The Director's Chair Interviews

Shindler's List: An Interview with Steven Spielberg
by Susan Royal
Inside Film Magazine

Click here for Steven Spielberg films, books, and soundtracks

If you are the world's most commercially successful filmmaker - having directed and/or produced seven of the 20 top-grossing films of all time, and your last film Jurassic Park recently became the world's biggest boxoffice success of all time, knocking off the previous record-holder, E.T., another one of your films - what do you do next?

In a major departure from the family-oriented adventure themes for which he is most famous, Steven Spielberg takes on the staggering task of filming a serious biographical drama set against one of the darkest periods in human history - the Holocaust.

After more than a decade of preparation - which included a personal reawakening of his Jewish faith - Spielberg was ready to shoot the film he feels he was destined to make.

Eschewing any traces of sentimentality or what he refers to as his "Spielbergian" impulses, he looked into the heart of his subject and didn't blink. The result is a personal triumph for Spielberg and a mesmerizing experience for moviegoers. Schindler's List is a major achievement for a man who has already achieved so much.

The Holocaust occurred only 50 years ago and yet there are those who deny its existence. In fact, Schindler's List was given Britain's prestigious literary award, the Booker's Prize, for fiction.

Keneally thinks that's one of the most overlooked ironies - that his book won for fiction, not non-fiction. And he was quite amazed at their findings. Perhaps it was because the book was based on interviews and the words "based on" have some sort of stigma.

But the book was written in an almost documentary style, with Keneally reporting all sides to the story.

That's what I liked about the book. And that's why I wanted to do the film, because it was not just another Holocaust story.

Were you shocked at the amount of anti-Semitism you found still in Poland today? There were several reported around the set.

No, I had expected it. It was actually less than I thought would happen and I was prepared for more incidents than we encountered. But they were incidents nonetheless. And every one was shocking. Nothing happened to me directly, but things happened to my cast, my crew, and I would hear about it the next morning.

Before the war there were some 60,000 Jews in Krakow; they comprised 25 percent of the population. Today, there are less than 500.

Yeah, Hitler killed all of 'em. He just killed everybody.

Do you think the anti-Semitism in Poland was so strong that to this day Jews have not wanted to return to Poland?

Yes, because, look, Krakow has been both the bastion of Jewish culture in Poland and anti-Semitism for centuries. The Jews invited the wall around their ghetto to protect them from Polish citizens that they would often have to do business with. They looked upon the walls as a fortress against anti-Semitism and against all sorts of personal, emotional atrocities. Well, when the Nazis came along the Jews willingly went to the ghetto because that was their lot in Polish life. They expected it, they were protected by it, and they felt relatively safe because the Nazis suggested the walls go up. And the Jews were very comfortable. They thought you get into the ghetto and you'll be able to have Jewish culture. They didn't understand that there was a script that had been written for them with a very defined ending.

Your research went beyond Keneally's book.

I interviewed survivors, I went to Poland, saw the cities and spent time with the people and spoke to the Jews who had come back to Poland after the war and talked about why they had come back. I spent more research time on this project than I had on any previous film, but of course my films were never based on anything that actually happened. So, I was enthusiastic about going to Poland. I needed to go for inspiration. I only knew Schindler's List from the novel and now I wanted to know it from the survivors and from the actual historical landmarks. So, I went there for that reason. And I came back as excited as I've ever been about a subject that doesn't excite me, but pains me. I always knew these things happened, but it's different when you actually see the sign "Pomorska Street," and you know all the horrible things that happened on Pomorska Street, but there's the sign and there's Schindler's actual apartment, there's Amon Goeth's actual villa where he stayed. And to touch history, to put my hand on 600-year-old masonry, and to step back from it and look at my feet and know that I was standing where, as a Jew, I couldn't have stood 50 years ago, was a profound moment for me as a re-creator of an incident in history; it meant more to me as a Jew. So, I went there the first time to research a movie and wound up researching my own Judaism.

When was that?

That was three years ago.

How did your association with [producer] Branko Lustig come about?

He came to us. He sought us out. He said, "Here are my credentials," and rolled up his sleeve and there were the numbers from Auschwitz. He said, "I have been pursuing you for a long time and you're a very hard man to get to meet. I want to produce this movie. I know these people. I know these individual stories, and I think I can be of great benefit to you." And he absolutely was. One of the best decisions I've made was to reward his persistence because he turned around and awarded the story with great authenticity. For example, he found me some of the best faces among the extras.

It's always hard to adapt a novel, but were there any particular difficulties adapting this one?

The difficulty was what we couldn't use because we just didn't have time to use it. That's the only difficulty. The novel sort of suggested a progression, because it was what happened. I just had to, with Steve Zaillian, find a way of taking the novel, and not so much distill it, but just find all the moments that moved me the most and were the most informative. In the process of Schindler's almost transparent transformation from a businessman to a savior, the novel didn't give me those clues. It didn't tell me why Schindler did it. And none of the witnesses could tell me why Schindler did it, even though I asked everybody I met. And they all said, "It's not important why he did it, it's only important that he did." There were a lot of easy answers like that. The novel was suggestive, but it wasn't essentially a point-to-point map of how to tell the Oskar Schindler story. I was really telling the story about the Shoah, which is really what the movie sets out to do and does.

It seems that women had more influence over him than men. Although Itzhak worked beside Schindler every day and tried to influence him to help the Jews, he resented it. He said, "Don't ever do that to me again," when Itzhak brought him the one-armed man. Yet, when a woman - a stranger, Regina Perlman - pleas for him to take in her parents, he commits his first act of generosity in the film.

Yeah, that's right.

Even though he gets angry and goes to Itzhak and defends Goeth immediately, we see that he is only trying to convince himself not to help her.

Yes, yes, yes. It's true. That's the area in the film where he makes his biggest transformation. Absolutely true.

And in the next scene Helen Hirsch tells him more about the dark side of Goeth and he is moved by her. So it appears that it was the women who were able to get through to him.

Yes. He loved women. He loved women and I think he was much closer to his mother than he was to his father. He thought women were madonnas to be respected and to be upheld. And, really, almost like deities. He had a great deal of respect - and I think he was afraid of women, too. I think that underlies a lot of it. But they were a very important part of his life, women. He just wined them and dined them and took them to his bed and took them into his confidence. I related to that because I have very close relations with women throughout my own life and my company. I have a strong mother, heads of my company are women and I've always had this very strong identification with anybody who collaborates with women in a professional way, as I do.

You basically end Emilie Schindler's part of the story by having her come to Brinnlitz and Oskar appearing to be faithful to her after that.

That's a whole other story, by the way, worthy of a film. Emilie Schindler made amazing contributions, especially in the medical area. I'd actually shot more scenes that involved Emilie. But once again, it didn't play into the themes, you know, and didn't play into the central theme of Oskar Schindler. But she made great contributions, and he was unfaithful to her, of course, all his life. Even after the Holocaust. Basically abandoned her. But she came back to be with him. She was a very righteous Christian Catholic woman.

She calls him Herr Schindler.

Yeah. She has a great sense of humor. And if it weren't for her sense of humor, she never would have come back. I think she had a sense of humor about him. She says at one point in her documentary, "I could have done something if it had been one or two women, but there were hundreds. How do you fight that?" And she says it with a laugh.

The film is over three hours, yet that isn't long enough to tell all the individual stories from the book. For example, the Max Redlich incident in which the Nazis made everyone spit on the Torah and then shot them anyway.

It was an incident that didn't tie any of the principal characters into it. It was like another Holocaust story that didn't have anything to do with the Oskar Schindler story. It was a great Holocaust story, but I can tell you a hundred Holocaust stories that do not relate to Oskar Schindler. This didn't have any direct connection to anything but what the tenor of the times was and what it felt like to be in Krakow during that time. It just didn't feel like it was part of the story. There are many moments like that throughout other writings and witness testimony about the Holocaust that are just shocking. But I didn't want this to be an exploitation of the Holocaust. I just needed to follow Schindler's story.

The film has a feeling of authenticity that you could never have duplicated by shooting anywhere other than where these events occurred. Which actual sites were used?

We had the interior and exterior of Schindler's apartment and the interior and exterior of his offices at the factory. We had the interior of SS headquarters and the interior and exterior of the prison. Most every place was authentic. We only had to reconstruct the camp, Plaszow, because Plaszow was a huge 50-foot monument in one direction and a modern skyline in the other direction, so we couldn't shoot there at all.

So, you built that nearby.

Right next door, in an open pit.

There was a lot of media coverage about your attempts to shoot inside Auschwitz/Birkenau and the resistance you met with. In the end you just shot right outside the gate, right?

That's exactly true. It was just outside the gate house, which is exactly as it looks from inside Birkenau. And we just simply showed the other side of the gate and walls, looking back in. That worked fine.

Do you think Schindler would have behaved differently if he hadn't made his fortune? He was so obsessed with that goal - if he hadn't achieved it, would he have still undergone his transformation?

I think the overwhelming events of the final days of Plaszow and his workers' lives superseded any money considerations at all. He used all that money to buy the shells in Brinnlitz. That took a lot of money. And he spent that money without looking for contracts. He didn't borrow money from Jewish investors; now he was the only investor. He invested in the factory as a safe haven, knowing that his factory wouldn't make any money, because he was determined to make shells that could not be fired from guns. And therefore, I think, it was a gigantic confidence game that paid off. It was a sting operation against the Nazis, and he brought his Jews safely to Brinnlitz, knowing that every single Reichmark he spent on that factory and on the food for his workers was simply money that was non-productive. And that's when I think he came the full length of his decision. He got to the other end of his humanity when he did this. And then it was just a matter of maintaining the con game so nobody would catch him... saving lives, saving Jewish lives and Schindler's own life as a result.

Goeth suspected, didn't he?

He suspected, but Goeth was fascinated with Schindler. He just was fascinated with him.

That's a great character, played by Ralph Fiennes.

Yes, he's an English actor from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

He does what the best actors do when they play really evil guys - he manages to get inside of him and think of himself as a fine person.

Yeah, exactly. Goeth did think he was a fine person. Even his widow thought he was a fine person. His girlfriend, Majola, thought he was a fine person.

Right before the move to Brinnlitz, Schindler sees the exhumations taking place. In the film he immediately decides to use his money to protect those people. Did it actually happen that close in time?

Yes, it did. But probably there was no one particular moment where Schindler was transformed. I think Schindler had a view of himself after the Holocaust that celebrated his image as a rescuer from Day One - not Year Three, but Day One. And Schindler, kind of blew up his own publicity. When he was interviewed by German television decades later, in the late '60s to early '70s - before his death in '74 - Schindler said that he was always out to save the Jews because he knew that heinous crimes were being perpetrated against the Jewish race and he wanted to do something about it. Now, I and a number of other witnesses don't believe it was that simple that Schindler ran a confidence game from the first day, while he ran a money-making operation that made him one of the richest factory owners in Krakow. He took a lot of that money and he greased a lot of palms, he threw a lot of parties, and he made a lot of people very happy by offering them perishables - black market goods that were impossible to get other than through people like Oskar Schindler - and he ingratiated himself into the lives of very important, high-ranking SS colonels and officials. But he did this, in my opinion, like any good businessman would, for himself. And for those truckloads of money he had dreamt about all his life. He didn't necessarily do that for the Jews in the beginning.

The stories of the individual survivors are fascinating. Clearly Rabbi Levartov was meant to survive - he was bulletproof.

He was meant to survive, because he went through the most indignant, indecent humiliation of all. But he was meant to survive to tell the story. The Schindler Jews were meant to survive to tell their stories. Because people don't make Holocaust movies in Hollywood. And maybe we'll see in a couple of months why they don't make Holocaust movies in Hollywood. (laughs) But they don't. They've made many more Westerns than Holocaust movies.

I was able to flex my muscles and use everything I've learned over the years to make this story and to me it was all worth it. I don't often flex, you know - but if I am gonna show my muscles, this was the time to do it. I knew that in 1982 when I read the book, but I wasn't really ready to make the movie 11 years ago. But all these things sort of happened. A lot of this is Kismet, you know. Schindler was meant to happen. What motivated this character to do this? That's important. But I agree with most of the Jews who have told me themselves that what was really important was that he did it, not why he did it. I have been searching the way the characters in Citizen Kane searched for the meaning of Rosebud. I have been searching for the meaning of Schindler for over a decade now. And I am no closer today, having made the movie, to discovering it than I was when I first read the book.

It's far more interesting to the story that he wasn't a saint to begin with. He has so much further to go, starting out as someone who could socialize with and count Nazis as friends.

Yes, than say, a Wallenberg.

Yes. His main operating basis was, "Everybody has their price." That's a cynical outlook.

He was very cynical about that, because he knew that during war, everybody's on the take. When war comes, two things happen - profits go way, way up and all perishables go way, way down. There becomes a market for them. And he was in the best of both worlds. His stock was going way up because he was supplying the Wehrmacht with pots and pans and all sorts of enamelware, and people were coming to him with their hands out because they couldn't get all the scarcities that they were accustomed to before the war took it all away. And he parlayed that like a con artist. He was like Redford and Newman in The Sting. And he took advantage of those skills, those innate skills for conning. Did you know that Oskar Schindler was the man who perpetrated the con that gave Hitler the excuse to invade Poland? I'll give you a little history about how World War II started, with the invasion of Poland. In order for Hitler to look good in the eyes of the world and still invade Poland, he had to make it look as if the Poles attacked first. So, the Third Reich had an idea to stage a raid on an outpost, a German outpost on the Polish-German border. And what Schindler did was buy Polish uniforms that were put on Germans who staged an attack on a German outpost. That was in '39. It gave Hitler the excuse to invade Poland. And it was Schindler who very secretively arranged for the Polish uniforms to get to this staging area where this little piece of prefabricated history occurred.

Did he deny it later on when questioned?

No, he didn't deny that. He didn't deny that, no. He was always in the con game, that's what I'm saying.

Right before he decided to do his first generous act he said, "War brings out the worst in people, not the best in people." But then the best in him is brought out.

The best in him, yeah. Oh, he was such a denyer. I mean, he had to deny it.

Let's talk a little about Liam Neeson. You had seen him and read him a few months before going to New York to see him in Anna Christie on Broadway. What were you looking for in the actor to play Schindler?

I wasn't really concerned that he look like Schindler. Liam had the charm and the bearing of Schindler. And he had the presence of Schindler. He had the charisma, just existing there without doing very much. And he also had the humanity that would always be there, you know. It could be latent, but it would always come out when he summoned it. And so I felt that he was the best choice I could make for Schindler. In terms of age and height, he wasn't as big as Schindler - Schindler was a big, portly man with huge shoulders out to here. I had to actually pad Liam's costumes a lot to get his shoulders to even be two inches broader than they actually are. But I felt that he could carry it as sort of a figurehead of great deeds. I tested him on film, and his test was wonderful. And then Anna Christie just simply confirmed to me that of all the actors I'd been talking to for a year and a half to three years, he was the one that I wanted the most. I also didn't want to put a movie star in the part because I didn't want the distraction of a whole bunch of other movies to cloud this one. It would have been easy, I had the movie stars coming to me for this part. I just didn't want to go that way.

There was an early reading of the script in L.A. with Warren Beatty. Although he could have played the role, he would have brought that movie star baggage.

Yes, and I don't think Warren would have ever really worked on the accent. I think Warren would have played it like Oskar Schindler through Warren Beatty, but I don't think Warren would have taken on the accent perhaps. Liam, as you know, is Irish but he took on the accent completely.

Since Oskar Schindler was such a womanizer, was it important that you cast someone who is very appealing to women?

Yes. I don't think Liam has ever broken up with anybody, really. I think he's still friends with every girlfriend he's ever had. And Schindler was the same way. He stayed friends with every girlfriend he ever had, including his own wife.

When Emilie came to Krakow and he wouldn't make a commitment to her, there was no confrontation.

No bitterness, no recrimination. Fondly wave, "Goodbye, send some chocolates next time."

I like the way you handled the arrival of the women in Brinnlitz having Ben Kingsley be so moved that he had to turn his back, walk away and sit down was more powerful than showing a tearful reunion.

Yes, he just got back to work. I'm glad you caught that. That's fantastic you caught that. I didn't want to stage any reunions. In the real story they all embrace, but I didn't want to show it because it would have been too "Spielbergian." I tried my best to avoid that horrible word on this movie. It was good that the word "Spielbergian" was hanging out there because it haunted me and it kept me from being myself. And to do this story, I couldn't be myself. I had to be myself as a Jew, but I couldn't be myself as a filmmaker. It nagged at me to go against all my impulses.

Do you care when you are criticized for being "Spielbergian" or have you long since decided to ignore the criticism and just do what you want to do?

That's what I do. I just do what I do. If I really cared, I wouldn't have made Jurassic Park. That's the best example.

Did anybody's performance really surprise you?

I think everybody surprised me, because everybody kind of came up to a level of involvement, because of where we were and what it was about. Everybody just did their best work. They didn't even work - they just existed in these characters. And there never were any real questions or arguments or long didactic discussions about how do I play my character, and give me all the background, and I'm gonna do all this research. All the actors researched, but they didn't go overboard researching. We just came in there and we all kind of lived the experience even more than made a movie.

Ben Kingsley told me it took him a long time to recover from the experience of shooting this film.

It was tough. There was very little, if any, humor on this set.

One of the most difficult scenes to watch must have been one of the most difficult to shoot - when they had to take their clothes off and run around the camp. It was so degrading.

It was. It was. We talked to everybody beforehand. For one thing, they had to know why they were taking off their clothes. The clothes came off so easily, once the Polish people who were in those scenes understood what we were trying to do and that it was a health action at the hands of the German physicians. Nobody came over and said, "I'm Catholic, I can't do this." The clothes came off, the people did it without question. Without question. And they were humiliated, and the humiliation we caught on film. We only did this a couple of times. It wasn't that way all day long, but they were, you know, undressed for a number of hours, and it was hard on everybody. It was hard on me to be there, I couldn't look at it, I had to turn my eyes away, I couldn't watch. It was easier to see it in black and white than it was in color, actually. I couldn't watch, but I shot it. It's kind of hard to get across to you what that means. But it was one of the worst three days on the movie. I think for everybody involved.

What was the most difficult part?

The most difficult part was putting the women into the showers, turning off the lights on them. That was tough.

Hadn't one of the actresses in that scene been born in a concentration camp?

She was born in a Czechoslovakian concentration camp and she was a year old when the camp was liberated by the Russians. During the scene she had a complete breakdown. Even though she wasn't really evolved to a point of being conscious of what it was like to grow up for 12 months in a concentration camp, she had seen enough pictures that her mother had saved for her and had heard enough stories, and she had enough just physical memory - genetic memory - that she had a complete breakdown. Several women did during that scene, actually.

You can't really underestimate the first 12 months of your life.

You can't. You can't.

You worked with a Polish crew?

Polish, Croatian, Austrian - it was a mixed crew.

Were there any language problems?

No. It was surprising. We all spoke a number of languages and somehow all the right words got to the right people.

Was it at all off-putting to direct actors who were in SS uniforms? I know you had Nazis in the Raiders movies, but

But they weren't real Nazis. They were Hollywood Nazis. These were real Nazis, and the actors playing them were fantastic German actors. Many of them would come up to me before a take and tell me how disgusting it felt to have the uniform on. They would confess to me that their parents were involved in the War, in the military, and often they would just say to me, "Thank you for letting me resolve my secrets by playing in your movie." The most moving thing that happened for me was on Passover. We had Passover at the hotel and all the young German actors who were playing Nazis came in with yarmulkes and haggadahs and sat with the Israeli actors and took part in the Passover service. I wept like a baby.

Originally you wanted to shoot it in Polish and German and use subtitles. You didn't do that but you use a certain amount of German and Polish in the film.

I had Germans speaking German and Poles speaking Polish only on certain occasions when I wanted to pretty much show what it was like and what it sounded like and then only let those moments come across in English where I had to make a point.

Now that you see it, do you think that was a better decision than going with subtitles?

Yeah, I think so. Because I wanted people to watch the images, not read the subtitles. There's too much safety in reading. It would have been an excuse to take their eyes off the screen and watch something else.

Frequently the actual survivors would visit your set. What were some of the contributions they made?

A lot of them had never actually spoken to Schindler because they were only one of twelve hundred workers on the factory floor. But they had observed him. And because they were observing him, they were really able to see him and understand him. He would smoke a cigarette only two puffs and put the cigarette down, so somebody could pick it up and douse the tip and then trade it for more soup or more bread. Schindler provided that kind of luxury on his factory floor.

Your cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, is terrific. How did you find him?

I was watching television one day and I saw his name on a TV movie that was beautifully photographed, so I called up Tony Thomopoulos, head of my TV department. I was thinking about using Janusz for Schindler's List and I wanted to test him. So, I asked Tony would he consider hiring him to do a pilot we produced called The Class of '61, about the Civil War. And the director agreed to use Janusz and he was great.

The score is unlike any John Williams score I've heard before.

Yes, it's different than anything he's ever done before. We both tried to change our style. It's a departure from anything we've done together or apart. John needed to pay homage to the remembrance that we were trying to recreate. Just as I needed to not use my tricks, John didn't want to use any of his tricks. And Itzhak Perlman plays all the violin solos himself. It's in the sound track. Itzhak Perlman's own violin, his own being did this.

And it's incredibly beautiful.

Thank you. I was so happy to have him on this movie.

This film demonstrates the difference one person can make, focusing on individual responsibility during a time when people were "just following orders." When Schindler makes his speech at the end of the War to his factory workers and the German guards, he says, "You can go home as men or as murderers," and the next faces you show us are of German soldiers who look like adolescents.

Right. That's because in those days, at the end of the War, the only guards left were old men or young kids. They weren't the crack SS units that had been dispatched throughout those countries to make the final solution occur. So it just stood to reason that they were all very young or old.

That's the actual transcription of his speech. He had a secretary taking it all down when he was speaking. He actually talked 15 minutes longer than that in real life. He talked on and on and on and on we couldn't use it all in the movie.

I think he knew that they weren't going to shoot, or he wouldn't have said it. I think, being a good con man, he sussed them out. He looked into their eyes and he felt that that offering was blank, not a full load.

He also let them leave with some dignity, too. He gave them an out by saying that.

Exactly. He did. Exactly.

Since the Holocaust, there have been other attempted genocides - such as those by Stalin and Pol Pot. Right now there are crimes against humanity being perpetrated in Bosnia. Mass graves, concentration camps - right in Central Europe again. Did this current situation affect you in the making of Schindler's List?

Absolutely. In fact, it's why I made the film this year, not next year. It would have been easier on my schedule had I waited a year. I made it this year because I was so upset about what was happening in Bosnia, as well as about the attempted genocide of the whole Kurdish population. The film really needed to be made right now.

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