When diving into cinema, is there a way to be hardcore and just look at art, separate from story? In this case — not so easily, when the harrowing story is beautifully packaged, in all the horror and heartlessness of the Holocaust. But dangerous times calls for making and remembering dangerous art. So, given a few recent Neo-Nazi rallies, that may’ve surprised you, this iconic film should be on your list, right about now.

It’s a historical period drama, ranked one of the most important films of all time –a cinema must. It’s SCHINDLER’S LIST, directed by Steven Spielberg, revered for unveiling the abject savagery of the Holocaust, and simultaneously for its haunting visual audacity. Not even Spielberg wanted to make it, for over a decade, due to its emotional weight, while wondering if he was too young to take on the project, at the time. The story follows Oskar Schindler, a Polish businessman, who, through a series of twists and turns — and co-strategizing from his Jewish colleague — ends up saving the lives of over a thousand Polish-Jewish citizens from the clutches of the Nazis, by employing them to work for him in his factory, during World War 2.   

The 1993 film stars Liam Neeson as wealthy Nazi businessman, Oskar Schindler, Ralph Fiennes as SS officer Amon Göth, and Ben Kingsley as Schindler’s Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, SCHINDLER’S LIST won 7 in total, sealing it as a worldwide-recognized artistic masterpiece, winning Best Cinematography (Janusz Kaminski), Best Art Direction (Allan Starski), Best Editing (Michael Kahn), and Best Music Score (John Williams) — in addition to Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay (Steven Zaillian).

Every artistic element simultaneously spoke to the graphic horrors of lives disrespected and discarded under Nazi-occupation. Yet Spielberg’s artistic collaborators had to think — not only of the harrowing Holocaust story — but also how to deliver physical, literal, and metaphorical nuances of the time-period, its characters, and sets — in order to present a foreboding, terror-filled, circus-like realism that could be felt and experienced by today’s audiences. From a hauntingly lit column of circling cigarette smoke, to an overly starched Nazi uniform, to the tattered clothing of a an emaciated survivor who’s hanging on for dear life, the art-related departments: cinematography, production design, costume, make-up, hair, lighting, music, and later editing, would have to be working collaboratively, and diligently, in sync, like a well-oiled machine to fulfill Spielberg’s aesthetic vision, alongside their own. It’s all in the design.

Details, details, details… The color green, for instance, reads as black, on black and white film, so green was avoided by Spielberg’s costume designer and production designer. Meanwhile, close attention was paid to patterns and textures, and to the distressing of the garments and textiles, to create extra tonalities within the film noirish palette!

Never underestimate what lies beneath a story!

SCHINDLER’S LIST — a World Restoration Premiere — plays at the Tribeca Film Festival in the Retrospective Section. On its 25th anniversary, it’s never been more timely!


Creating the Aesthetics of Horror: Top Ten Facts:

MCA/UNIVERSAL lobbied strongly against Spielberg and his Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (on their first collaboration), as both were determined to shoot the film in black and white; studio heads insisted that it would be too stylized and as a result, a big turn off.

Though reports slightly vary, principal photography began in March, in Krakow, Poland, lasting 72-plus days. An intentional aesthetic choice by Spielberg and Kaminski, 40% of the film was shot handheld, without story-boards, to lend it a freeing, documentary-like naturalism and spontaneity, as inspired by Claude Lanzman’s 9-hour documentary, SHOA (1985), deconstructing the Holocaust.

Spielberg and Kaminski chose to shoot in black and white to mirror gritty German expressionist and Italian neorealist films; and to echo archival images that Spielberg had seen of the concentration camps since childhood. He also hoped to channel starkness and heighten the sense that life (light) was being “drained out of the Holocaust survivors’ worlds” — and everyone involved, for that matter.

Ralph Fiennes — who was chosen by Spielberg for his “evil sexuality” — had to put on 28 pounds to play the part of the flabby sadistic Austrian SS. Captain/Commandant, Amon Leopold Goeth. He drank tons of Guinness to get there!

Production designer Allan Starski’s movie set replica of the forced labor camp at Plaszow was constructed based on plans from the original concentration camp; and was one of the largest sets ever built in Poland. The production built 34 barracks, 7 watchtowers; and also recreated the road into the camp that was paved with Jewish tombstones.

Spielberg’s production managed to get permission to film inside Auschwitz, but chose not to, out of respect for the brutalized victims. Therefore the death camp scenes were actually filmed outside of Auschwitz’s gates, on a set constructed to be a mirror image of the real location on its opposite side.

Costume designer, Anna B. Sheppard — tasked with gathering period costumes for 20,000 extras, from German aristocracy to Nazi uniforms — took out advertisements in papers, seeking to purchase vintage clothes.  Since Poland’s economy was a poor one, many locals were more than eager to sell their clothing, which they had still kept around from the 1930s and ’40s.

In a brutal lengthy scene in which the ghetto is being liquidated by the Nazis, the folk song “Oyfn Pripetshik” (“On the Cooking Stove”) is sung by a children’s choir. The melodic song was often sung by Spielberg’s grandmother, Becky, to her children.

In a 2013 Time magazine article, Croatian producer (and Auschwitz survivor) Branko Lustig recalled one of the most painful production moments for him — the time he had to recruit children to sing songs, as they were being herded onto trucks.

Most of the film was shot on black-and-white emulsion, except the sequences featuring the little girl in the red coat, which were shot in color emulsion and then painstakingly desaturated in a process called roto-scoping, which cinematographer Kaminski describes as “an old version of CGI, except each frame was done by hand.” The red coat symbolized, not only the innocence of blood that had been spilled, but also how members of the highest levels of government in the U.S. and other Europe knew that the Holocaust was occurring, yet did nothing to stop it.   

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BONUS FACT:                 

Also released in 1993, Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK, was the deal-breaker forced upon him; specifically MCA/Universal’s studio head would not approve of the dreary Holocaust film, without Spielberg signing on for dino-driven adventure. So while working in early production on Schindler’s List in winter/spring 1993, he simultaneously edited JURASSIC PARK, at night — pushing him right to the edge. Now that’s double duty!