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by Susan Royal
Photos by David James

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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.

Ralph Fiennes as the brutal SS officer, Amon Goeth, commandant of Plaszow Labor Camp, in Schindler's List.

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.

Steven Spielberg with Ben Kingsley.

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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