Few films have the social impact of Schindler's List.
What's on your list for movies that you think every person in the world should have to see? What titles come to mind when you think about narratives that matter across all social strata and class? For me, Schindler's List ranks at the top. It's a universal story, based on actual history, that tells us about man's inhumanity, and the fight against oppressors to change the world.
The title Schindler's List is so ubiquitous today that it's hard to think about a time when this film didn't exist. But today, I wanted to take you through the story of how this film came to be, and how its impact on world history changed the way we talk about the Holocaust.
In Spielberg's words, "The true stories of the magnitude and tragedy of the Holocaust are ones that must never be forgotten, and the film’s lessons about the critical importance of countering hatred continue to reverberate today."
Let's get started.
Where did the idea for Schindler's List come from?
In the early 1980s, a historical non-fiction novel named Schindler's Ark was written by Thomas Keneally. The book tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party who becomes an unlikely hero by saving the lives of 1,200 Jewish people during the Holocaust.
For the uninitiated, a non-fiction novel describes actual people and places, with fictional events, dialogue, and scenes added by the author, and reconstructed dialogue where exact details are unknown. You basically mold a story around the facts.
This novel was successful and passed around Hollywood. MCA President Sid Sheinberg saw a review of the novel and sent it to the biggest director in town, Steven Spielberg, who was fresh off the mega-hit E.T. the Extra-terrestrial.
Spielberg liked the book, and Universal acquired it for him. But the movie would take another 10 years to happen.
How did Steven Spielberg come to direct Schindler's List?
Even though Universal acquired Schindler's Ark for Spielberg, he wasn't sure he wanted to be the one who would make the movie. He didn't feel mature enough for the very serious subject matter, and he was not sure he could handle it. He offered it to Roman Polanski, whose mother died in Auschwitz, but he turned it down.
Then the project was offered to Martin Scorsese, who was attached for a bit and stepped away, doing Cape Fear instead. Billy Wilder, who had lost a number of his family in the Holocaust, was also attached but fell off it. And finally, Brian De Palma also considered it for a while.
As the world changed and Spielberg came of age in the '80s, he found himself drawn toward the project, but for a very sad reason. In the late 80s, there was a rise of Nazism in Germany. As the Berlin Wall fell, more and more of these voices were given credence. They said things like that the Holocaust never happened, and there was a disturbing poll Spielberg saw that said people did not believe history.
Character drew Spielberg into Schindler's story.
He said, "When Schindler's List was first published in 1982, Sid Sheinberg of MCA bought it for me to direct. Although I had heard personal stories from the time I was a child, this was the most compelling, unique story. Here was this complex man who was not a survivor but a businessman, a Catholic, a member of the Nazi party who, for reasons we will never know for certain, saved the lives of over 1,100 Jews."
But this was a project that was more than just an interesting person. In another interview, Spielberg said, "My primary purpose in making Schindler's List was for education. The Holocaust had been treated as just a footnote in so many textbooks or not mentioned at all. Millions knew little if anything about it. Others tried to deny it happened at all."
This disturbed him and frightened him. He saw a rise in fascism coming and wanted to head it off before tragedy struck again. So Spielberg went back to Sheinberg and told him he wanted to tackle the project.
But Sheinberg had one condition.
Jurassic Park comes first
Sheinberg greenlit the film on the condition that Spielberg would make Jurassic Park first. Spielberg later said, "He knew that once I had directed Schindler I wouldn't be able to do Jurassic Park."
So in 1993, under immense pressure, Spielberg pulled off one of the most impressive feats in cinematic history and directed Schindler's List while finishing Jurassic Park. It was an insane gamble but showed how much he believed this story needed to be told.
Spielberg told reporters at Tribeca the story, saying. “It was the best draft [Schindler’s List writer Steven Zaillian] had written after [writing] multiple drafts, [so my wife] Kate said, ‘You’re making this movie right now, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, right now!'”
What did right now entail?
“When I finally started shooting… in Poland, 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,” he remembered. “And it built a tremendous amount of resentment and anger that I had to do this, that I had to actually go from [the emotional weight of Schindler’s List] to dinosaurs chasing jeeps, and all I could express was how angry that made me at the time. I was grateful later in June, though, but until then it was a burden.”
Despite this hurdle, production could begin.
Making Schindler's List
No one had high hopes for this movie. It was supposed to be a bomb. The budget was just $22 million. No one had ever made a profitable film about the Holocaust. Spielberg himself didn't take a salary, calling it "blood money."
The film was shot by Janusz Kaminski, in a 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. He used Arriflex 35-III and Zeiss Standard Speed and Super Speed Lenses, the Arriflex 535A and Zeiss Standard Speed and Super Speed Lenses, and the Arriflex 535B and Zeiss Standard Speed and Super Speed Lenses.
According to Wikipedia, "40% of the film was shot with handheld cameras, and the modest budget meant the film was shot quickly over 72 days. Spielberg felt that this gave the film 'a spontaneity, an edge, and it also serves the subject.' He filmed without using Steadicams, elevated shots, or zoom lenses, 'everything that for me might be considered a safety net.'"
Kaminski would go on to win an Academy Award for his work, as would Spielberg. But there were more important things going on than just production.
Nothing could compare to the realization Spielberg had while shooting the movie.
He said, "Every day I realized that had I been standing in those same streets at that time, I would have been killed just for being a Jew."
And he was not alone.
Again, principal photography lasted about 70 days, with the crew shooting in and near actual locations. The studio was originally against the black and white, wanting there to be a color version available for home video, but Spielberg pushed back, telling Lester Holt in an interview, "I don't know the Holocaust in color. I wasn't around then. But I've seen documentaries on the Holocaust. They're all shot in black and white. That's my only reference point. I wanted it to feel real."
In fact, one of the most difficult parts of shooting the movie was Spielberg's own emotions about the subject matter.
He said, "I was hit in the face with my personal life. My upbringing. My Jewishness. The stories my grandparents told me about the Shoah. And Jewish life came pouring back into my heart. I cried all the time."
The film was finished, but the journey to changing the world had just begun.
Schindler's List debuts and changes the world
Schindler's List opened in theatres on December 15, 1993. It spread across the world the next year, with leaders like Bill Clinton urging the greater public to see it. Spielberg himself made sure to greet world leaders who saw it and to emphatically let them know it was up to us to make sure the events in the film never happened again.
The general public embraced the film, with a rare Cinemascore of an A+. Critics did as well, as the film hit many "Top 10" lists for the year. Altogether, the film grossed $96.1 million in the United States and Canada and over $321.2 million worldwide.
But the legacy of this wasn't about being a profitable Holocaust film or even a prestige drama.
It was about telling people an historical truth that some had been denying. Spielberg did something unprecedented after the film left theaters. He found ways to make sure people saw it for free.
How was this done?
Through cooperation with all United States governors, MCA/Universal, and the theater owners, the film was shown to more than two million high school students at free morning screenings, preceded and followed by class instruction and discussion.
It was so successful in the spring semester of 1994, they did it again, even though the film had left theaters. A study guide was commissioned from Facing History and Ourselves. It is still available for free.
Another huge move was that a videocassette of Schindler's List went to every American high school, public, private, and parochial, along with the study guide. The intention was that this could be a door toward wider teaching of tolerance, covering slavery, Indigenous American history, the immigration story, and a wide base of ethnic, religious, and gender issues.
Spielberg was quoted as saying, "It is important that the teachers make the study of Holocaust and issues of hatred and intolerance as relevant as possible so that it can have a real meaning and impact for every individual in their own lives."
Along with this, Spielberg helped develop and found The Shoah Foundation. It furthered the education and established "The Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation" to document the testimonies of thousands of survivors. For Spielberg, he wanted future generations to have these eyewitness accounts to serve as a permanent record. He hoped that there would never be a time we saw Nazism and fascism on the rise again.
The project has collected the testimony of more than 55,000 survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust as well as other atrocities.
"It wouldn't have happened without Schindler's List," he said. "The Shoah Foundation wouldn't exist."
In that way, Schindler's List effectively educated a generation and future generations about the atrocities of the Holocaust. While immeasurable, it took on hate and forced humanity to come to terms with one of the worst things to ever happen. It raised its voice in the face of hate and accomplished something staggering.
It changed world history. Even today, as America has seen a rise in Nazisim, Spielberg is still making the film available to high schools all over the country. Upon the movie's rerelease, he got scores more students to attend screenings and study the film in classes, hoping to stop hate before it took seed.
The girl in the red
Perhaps the lasting legacy of the film, aside from tolerance, is the image of the girl in red. During the liquidation of the ghetto scene, we see a little girl wandering. She serves as the person Schindler and the audience fixate on. The weight of the atrocity that we carry as viewers.
When prompted to talk about one of the only color moments in the film, the girl in red, Spielberg told USA Today, "In (Thomas Keneally's) book, Schindler couldn't get over the fact that a little girl was walking during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. While everyone was being put on trucks or shot in the street, one little girl in a red, red coat was being ignored by the SS."
For Spielberg, that came to symbolize the blind eye world leaders turned to the murders going on in Europe.
"To me, that meant that Roosevelt and Eisenhower—and probably Stalin and Churchill—knew about the Holocaust... and did nothing to stop it. It was almost as though the Holocaust itself was wearing red."
Spielberg's proudest moment
The actual Oskar Schindler died in 1974 and was buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion. He is the only former member of the Nazi Party to be honored in this way. He and his wife Emilie were named Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli government in 1993, something that would be hard to believe could happen without the film highlighting his life.
As we all know, Spielberg and the film went on to win several Academy Awards for Schindler's List, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film also won for Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing.
Spielberg would win another Best Director Oscar for Saving Private Ryan five years later, but for him what happened with Schindler would be his crowning achievement.
"I don't think I'll ever do anything as important," he said. "So this, for me, is something that I will always be proudest of."
Schindler's List is a rare movie whose legacy is just as important as its existence. If you want to know more, please check out Teaching Schindler's List as well as the other resources the Shoah Foundation has to offer.