Today is a different sort of epic film. With a fairly large cast, including several major stars, it fits the scope part of the definition. With a length of over 3 hours, it also fits that part of the definition. Like every other Hollywood Epic I’ve looked at this month, it’s either based on historic events, or a major biblical story that over 1 billion Christians around the world (including myself), along with Jews and most Muslims, believe is a true story. That said, compared to the others, it actually had a relatively small budget for its time. Steven Spielberg directed two movies that came out in 1993: Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park. Schindler’s List had a budget of $22 million, while Jurassic Park’s budget was $63 million.
As varied, as storied, and as great as Spielberg’s filmography has been over the years, you could make a strong argument that Schindler’s List is actually his best. It earned 7 Academy Awards out of 12 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score (John Williams), Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction. It also received 7 BAFTA awards from 13 nominations, with most of the same equivalent category wins, except it won the Best Supporting Actor instead of Art Direction. I’ll get into that more when I get to the cast. It’s won numerous other awards from other institutes. It received widespread critical praise, earning a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 9.2/10. It was even added to the Library of Congress in 2004 as a culturally, historically or aesthetically significant film, when it was only 11 years old. Usually, films are only added into the Library of Congress for preservation when they’re several decades old.
Schindler’s List is definitely not the kind of movie you watch to be entertained. There are entertaining moments within the movie, but when the true story involves the Holocaust, it would be disrespectful to make this an entertaining film. Specifically, the movie focuses on the Schindlerjuden, the name given to the group of roughly 1,200 Jews who were saved by Oskar Schindler during the Holocaust. Although it doesn’t focus mainly on the horrors of the Nazi party’s genocide, it doesn’t hold back on its portrayal of the Holocaust’s brutal efficiency or its escalation.
The film’s backstory is long and complex. Poldek Pfefferberg, one of the Schindlerjuden, made it his life’s mission to tell the story of Schindler. He hoped to produce a biopic with MGM in 1963, but it fell through. It wasn’t until 1982, when writer Thomas Keneally published his historic novel, Schindler’s Arc, when the wheels really started turning. He personally met with Pfefferberg in 1980 during the writing process. Spielberg, who is himself Jewish, was sent a review of the book. Astounded by Schindler’s story, he jokingly asked if it was true.
“I was drawn to it because of the paradoxical nature of the character … What would drive a man like this to suddenly take everything he had earned and put it all in the service of saving these lives?”
He expressed enough interest for Universal Pictures to buy the rights to the novel. After meeting Pfefferberg, Spielberg promised that he would start filming in ten years. For that, Pfefferberg is credited as a consultant, under the pseudonym of Leopold Page. At the time, Spielberg didn’t believe he was mature enough to make a film about the Holocaust, and the project remained on his guilty conscience. He tried to give the project to director Roman Polanski, but Polanski refused. Polanski himself happens to be Polish of Jewish descent, who survived the Nazi occupation by pretending to be catholic. His mother died in Auschwitz, his father died elsewhere, and his sister managed to survive the camps. Polanski would eventually direct his own Holocaust drama, The Pianist (2002). Spielberg also offered the film to Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese, and Scorsese actually signed up in 1988. However, Spielberg felt unsure about letting Scorsese directing the film.
“I’d given away a chance to do something for my children and family about the Holocaust.”
They agreed to switch films, so that Scorsese took over the 1991 remake of Cape Fear instead. In that time, Billy Wilder expressed interest in the film, seeing how most of his family was murdered in the Holocaust, while he survived because his career in Hollywood had already begun, but by that point, Spielberg decided to take on the project himself after he noticed the rise in both Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Universal greenlit the film on the condition that Spielberg would also make Jurassic Park. Spielberg even declined his salary for the film, calling it “blood money”, but he was also worried that the film would fail at the box office.
Keneally, who wrote the novel, turned it into a 220-page script. He focused on Schindler’s numerous relationships, and later admitted that he didn’t compress the story enough. They hired Kurt Leutze to write the next draft, but he gave up 4 years later, finding Schindler’s change of heart too unbelievable. Steven Zillion was then hired to write the script during Scorsese’s brief time as the director. After Spielberg took over, he found the script too short, and asked Zaillian to expand it and focus more on the Jews of the story, and to make Schindler’s transition to be more gradual and ambiguous instead of a sudden breakthrough. He also extended the ghetto liquidation sequence, feeling that it “had to be almost unwatchable.”
Then relatively unknown Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon in The Phantom Menace, Al Ghul in Batman Begins, Barison of Ibelin in Kingdom of Heaven) auditioned for the title role early on, and was cast after Spielberg saw him perform in an Anne Christie Broadway performance. Neeson commented that Schindler probably enjoyed outsmarting the Nazis. “They don’t quite take him seriously, and he used that to full effect.” He also watched both clips of Time Warner CEO Steve Ross to work on Schindler’s charisma, and a tape of Schindler speaking, to help nail his performance. Although he didn’t win any major award show awards for his performance, he was nominated for a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and received several awards from critic associations.
Ralph Fiennes (Voldermort in Harry Potter 4 to 8) landed the role of Amon Goth, the film’s main antagonist, after he saw him in A Dangerous Man: Lawrence after Arabia. Spielberg spoke of Fiennes’s audition with,
“I saw sexual evil. It is all about subtlety: there were moments of kindness that would move across his eyes and then instantly run cold.”
Fiennes worked hard to make his performance as authentic as possible. He watched historic newsreels, spoke with Holocaust survivors who knew Goth, and put on 28 pounds to get closer to Goth’s physique. “I got close to his pain. Inside him is a fractured, miserable human being.” He ended up looking so much like the real Goth that when Mila Pfefferberg met him, she trembled with fear. Also for his performance, he not only was nominated for an Academy Award, but he won that Best Supporting Actor BAFTA award that I mentioned earlier, along with more awards and nominations.
Meanwhile, Ben Kingsley (The Mandarin in Iron Man 3, Ghandi in the movie Ghandi) easily got the role of Itzhak Stern, the Jewish accountant who helped Schindler run his businesses. He based his performance on Stern himself, factory manager Abraham Bankler, and Goth’s personal secretary/Holocaust survivor, Mietek Pemper. In real life, Pemper helped compile Schindler’s list, while Stern did that in the movie to simplify the cast a bit.
Other major cast members include Caroline Goodall as Emilie Schindler, Jonathan Sagall as Poldek Pfefferberg, Andrzej Seweryn as a high ranking SS official Julian Scherner, and in a brief role, Hans-Michael Rehberg portrayed the longest serving commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoss. Overall, there are 126 speaking roles in the film, and there were thousands of extras. Most of the cast were made of Israeli and Polish actors, specifically for their Eastern European appearance. Many of the German actors were reluctant to wear SS uniforms, but some of them later thanked Spielberg for what they felt was a cathartic experience.
Half-way through production, Spielberg conceived the film’s ending, where 128 surviving Schindlerjuden would pay their respects at Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem, alongside the actors who portrayed them in the film, in what is easily the most moving scene in the film. Neeson as himself laying a couple of roses on the gravestone to close the movie off felt special in its own right.
To make the film as authentic as possible, it was shot at the actual locations as often as possible. Many of the external shots were of the actual factories Schindler ran, while interior shots were at very similar factories. While they received permission to shoot at the actual Auschwitz, after the World Jewish Congress complained, they instead constructed a replica of the entrance. Spielberg found filming the movie very emotional, as the subject matter reminded him of the stories his grandparents told him, and the antisemitism he faced as a child. During a scene where older Jewish prisoners were stripped naked and forced to run, he found it very difficult to watch. While filming the Auschwitz sequences, he felt nothing but anger. There’s a shower scene as part of the Auschwitz sequence where several actresses broke down, including one who was actually born in a concentration camp.
Of the filming process, he thanked several people for helping him get through the 92-day shoot. His wife Kate Capshaw (Willie from Temple of Doom), and Robin Williams, who called Spielberg several times during the shoot to help cheer him up.
Spielberg shot a handful of scenes with German and Polish language to create a sense of realism, but decided against filming the entire film in those languages, feeling the subtitles would give the audience an excuse to take their eyes off the film’s disturbing visuals.
When John Williams first saw the film before he began composing, he was amazed, and felt it would be too challenging. He told Spielberg, “You need a better composer than I am for this film.” Spielberg replied, “I know, but they’re all dead.”
As for the film itself, as I said earlier, this is not the kind of movie you watch to be entertained. Sure, Neeson’s charisma as Schindler is often entertaining, especially when he clearly enjoys outsmarting the Nazis. But for the most part, this movie spends a lot of time focusing not only on the horrors of the Holocaust, but the evils behind it. Spielberg’s choice to make the movie mostly black and white was deliberate, using the lack of colour as a representation of the Holocaust itself. “The Holocaust was life without light. For me the symbol of life is colour. That’s why a film about the Holocaust has to be in black-and-white.”
Besides the ending that’s in full colour, the only colour in the movie comes in the form of a little girl in a red dress, during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. It’s meant to represent the child’s innocence, and the red blood of the Jews being murdered. Schindler later sees the girl’s body, only recognizable by the red coat. That moment is when the film’s Schindler changes his heart from an opportunist looking for cheap labour for his factories, to a man who wants to save as many lives as possible. Spielberg said that the scene is meant to symbolize how the United States government knew the holocaust was happening, but did nothing to stop it.
“It was obvious as a little girl wearing a red coat, walking down the street, and yet nothing was done to bomb the German rail lines. Nothing was being done to slow down … the annihilation of European Jewry. So that was my message in letting that scene be in colour.”
What’s interesting is that there actually was a little girl in the ghetto known to wear a red coat, but unlike the girl in the movie, she survived because she and her mother escaped the ghetto and hid with a Polish family. She’s still working as a writer today … and happens to be Roman Polanski’s cousin. The girl who played the character, Oliwia Dabrownska, was three at the time of filming. Spielberg asked her not to watch the movie until she was 18, but she watched it at 11, and found it horrifying. When she later saw the film as an adult, she felt proud of her involvement with the film.
As hard as this movie can be to sit through, it’s brilliant from start to finish. Neeson nails the role as Schindler, an industrialist who starts off focusing on cheap labour to make an easy profit with his factories, focusing mainly on highly skilled Jews. He’s charismatic in the role, he’s entertaining, and his dramatic performance after his change of heart is on point. The final scene where he breaks down, regretting that he didn’t sacrifice more to save more lives, is heart wrenching. Fiennes also nails his role as a sadistic camp commandant. You believe it when he indiscriminately kills prisoners, beats his slave maid, and orders the elderly prisoners to be publically humiliated. Yet there’s a touch of regret in his performance, as if deep inside he knew he was evil.
As the movie goes on, the brutality increases, mirroring how the Holocaust grew worse with time. The Auschwitz sequence is short and doesn’t show the worst of the death camp, but its shower scene is intense in its own right. You spend most of the scene not knowing whether or not the group is getting gassed. The movie features a fair amount of nudity, but the vast majority if it is completely non-sexual, and only increases the sense of dread. That said, the hardest sequence to watch is the liquidation of the ghetto. It’s a 15-minute sequence that includes people getting executed on the spot, Jews scrambling to hide whatever valuables they can, and execution squads gunning down anyone who managed to hide during the initial emptying.
I made the mistake of watching this on a night where I worked the next day, and found it hard to sleep that night.
Despite worries that Schindler’s List would not be profitable, it ended up earning $322 million on its $22 million budget. It did particularly well in Germany, as it was viewed by 100,000 people in its first week alone from only 48 screens. It was eventually expanded to 500 screens, and earned $38 million in Germany alone.
Schindler’s List is far from the only film about the Holocaust, but it’s the most effective one I’ve seen. I’d go so far as to say it’s an important film to watch at some time – just make sure you don’t need to wake up early the next day. The saddest part about Schindler himself is, not only did he risk his life in multiple ways, not only did he give up his entire fortune saving over 1,000 lives, but he was never successful after that. He spent most of the rest of his life split from his wife and relying on financial support from the Schindlerjuden. He died of liver failure in 1974. On the bright side, he was given the biggest honour possible – he’s the only member of the Nazi party to be buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
Next month, I’ll be looking at four Bruce Willis movies, to celebrate the recently retired actor. I’ll go into the reasons he retired next week, but for now, I plan on looking at a variety of his roles. I haven’t decided on everything yet, but at least two of the movies I’ll be watching are movies I haven’t seen before.