Steven Spielberg and cast on their arduous journey of making the 1993 classic.
The 2018 edition of Tribeca Film Festival hosted an emotional screening on Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Holocaust masterpiece Schindler’s List (winner of 7 Oscars out of the 12 it was nominated for) on the 25th anniversary of its release. The evening was capped off by an on-stage conversation with Spielberg, Liam Neeson (Oskar Schindler), Ben Kingsley (Itzhak Stern), Caroline Goodall (Emilie Schindler) and Embeth Davidtz (Helen Hirsch), moderated by film critic and journalist Janet Maslin, during which the filmmaker and his cast looked back on their experiences filming Spielberg’s harrowing historical epic. “I haven’t felt the [same] kind of pride and satisfaction and sense of real meaningful accomplishment since Schindler’s List,” Spielberg said. “I’m so very proud.”
Here are the highlights from the memorable evening at New York City’s Beacon Theater.
Reflections on watching the film 25 years later.
Spielberg: Well I haven’t seen this film with an audience since the premiere in Germany and Krakow and in Austria. 25 years feels like 5 years ago. The last time I saw the film was when I had to do the transfer from the negative to the Blu Ray, and I didn’t run the sound because I just wanted to focus on the pictures. One of the things I [noticed] was at the very end. I was operating the camera for the final scene where all the Schindler Jews are going past Oskar Schindler’s gravesite, and putting the stones on the grave, and the long lingering look that Emilie Schindler gives her husband’s grave….she had never been to that cemetery ever in Jerusalem, and it was the first time she had seen his grave.
Goodall: It was like seeing it for the first time and yet remembering everything if that makes sense. It was so immediate, it doesn’t feel like 25 years at all. But I think for me, I just felt every scene was a tiny masterpiece in its own right, and that was a revelation because I’d always seen it as a whole in a way and then I saw just how carefully Steven put it together, how detailed everything was and just how perfect every performance was. From just someone who had one line or even a look, and that is a testament to your genius, it really is [Steven].
Davidtz: I was struck by the absolute beauty of every frame, of how everything is like a sculpture, every frame was beautiful. And yet watching it, particularly the beginning, I thought there’s such a terrible relentless sense of what’s to come. And lots of things that I’d forgotten, I’d forgotten that Schindler was arrested. I guess in the sort of selfishness of youth, I was focused on my own, what was I doing, and maybe forgot the whole. And I thought so much about 25 years what’s happened in the world, what’s still happening in the world and in some ways you can’t help but think of about how relevant it still is.
Robin Williams called Spielberg every week to lighten up the filmmaker’s mood.
Spielberg: Robin knew what I was going through. Once a week Robin called me on schedule, he knew exactly what time it was in Poland. He would do 15-minutes of standup on the phone. I would laugh hysterically because I needed to release so much. The way Robin was on the phone, he would always hang up on you on the loudest, best laugh you’d give him. That’s it. Never said goodbye.
The crew encountered anti-Semitism during the shoot in Poland.
Kingsley: A German businessman walked across the bar [toward actor Michael Schneider] with total impunity and asked, “Are you a Jew?” Michael in shock said yes. He mimed a noose around his neck his neck and pulled it tight. And I stood up.
Spielberg: He did more than stand up. And one time, [Fiennes] was standing in his uniform between shots. And a woman called him, she said how much she loved his uniform and she wished all of you were here to protect us. There were swastikas sometimes painted overnight just for us.
The final scene of survivors adding stones around Oskar Schindler’s grave wasn’t in the script at first.
Spielberg: Three quarters into [filming], I started waking up in the middle of the night, fearing that people who’ve seen Schindler’s List will not believe Schindler’s List. I feared that because I’m so known for films that are not like this. Was people perception of me and my own perception of myself enough to present this movie as truth…which it was. It was the truth, but also the recreation of true events. Then it occurred to me, what if we could get as many of the Schindler’s Juden, the Holocaust survivors, put stones around Schindler’s grave? That wasn’t in the script. That was a desperate attempt from me to find validation from the survivor community itself, to be able to certify that what we’ve done was credible.
Spielberg felt resentment about making Jurassic Park at the same time.
Spielberg: I didn’t want to miss the winter for [Schindler’s List]. I knew I had to be shooting it in January—it came together awfully quickly. When I finally started shooting, I had to go home about two or three times a week and get on a very crude satellite feed to Northern California to be able to approve T-Rex shots. It built a tremendous amount of resentment and anger that I had to do this; that I had to actually go from Schindler’s List to dinosaurs chasing jeeps. All I could express was how angry that made me at the time. I was grateful later in June, but until then it was a burden.
A Seder dinner served as an icebreaker between Spielberg and many of the German and Austrian actors playing cruel Nazi officers.
Spielberg: Most of the actors who played the Polish Jews were from Israel, and I wanted most of the Germans to be German or Austrian. And I just know it was a very hard thing for me to see the uniform and to give instruction in the moment. But when they wanted to talk about Jaws or ET for the first couple weeks, I didn’t want to engage in anything but the work. They were so kind, and such good actors, but the uniform stopped me. And when I said ‘action’, the power that came out of all of them…that one scene where that really kind Austrian actor was shouting at [Ben Kingsley], ‘your papers Jew, your papers’… He was a very gentle, sweet man, and a tremendous actor, but he terrified all of us in that scene. I couldn’t talk to them other than directing. And then Passover happened. And someone organized a Seder in the hotel, and we went to the Seder and we had Haggadahs in front of all of us and everything was in the middle of the table, and then suddenly the German cast came in and the German cast sat next to the Israeli cast and they read from the same Haggadah…German, Israeli, German, Israeli, and I started crying. That broke me. And the next day I talked about ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, whatever they wanted to talk about.
A lot of the set pieces and acting were based on real trauma.
Spielberg: Like when [the women] entered the bathhouse (when we think there is Zyklon B gas instead of showers) and the Health Action. The actors stopped acting and they existed in reality of the experience. We had two Israeli girls in that scene, who couldn’t shoot for the next three days because they had breakdowns. There was trauma everywhere and we captured that. The Health Action was the most dramatic day of my entire career, having to see what it meant to strip down to nothing. And then completely imagining that could be their last day on earth. It went beyond anything I ever experienced before.
Liam Neeson’s first day on-set was at the gates of Auschwitz.
Neeson: There was a lot of stuff going on at that time. I was falling in love with my wife, who’s passed away, and I was feeling unworthy, even though Steven had cast me in this, I really did feel unworthy, and I’m not looking for smoke to be blown up my ass. I had just come off Broadway, and Steven wanted me to put on weight – his office gave me protein powders that I tried to take. I was throwing up, I couldn’t take it (however pints of Guinness did work.) And then, I finished the play I was doing on a Sunday afternoon, flew to Poland on Monday, had very hurried costume fittings. On Wednesday morning, incredibly early, we were at the gates of Auschwitz, 5, 5:30, 6 am, freezing cold…train, guard dogs, German actors, the whole shebang. And Steven pacing up and down, very nervous, and everybody on tenterhooks. I was on a set, quite nervous, wondering when we would get to my little bit, pulling the little Jewish girl, saying “I need her to polish the inside of a metal casing”. Branko Lustig (producer and actor), looking at the real huts of Auschwitz comes up to me and says, “you see that hut there? That was the hut I was in.” And it hit me, big fucking time, boy, big time. So I did my little scene, and my knees were really shaking, And I kept saying the line wrong.
Ben Kingsley and Liam Neeson had a wonderful on-set friendship.
Kingsley: We used to have ritualized glass of vodka some evenings. I remember there were times when Liam’s magnificence and generosity mirrored his character – we were both so exhausted and he was like a general, giving me this vodka glass and said, “Let’s just do our job.” That beautiful. That simple. He is a wonderful man.
Neeson: You just reminded me—when the Jewish actors and actresses were coming back from particularly arduous days, we did stay on and buy them drinks. That was lovely, I remember. We would hug them…those were lovely evenings.