Spielberg's Obsession

THERE WAS A MAN NAMED OSKAR SCHINDLER, A German Catholic businessman and confidant of the Nazis, who during the Holocaust protected and rescued some 1,200 Jews from almost certain death. In Poland today, where Schindler once ran his profitable enamelware factory during World War II, there are fewer than 4,000 Jews left. Around the world there are more than 6,000 descendants of the "Schindler Jews" he saved. But to this day nobody can say with certainty what made this unlikely hero risk his life when so many others failed to lift a finger. A hedonist in love with cognac, night life and motorcycles, a womanizer incorrigibly unfaithful to his wife, a war profiteer, gambler, black-market dealer and heavy drinker, this gregarious, urbane and spoiled young man may have been motivated by nothing more complicated than simple decency, but then decency was neither simple nor easy to find in a German businessman in Eastern Europe between 1939 and 1945. To any sane observer, there has always been an unfathomable mystery about the systematic evil the Nazi regime perpetrated--like a moral black hole, it seems to defy the laws of nature while being a part of that nature. But sometimes the good is equally mysterious. The conscience of Oskar Schindler is a wonderful conundrum.

Another unlikely man, Steven Spielberg, has chosen Schindler to be the vehicle through which he tells the story of the Holocaust. "Schindler's List," adapted by Steven Zaillian from Thomas Keneally's prize-winning 1982 nonfiction novel, is not a movie anyone could have predicted from the most commercially successful filmmaker in the world (his 15 movies have grossed more than $4 billion). Following close on the trampling heels of "Jurassic Park"--the world's all-time box-office champ--the contrast couldn't be more startling. It's not just that the subject matter is a departure for a man renowned for his lyrical and rollicking boys' adventures; after all, he did make "The Color Purple" and "Empire of the Sun." But Spielberg's very nature as a filmmaker has been transformed; he's reached within himself for a new language, and without losing any of his innate fluency or his natural-born storytelling gift, he's found a style and a depth of feeling that will astonish both his fans and those detractors who believed he was doomed to permanent adolescence. More than three hours long, shot almost entirely in black and white, with a cast filled with little-known Polish and Israeli actors, "Schindler's List" plunges us into the nightmare of the Holocaust with newsreel-like urgency--and amazing restraint.

So often when Hollywood directors pump themselves up to make a major statement, their filmmaking becomes as inflated and ponderous as a politician's rhetoric. Spielberg deflates his style: gone are the majestic boom shots, the pearly-slick sheen, the push-button sense of wonder. Maybe the biggest surprise is that Spielberg resists the easy, bludgeoning sentimentality that is the peril of films about the destruction of the Jews. This movie will shatter you, but it earns its tears honestly. His impeccable craft (aided by Michael Kahn's superb editing and Janusz Kaminski's starkly beautiful cinematography) holds you riveted for 196 minutes. But this time the abundant virtuosity is in the service of a harrowing authenticity.

Spielberg knew instinctively that his old methods were inadequate to tell this story. "I have a pretty good imagination. I've made a fortune off my imagination. My imagination is dwarfed by the events of 1940 to 1945. just dwarfed," Spielberg told NEWSWEEK'S Cathleen McGuigan at his East Hampton, N.Y., summer home. "And so I couldn't imagine the Holocaust until I went to Cracow, and to Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time." His primary goal was to "bear witness" to the Shoah (the annihilation). "And I didn't want a style that was similar to anything I had done before. First of all, I threw half my toolbox away. I canceled the crane. I tore out the dolly track. I didn't really plan a style. I didn't say I'm going to use a lot of handheld camera. I simply tried to pull the events closer to the audience by reducing the artifice."

Zaillian's ambitious, sinewy screenplay artfully balances Schindler's story with the larger chronicle of the fate of the Jews of Cracow, all the while rarely straying from the facts documented in Keneally's extraordinary book. In several ways, the movie makes Schindler--played with gruff, complex grace by Irish actor Liam Neeson--a less heroic, more ambiguous figure than he is in the novel, in which the reader knows immediately of Oskar's good deeds. The Oskar we first encounter--a cagey, manipulative bon vivant buttering up Nazi officers in a nightclub for the good of his business ventures--is a man on the make, using the war to make his fortune. But unlike some Germans, he is not averse to using Jews as well to pad his pockets. He welcomes their investment in his factory and is happy to employ their slave labor. He's a great front man; it's the Jew Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), his accountant, who has the real savvy to run the business. (Though Stern is real, his movie character is a composite of several Schindlerjuden, or "Schindler's Jews.")

There is nothing clear-cut about Oskar's transformation into a man of virtue. In Neeson's subtle, lived-in performance, he's a man who backs into heroism almost against his will, his cupidity inconvenienced by his conscience. But from a hillside, where he is riding horses with his mistress, he is a witness to the Nazis' vicious destruction of the ghetto, and he begins to sense that the men and women working in his factory will have no future unless he does something about it. Spielberg's depiction of the murderous day and night when the Germans liquidate Cracow's ghetto has a sickening reality. The accumulation of details--the women rolling their jewels into bread to swallow; a hospital nurse mercifully poisoning her terminally ill Jewish patients to save them from a crueler death by machine-gun fire--will lodge in your mind forever.

WHEN THE DRAMA MOVES TO THE PLASZOW Forced Labor Camp, the film introduces Commandant Amon Goeth. The sadistic Nazi is a familiar movie trope, but Ralph Fiennes, the brilliant young English actor who plays him, finds fresh horrors that owe nothing to Hollywood cliches. Goeth is a man of cool monstrosity--to start his day, he picks off Jewish workers with a rifle from his balcony. The flicker of insecurity that Fiennes finds in the character makes him all the more frightening. Spielberg, who gave us cartoon Nazis in his Indiana Jones movies, has found a new set of eyes. The dazzling fantasist has become an unblinking reporter.

Confronted with the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the ghastly sight of children hiding from capture in outhouse cesspools, Spielberg never loses his nerve or his tact. "Schindler's List" doesn't succumb to melodrama, or to hagiography. The first word we hear spoken is "Name," as Jews railroaded, into Cracow disembark from a train and give their identities to government functionaries. It is a film filled throughout with names and faces--a testimony to the 6 million Jews who died, and the 1,200 who survived because of Oskar Schindler. No one film can begin to convey the totality of that annihilating chapter in history. But no dramatic film, from Hollywood or anywhere, has told so much so eloquently.

Spielberg grew up, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Haddonfield, N.J., and Phoenix, Ariz., hearing stories from his relatives about the mass extermination of his people. His grandmother gave English lessons to an Auschwitz survivor who taught the young boy numbers using the numerical brand the Nazis had tattooed into his arm. But he never heard the word "Holocaust" until he was in college. "My parents referred to it as "those murdering sons of bitches.' Those murdering sons of bitches broke that Jewish pianist's fingers so he could never play the piano again."

When he was 7, the family moved to Arizona from New Jersey, abandoning their observant Orthodox ways. "I didn't have any Jewish friends growing up in Phoenix. I felt like I was the only Jewish kid in my high school." Eager to assimilate ("I would always try, and negotiate for conformity"), Spielberg remembers feeling "ashamed because I was living on a street where at Christmas, we were the only house with nothing but a porch fight on." He'd try, in vain, to get his father to put up a red fight. But he never experienced anti-Semitism until the family moved to Saratoga, Calif., when his father got a job with a Palo Alto computer company. It was Spielberg's senior year in high school, and he encountered kids who would cough the word Jew in their hands when they passed him, beat him up and throw pennies at him in study hall. "It was my six months of personal horror. And to this day I haven't gotten over it nor have I forgiven any of them."

Until now, his Judaism was never touched upon in his work. The young hero of "E.T.," growing up in a broken home and feeling like an alien himself, may have been a metaphorical stand-in for Spielberg, but ethnicity was left far out of the picture. The fantasies he concocted in his spectacular career were the ultimate triumph of assimilation: he colonized the world with his imagination.

"Schindler's List" lurked in the back of Spielberg's mind for a decade, ever since Sidney Sheinberg, MCA/Universal's president, bought it for him in 1982. "I wasn't ready to make it in '82 because I wasn't mature enough. 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. A lot of things happened that were big deals in my personal life that I didn't give interviews about. But they changed me as a person and as a filmmaker. And they led me to say I want to do it now, I need to make it right now."

His longtime producer Kathleen Kennedy thinks his second marriage, to Kate Capshaw (who converted to Judaism), has brought a new balance to his life. "He has a personal confidence now and isn't trying to prove anything to himself anymore." "I wanted to tell people who had told me to be ashamed of my Jewishness," Spielberg says, "that I was so proud to be a Jew."

His urgency to make the movie was spurred by the "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia and other atrocities. "It 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 like what happened in 1943."

Keneally had been the first writer to attempt a screenplay from his own book. But his effort was the length of a mini-series. Kurt Luedtke ("Out of Africa") worked on it for three years before throwing in the towel. At various times both Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese considered directing "Schindler," and it was Scorsese who brought in Zaillian (writer-director of "Searching for Bobby Fischer") to attempt to crack the book. When Spielberg finally decided he must make it, he paid his first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. His reaction--anger--surprised him. "I was deeply pissed off. I was all ready to cry in front of strangers, and I didn't shed a tear. I was just boiling inside. Freezing day, and I was so hot. I felt so helpless, that there was nothing I could do about it. And yet I thought, well, there is something I can do about it. I can make 'Schindler's List.' I mean, it's not going to bring anybody back alive, but it maybe will remind people that another Holocaust is a sad possibility."

Shooting in Poland, in the haunted places where these events occurred (Schindler's factory still stands), was the most intense professional experience of his life, and it was made more bizarre by the fact that he had to complete post-production work on "Jurassic Park" from Poland. How can I reconcile dinosaurs and the Holocaust? he kept asking himself. "it didn't work in my mind." Two or three times a week he would receive transmissions beamed by satellite from the United States to the huge parabolic dish in the front yard of his Cracow house. After 12-hour workdays on the set, he'd come home to his wife and five kids--and after dinner and bedtime stories he'd trudge to his monitor to focus on smoothing out the jerky dinosaur movements. "I was not in a mind-set to be involved with 'Jurassic Park' but I had a duty to myself and to the special effects."

Spielberg was not prepared for the kind of personal reaction "Schindler" evoked. "I was frightened every day...I sound pretentious, like some kind of European artist or something. Because I've not had personal experiences in the making of my films, A lot of MY films have been made for you, just like somebody makes a hamburger just the way you want it. That's been my modus operandi. Now I go to Poland and I get hit in the face with my personal life. My upbringing. My Jewishness. The stories my grandparents told me about the Shoah. And Jewish fife came pouring back into my heart. I cried all the time. I never cry on sets making films. I've often protected myself with the movie camera. The camera has always been my golden shield against things really reaching me. I put that thing in front of my face, it stops the bullet. I can't tell you the shots I did on 'Schindler's List' or why I put the camera in a certain place. I re-created these events, and then I experienced them as any witness or victim would have. It wasn't like a movie.

SO EVERY SINGLE DAY WAS LIKE WAKING UP AND going to hell, really. There were no jokes on the set. No funny outtakes to show at the wrap party. Twice in the production I called Robin Williams just to say, Robin, I haven't laughed in seven weeks. Help me here. And Robin would do 20 minutes on the telephone."

In one of the most painful scenes in the film, the inmates of the labor camp are rounded up, forced to strip and to run past doctors. We see women pricking their fingers for blood to rub some pink into their cheeks, for, those who look healthy will be allowed to stay and work. The rejects will be sent to Auschwitz and the ovens. The sequence took three days to shoot, and after the first day Spielberg was "trying to find a way not to come back to work." The scene was hard on everyone involved. "None of us looked. I said to the guy pulling the focus on a very difficult shot, 'Do you think you got that?' And he said, 'I don't know, I wasn't looking.' And when the man on focus doesn't look, you know, it's interesting."

Spielberg's actors recall his energy, his spontaneity, his calm professionalism and, in Ben Kingsley's words, his "lovely childish enthusiasm." To prepare Neeson to play Schindler, Spielberg gave the actor home movies of Steve Ross, the charismatic late head of Time Warner, and a kind of father figure to the director. Ross, to whom the film is dedicated, became Spielberg's private prototype of the movie's hero. "I think Schindler loved people. I've often said that he and my late great friend Steve Ross had a lot of similarities." Neeson ultimately used some of Ross's expansive body language in his portrayal.

The Poles generously welcomed the movie people to Cracow, but there were a few ugly incidents. In a hotel bar, an old German-speaking businessman approached Israeli actor Michael Schneider and asked him whether he was a Jew. Yes, the actor replied, and the man drew a finger across his neck and pulled an imaginary noose above his throat, saying, "Hitler should have finished the job." An enraged Kingsley had to be restrained before a brawl ensued.

Spielberg found when his German actors put on Nazi uniforms, he became unintentionally hostile toward them. But that changed the day the company had a Passover Seder. "All the German actors showed up. They put on yarmulkes and opened up Haggadas, [the Seder text] and the Israeli actors moved right next to them and began explaining it to them. And this family of actors sat around and race and culture were just left behind."

These scenes from his four months in Poland keep haunting Spielberg; he's finding it hard to come down from the experience. "Schindler's List" has forced him to re-examine his life as a filmmaker. "My problem is I have too much of a command of the visual language. I know how to put a Cecil B. DeMille image on the screen. I can do a Michael Curtiz. If my mojo's working I can put one tenth of a David Lean image on the screen. But I've never really been able to put my image on the screen, with the exception of 'E.T.' perhaps. And certainly not until 'Schindler' was I really able to not reference other filmmakers. I'm always referencing everybody. I didn't do any of that on this movie."

Spielberg talked for more than four hours, but he wasn't satisfied that he'd said everything he wanted to say. A few days later he called back with a final thought. "I came to realize, the reason I came to make the movie, is that I have never in my life told the truth in a movie. My effort as a moviemaker has been to create something that couldn't possibly happen. So people could leave their lives and have an adventure and then come back to earth and drive home. That was one of the things I thought: if I'm going to tell the truth for the first time, it should be about this subject. Not about divorce or parents and children, but about this."

And he did. When you drive home from "Schindler's List," you have seen all the truth you can handle, and are grateful for it.