holocaust." It seemed as though Spielberg was treading on familiar territory, and the big marketing question was whether audiences would be receptive to yet another film about the Nazi's extermination of the Jews. Kauffmann clearly supports Spielberg's choice of material when he wrote, "Presumably there are at least some people who have never seen a Holocaust film and may see this one because it's by Spielberg and [it] will have mainstream promotion." In Newsweek, Jonathan Alter defends Spielberg's subject by citing an interesting fact from film history: "For all the hundreds of movies employing World War II themes, the strange truth is that until now no major feature film has unflinchingly faced the horror of the Holocaust itself."
Schindler's List was also unusual in that the controversial hero was both a German Christian and Nazi sympathizer whose life before and after the war remained relatively uneventful, further complicating the real reasons why Schindler risked his life and newfound wealth for his doomed Jewish employees. Mark Miller reported in Newsweek that when Schindler was asked why he did what he did after the war, he tersely replied, "I had no choice." Sometime later, he told former prisoner Moshe Bejski, "If you saw a dog going to be crushed under a car, wouldn't you help him?" Liam Neeson, the actor chosen to play Oskar Schindler, is quoted in a Time article by Richard Corless as saying, "I still don't know what made him save all those lives. He was a man everybody liked. And he liked to be liked; he was a wonderful kisser of ass. Perhaps he was inspired to do some great piece of work. I like to think – and maybe it comes across in the film – that he needed to be needed."
Schindler's List ranks as one of Spielberg's greatest achievements in his growth and development as one of America's leading contemporary filmmakers. His choice of Irish actor Liam Neeson to play the lead "inhabits… Schindler with the authority of a round voiced, juggernaut con man," said Kauffmann. Ben Kingsley plays the role of Itzhak Stern (a character that was a compilation of several of Schindler's Jews), the Jewish accountant who Schindler saves from a condemned group of Jews to run his enamelware factory. Johnson described Kingsley's performance with the words, "Quietly brilliant," while Kauffmann offers an interesting aside: "Actors who want to study the basis of acting – concentration – should watch Kingsley." The only other major character in the film is Commandant Amon Goeth, played by English actor Ralph Fiennes, whom David Ansen of Newsweek observes, "finds fresh horrors that owe nothing to Hollywood clichés … the insecurity that Fiennes finds in the character makes him all the more frightening." And Johnson adds, "Fiennes gives the movie's most crucial performance, capturing the human psychology that permits genocide."
Spielberg's weaving of these three atypical characters together within the framework of the Nazi terror is nothing short of remarkable. Schindler's List begins at the start the Holocaust, at which point Oskar Schindler is introduced wining and dining the Nazi brass for favors. Eventually he moves to the center of the action when he sets up the enamelware factory with Stern, and later when he begins his so-called "friendship" with Commandant Goeth.
What unfolds on the screen for the next three and a quarter hours is a striking portrait of a most unusual man undertaking the most frightening risks imaginable amid the sheer terror, brutality and ugliness of the Nazi war machine. In Alter's article, he reprints what survivor Elie Wiesel had previously written: "How is one to tell a tale that cannot be – but must be – told? I don't know." Filmmaker Steven Spielberg knew exactly how.
Release Date: 1993
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle, Embeth Davidtz, Malgoscha Gebel, Shmulik Levy, Mark Ivanir, Beatrice Macola, Andrzej Seweryn, Friedrich Von Thum, and Krzystof Luft
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Steven Zaillian
Source Citation: Mott, Donald R. "Schindler's List." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 1071-1074.