"It'll make a helluva story. Is it true?"
-Steven Spielberg after reading Schindler's Ark
The film Schindler's List was based on a 1982 "nonfiction novel" written by Thomas Keneally called Schindler's Ark, about Oskar Schindler, a Nazi industrialist who spent his accumulated fortune to save his Jewish workers from the Shoah.
Steven Spielberg, who was eventually to direct the film, explained: "I was drawn to it because of the paradoxical nature of the character. It wasn't about a Jew saving Jews, or a neutral person from Sweden or Switzerland saving Jews. It was about a Nazi saving Jews. 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?"
Spielberg did not commit to directing the film in 1982, but showed enough interest for Universal Studios to buy the book's rights. In 1983, Poldek Pfefferberg, one of the hundreds of "Schindlerjuden" ("Schindler's Jews," or Jews who were saved by Oskar Schindler) met with Spielberg and asked him about the film. "Please," asked Pfefferberg, "When are you starting?"
"Ten years from now," Spielberg replied. At the age of 36, Spielberg did not think he was mature enough to take on a film about the Holocaust.
Spielberg was motivated by several factors to get started on filming Schindler's List a decade later. Among these were the rise of antisemitism in Europe at the time. Also, Holocaust "deniers" (those who claimed the Holocaust never took place) were being given time on the news and in the press.
Other world events played a part in Spielberg's decision. Spielberg: "There was CNN reporting every day on the equivalent to the Nazi death camps in Bosnia, the atrocities against the Muslims- and then the horrible word(s) 'ethnic cleansing,' cousin to the 'Final Solution.' I thought: my God this is happening again." Another contributing factor for Spielberg was the studio executives, who asked him why he didn't just make a donation of some form, instead of wasting everyone's time and money on a "depressing film."
While working on the movie Hook (1991), Spielberg picked up the Schindler's List script ("I hadn't read it for a year") and was leafing through it. "And I suddenly turned to Kate, who was half asleep, and I said, 'I'm doing Schindler's List as my next film.'"
The studio agreed to let Spielberg make Schindler's List- on the condition he direct Jurassic Park first. After all, Jurassic Park, based on Michael Crichton's bestseller, had dinosaurs and thrills and lots of action and big effects. It had dollar signs written all over it, while films about the Holocaust usually bombed at the box office. So Spielberg agreed to the studio's terms and directed Jurassic Park before tackling Schindler's List.
Interestingly, Spielberg had actually tried to convince other directors to take the helm before he himself became the film's director. Roman Polanski had been approached about the assignment, but as a boy, he had barely escaped the Nazis himself. Polanski had been confined to the Krakow ghetto, escaping through the barbed wire on March 13, 1943, the day before the ghetto's final liquidation by the Nazis. He had spent the rest of the war in hiding; his father also survived, but his mother was gassed at Auschwitz. He didn't want to dredge up the horrible memories.
Sidney Pollock and Martin Scorsese were both approached. Scorsese turned the job down because he felt it should be a Jewish director. Billy Wilder was actually anxious to take the gig as his final directing stint, but by this time Spielberg wanted to wear the director's hat himself.
Several actors were up for the prize role of Oskar Schindler. Harrison Ford was the first one asked, but he declined on the basis that the audience wouldn't see past him as Indiana Jones. Warren Beatty took part in a script reading and both Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson were interested, but Spielberg had by this time decided to get a less well-known actor, fearing that a movie star's persona would detract from the character.
A lesser-known actor named Liam Neeson had already auditioned for the Schindler role weeks previously, and since he hadn't heard back, assumed he was had not been chosen. Because of this, Neeson had accepted a role in the broadway production of Anna Christie.
Spielberg, his wife Kate Capshaw, and her mother had all attended a performance of the show and went backstage to visit Neeson in his dressing room after the show. Neeson gave Spielberg's mother-in-law a big hug upon meeting her, which caused Capshaw to say, "That's just what Oskar Schindler would have done." A week later, Spielberg contacted Neeson and told him he had the part.
Spielberg had Neeson study home movies of his mentor, Steve Ross, the late chairman of Time-Warner, to help him develop his Schindler character. He also studied recordings of the real Oskar Schindler, listening carefully to his accents and speech patterns, in order to get as close as possible to the real thing.
Ralph Fiennes was chosen to play the film's main heavy, Nazi S.S. officer Amon Goeth. Fiennes gained 28 pounds (thanks to drinking plenty of Guinness) to get in character for the role. Spielberg said he chose Fiennes for his "evil sexuality." Holocaust survivor Mila Pfefferberg, upon seeing Fiennes in character, started shaking uncontrollably, Fiennes so reminded her of the real Amon Goeth.
Ben Kingsley was cast as Schindler's accountant, Itzhak Stern. To remind himself of his character, Kingsley carried a photo of Holocaust victim Anne Frank in his coat pocket throughout the duration of the shoot.
As an interesting sidebar, Juliette Binoche was offered a role in the film as a woman who was raped and murdered, but she turned the role down. Juliette had also turned down a role in Spielberg's previous film Jurassic Park, making her probably the only actress (or actor) in history to turn down two Steven Spielberg film offers -and in the same year!
There were 126 speaking parts in the movie. Many Germans were recruited to play Nazis in the film. At first, they were sickened by having to don Nazi uniforms, but after the filming ended they thanked Spielberg for the cathartic experience.
Spielberg had his wife and five children accompany him and rented a house in Krakow, Poland, where they stayed throughout the European location shoot. Spielberg toured the Auschwitz death camp before beginning production. When he visited Auschwitz he was surprised he didn't cry, but said instead he felt "outrage." He decided not to actually film in Auschwitz, out of respect to its victims and survivors. Schindler's List was instead filmed in an exact mirror-image replica of the death camp, right near it.
Sometimes during filming, even Spielberg got squeamish. Spielberg said he couldn't face watching the scene of the aging Jews being forced to run naked while being selected by doctors to go to Auschwitz. For the first and only time in Steven Spielberg's career, he directed a scene without watching it. Several actresses broke down during the filming of shower scene, including a real female Holocaust survivor, as things just got too unbearable.
Because of the depressing nature of the film, Spielberg would often call Robin Williams during production and put him on speaker phone. Williams would cheer the cast and crew up by cracking jokes and doing funny ad-libbed routines for them. Every night after shooting, Spielberg would watch episodes of Seinfeld to make himself laugh.
Production on Schindler's List had begun on March 1, 1993. It lasted 76 days, finishing four days ahead of schedule. After production ended, Spielberg sincerely thanked his wife for "rescuing me 92 days in a row."
Spielberg had originally wanted to shoot the film in German and Polish and have English subtitles. But he later decided against this because he couldn't properly assess the performances in another language. A few scenes, however, are done in Polish and German to make one feel he is "present in the past."
Schindler's List opens with a scene of candles being lit. According to Spielberg: "To start the film with candles being lit would be a rich bookend. To start the film with a normal Shabbat service before the juggernaut against the Jews begins."
Schindler's List was filmed in black and white. Why? Spielberg explained: "The Holocaust was life without light. For me, the symbol of life is color. That's why a film about the Holocaust has to be in black and white."
The lone exception to the black and white film was the color scene of "the girl in the red coat," played by Oliwia Dabrowska. This amazing scene, of a little girl in a red coat who is temporarily free and unseen by the Nazis, as her fellow citizens are rounded up to go to the death camps, was an actual incident witnessed by Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn had related the unforgettable incident to Spielberg when she worked in the film Always (1990) with him a few years previously and he remembered her recollection.
Three years old at the time of filming, Oliwia had promised Spielberg that she would not watch Schindler's List until she was 18, by which time he thought she would be ready to face such a stark and often horrifying movie. But she broke her promise and watched the film when she was 11. This had a devastating effect on her and she was to always regret breaking her promise to the director.
The famous ending of the film, where real life Holocaust survivors ("Schindlerjuden") march to Oskar Schindler's grave in Jerusalem in homage, was thought up by Spielberg halfway through production. This caused producers to scramble around the globe, trying to locate as many "Schindlerjuden" as possible
Spielberg wanted just the right film score for Schindler's List and he called upon his usual composer, John Williams, for the job. After Williams watched a screening of the film, he was so moved he had to excuse himself and take a walk for several minutes in order to regain his composure. When he returned from his walk, he told Spielberg, "You deserve a better composer."
Spielberg replied, "I know, but they're all dead."
Schindler's List premiered in Washington, DC, on November 30, 1993. It opened nationally on December 15, 1993. When the film opened in Germany, over 100,000 people attended in the first week alone.
When Schindler's List was shown in the Philippines, censors tried to edit out certain scenes because of nudity and violence. When Spielberg heard about this, he threatened to pull the movie from distribution in the country. Philippines president Fidel Ramos overruled the censors and the film remained intact and uncensored.
Because of its gloomy, stark nature and subject matter, Schindler's List was made on a less-than-generous budget of $22 million dollars. Spielberg himself would later confess he thought the movie would flop. To date, it has grossed $322 million dollars worldwide, making it the highest grossing black and white movie of all-time.
Released to almost unanimous rave reviews, Schindler's List would be nominated for 12 Academy Awards. It won seven, including Best Director, Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score. Billy Wilder, who had wanted to direct the film as his screen directing swan song, said of Steven Spielberg's direction: "They couldn't have gotten a better man. The movie is absolutely perfection."
Schindler's List was named best film of 1993 by both the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics. It won the Golden Globe for Best Film Drama, with Spielberg garnering the Best Director award. Both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, as well as several other prestigious film critics, put it at the top of their list of best movies of 1993. The Vatican declared Schindler's List to be one of the "45 most important movies ever made."
In 2004, the Library of Congress deemed Schindler's List to be "culturally significant" and chose it for inclusion in the National Film Registry. In 2007, Schindler's List was voted #8 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Greatest American Films of All-Time.
Spielberg said the two films he most wanted to be remembered by are E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Schindler's List.
Steven Spielberg refused to accept any money for directing Schindler's List. He said any money accepted for such a task would be "blood money." All royalties and residual payments earned by Spielberg go to the Shoah Foundation, which records and preserves written videotaped testimonies from victims of genocide worldwide, including the Holocaust. To this day, he refuses to autograph any merchandise related to Schindler's List.
One last bit of bonus Schindler's List trivia: Steven Spielberg makes a rare cameo appearance in the film. He plays a liberated "Schindlerjuden" among the hundreds crossing the field near the end of the film.