'Schindler's List' Hits Home

WHEN THE LIGHTS CAME UP AFTER two of the European premieres of "Schindler's List" last week, the stunned silence was familiar: hushed, slightly dazed viewers headed slowly for the exits; and once again, the critics-almost unanimously-raved. But in Frankfurt, Germany, and Cracow, Poland, Steven Spielberg's film about the German businessman who rescued some 1,200 Polish Jews during the Holocaust had a particularly powerful resonance. in Germany it provoked painful self-examination once more; in Poland it brought pride-and ignited some controversy. By making "a document, not an entertainment, " as Spielberg put it stir-red deep emotions among both Germans and Poles. No one could deny the movie's unique impact in those two countries. "Everybody should see this film," the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung told its readers on the front page. "It forces the viewer to ask why others didn't try to do what Oskar Schindler managed." The weekly Der Spiegel put the movie on its cover and proclaimed, "'Schindler's List' is great beyond all expectations."

After the Frankfurt premiere, German President Richard von Weizsacker told Spielberg: "It needed you to do it." This wasn't just flattery, The German press has agonized over why their country's own moviemakers have mostly avoided the horrors of the Nazi era, instead making films like "Stalingrad" or "Das Boot" that portray German soldiers or submarine crews as victims. Artur Brauner, a Polish-born Jew who is one of Germany's major film producers, shed "tears of frustration," according to Spielberg, as he struggled in vain for two decades to get Oskar Schindler's story made. When Brauner tried to get a partial subsidy for his project-a normal practice in the German movie industry-government film officials claimed it lacked commercial prospects and was based on a "speculative" story. More recently they argued that a production about a "good German" like Schindler would be seen as self-serving.

Meanwhile, in Poland, the first reaction to "Schindler's List" was enormous pride, since the film was shot mostly in Cracow with extensive Polish involvement in the production: Poles have captured three of the film's 12 Oscar nominations (for art direction, cinematography and costume design). "This film is great news for Polish cinema," said Poland's most famous director, Andrzej Wajda. "Half of the credits are Polish-people can see their work." But amid the widespread praise, there were some cautious reservations about the Polish backdrop. Non-Jewish Polish characters appear in just a few fleeting scenes; in the most horribly memorable, as Cracow's Jewish population is herded toward the ghetto, a little girl screams with hatred: "Goodbye Jews!" "There were Poles like this, but there also were other Poles," notes Agnieszka Wroblewska, a columnist for the daily Zycie Warszawy. "It's not an anti-Polish film: Poland basically does not exist in it. But it requires a touch of balance."

Some Poles point out that "Schindler's List" never hints at the fact that, along with 3 million Polish Jews, 3 million Polish Catholics perished during the war-although not as a result of a mass extermination campaign. Nor does the film allude to Poles who rescued Jews. At Yad Vashem, Jerusalem's Holocaust memorial, 4,260 Poles have been honored as "righteous among the nations" for saving Jews, while the number of Germans is 275.

Spielberg argues that he saw himself "as a journalist" when making "Schindler's List" and that he wanted to make a "document" of the times aimed at young people who are unfamiliar with the h. story of the Holocaust. "I wasn't concerned with a balance. I was only concerned with telling as close to the truth [of Schindler's story] as I possibly could," he said. "'Schindler's List' must never be looked upon as the Holocaust story; it is only a Holocaust story."

Most Poles appeared to accept Spielberg's reasoning. "This is not a film about Poles and Jews, but about Germans and Jews," said Grazyna Torbicka, a young television announced But it's also significant that the film arrives in Poland as public discussion about the painful history of Polish-Jewish relations has become much more open, particularly among young Poles. Defensiveness hasn't fully disappeared, of course, but outright denial of the persistence of anti-Semitism in Poland is now relatively rare.

If the overwhelmingly favorable reaction to "Schindler's List" testified to the evolution of Polish attitudes, this did not stop some Poles, including Jews, from hoping that their history will be more fully told in the future. "It would be wonderful if someone would make a film about a Pole who saved Jews, particularly if it were an American Jew who made such a film," said Grazyna Pawlak of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Then she smiled. "Particularly if it were Spielberg."