Many films have been made about the Holocaust, from the somber short documentary Night and Fog to the sprawling testament Shoah; from the impossibly bleak The Grey Zone and Son of Saul to the fantasy-tinged Life is Beautiful. It is a subject that would seem to befuddle and thwart any attempt to aestheticize it, yet attempts have been made all the same. (We'll mention only in passing Jerry Lewis's legendarily awful, but mostly unseen, take on the subject matter.)
In terms of widespread familiarity, it's unlikely that any other Holocaust picture can compare with Steven Spielberg's 1993 epic Schindler's List, which won him his first Academy Award and went on to become a staple of high school history classrooms everywhere – even in Germany. Spielberg, whose filmmaking can oscillate between shocking ferocity and dewy sentimentalism, found his angle on the topic in the story of Oskar Schindler, the self-interested businessman who set about exploiting the slave labor of Polish Jews, but in the end, made a heroic effort to save those same 1,100 workers from almost certain death in the camps. Through Schindler, Spielberg was able to tell a story of unlikely heroism - even optimism - against the backdrop of unimaginable evil.
Schindler's List helped open up new dialogues about the Holocaust. Spielberg used the Shoah Foundation to record survivor testimony, but the film also had a larger, informal effect on the global conversation. According to survivor Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, who had worked as a maid for Płaszów commandant Amon Goeth, "It all started with the movie Schindler's List. The movie Schindler's List brought an awakening. Before the movie, we didn't talk about it... nobody wanted to know. And we couldn't talk. Somehow, when the movie came out, it was an awakening. We were able to speak to our children more freely. And I tell you, it's very painful – it was, and it is, very painful – for me to talk to my children about those horrors of those times. But they have to know, and they want to know."
To this day, Schindler's List is a tough sit, featuring some of the most relentlessly brutal sequences in Hollywood cinema. As hard as it can be to watch, it was also an ordeal to make. Spielberg himself found the experience emotionally draining, and actors like Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, and Liam Neeson found their lives and attitudes transfigured by their brush with Holocaust history. The making of Schindler's List is a tale almost worthy of a movie itself.
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Ralph Fiennes, who played Płaszów camp commandant Amon Goeth, described in an interview what he'd learned about Goeth during his research for the role, and afterward:
I remember there being accounts by survivors who talked about their terror when they saw him. He terrified the people of Płaszów. Many accounts of him were just full of the physical fear that people felt when they saw him.
Fiennes saw this firsthand when Mila Pfefferberg, a survivor who had known the real Goeth, came to the Schindler's List set. Seeing Fiennes in full costume, adopting the mannerisms of the character he was playing, Pfefferberg actually shook with fear.
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The Scene Where Goeth’s Gun Jams While He Tries To Shoot Levertov Really Happened
Perhaps the most unbelievable scene in Schindler's List is the one in which Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) attempts to shoot Rabbi Rav Levertov (Ezra Dagan) after having deemed him unsuitable to continue making hinges in the factory because the pile of completed hinges was too small. He tries two different pistols, each of which misfires, and finally gives up in frustration.
Anyone could be forgiven for supposing this scene was a screenwriter's concoction, but in fact, it actually happened. Levertov recounted the story to Yanus Turkov in 1957:
Apparently not satisfied with the Rabbi’s daily production, [Goeth] took him by the collar and threw him to the small steps which led to the second room of the barracks. Then, he quite calmly took out a revolver from his pocket, put the barrel to the Rabbi’s head and pulled the trigger. The revolver got stuck and did not fire.
He pulled the trigger again and again, and when the revolver still refused to fire, he put it back in his pocket and from a second pocket he took out a small revolver, with a pearl design, an automatic, put it to the Rabbi’s head and pulled the trigger. Again, this time, the revolver did not fire. To this scene all the workers from the barracks were onlookers, standing without breathing, in dreadful fright.
In the actual event, Levertov's excuse about shoveling coal was a lie: he thought of it at the last minute to save his life after Goeth's guns had jammed and before the commandant could find one that worked.
One of Schindler's List's producers was Branko Lustig, a Croatian-American Holocaust survivor who had been an Auschwitz inmate as a boy. The week after he arrived there, Lustig witnessed the hanging of seven Jews. Before dying, they urged him to bear witness and to tell their story. Later, he saw Schindler's List as an opportunity to fulfill his pledge to the ones who did not survive the camps.
When Liam Neeson complained about cold weather on location, Lustig showed him his arm tattoo, reminding the actor how much worse some people had had it. When the crew filmed exterior shots at the actual Auschwitz site, Neeson recalled:
I'm looking at the real huts of Auschwitz - and Branko comes up to me and he points out one of the huts, and said, "See that hut there?" "Yeah." "That was the hut I was in." And it hit me. Big f***ing time. [...] So I did my little scene, and my knees were literally shaking, you know? And I kept saying the line wrong: "I need this child to polish the inside of shell metal cases." It should have been "metal shell cases."
When Schindler's List won best picture in 1994, Lustig accepted an Oscar statuette with Spielberg and co-producer Gerald Molen. "My [tattoo] number was 83317," Lustig said. "I'm a Holocaust survivor. It's a long way from Auschwitz to this stage."
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Spielberg Took No Salary For Making The Movie
At the time, making a black-and-white film about the Holocaust wasn't seen as a particularly commercial idea, so the budget for Schindler's List was a relatively lean $22 million. (By contrast, Spielberg's other picture for that year, Jurassic Park, was budgeted at $60 million.)
Let's call it what it is. I didn't take a single dollar from the profits I received from Schindler's List because I did consider it blood money. When I first decided to make Schindler's List I said, if this movie makes any profit, it can't go to me or my family, it has to go out into the world...
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In Audition Tapes, German Actors Apologized To Spielberg For Their Parents’ Actions
Spielberg recalled that some of the German actors who sought small roles in Schindler's List sent him audition tapes, and actually apologized on their country's behalf on these tapes:
Many of the German actors who interviewed for Schindler's List - and I saw many of the interviews on tape - many of them, actually, knowing I was watching the tape or would be watching the tape, apologized for the generation preceding theirs, and talked about their guilt, talked about their feelings, and very openly. I was so surprised at how many German actors would actually look at the camera, into the video camera, and talk to me 6,000 miles away. It was sort of a fascinating experience.
However, Spielberg noticed a change when he saw the German actors in full costume:
Once those same German actors put on the uniforms of the Waffen-SS, my attitude changed, and I couldn't talk to them. And between shots they would be schmoozing with me, trying to ask me questions about E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark - questions that someone who liked those movies would ask the director. And I didn't really want to make small talk; I couldn't get past the uniform, and then my prejudice began to come out...
Spielberg's attitude changed after the German actors came to participate in a Passover seder with the Jewish cast members. Spielberg recalled:
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.
One of the most harrowing sequences in the film dramatizes the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto on March 13, 1943, by German soldiers who indiscriminately shot anyone who fled or was deemed unfit to work in the Płaszów concentration camp.
Ben Kingsley, who played Schindler's Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern, recalled how deeply disturbing it was to experience even a fictional rendering of this horrific scene:
In the liquidation of the ghetto scene, I knew I had to serve the story, I remember my lines, but I was in deep shock. No acting. The beautifully orchestrated chaos was unrepeatable or unforgettable.