(photo credit: Courtesy: Kim Fox)
Steven Allan Spielberg directed his first film at age 12, with his parents and
sisters as the cast. Now 66, following his production of Lincoln, his creative
juices are flowing as strongly as ever.
Would you have made Schindler’s List without your own Jewish
Recently, after launching his
iWitness Video Challenge (see related story), he sat down for an exclusive
I don’t think Schindler’s List would have compelled me to the extent
that it did had I not been part of a deeply Jewish Orthodox experience growing
up. I was raised Orthodox, then became Conservative and eventually
I don’t think Schindler’s List would have had such a hold on me
had my parents not been such good teachers and had not my grandparents – who
were immigrants from the Odessa region in the Ukraine – risked frightening me to
death with stories of what happened to their friends in Europe during the
I grew up with all these scary stories as a little kid and I
learned to count by reading the concentration camp numbers tattooed on the arm
of a Hungarian survivor in Cincinnati in 1948 and ’49 when I was two to three
years old. I think the book [Schindler’s Ark] by Thomas Keneally would not have
come to my attention had I not been open to it. It would not have somehow
magically entered into my life.Did you ever think of turning away from
making the film because the Holocaust stories you were told as a child were too
No. Kids are drawn to the flame, no matter how hot the flame is. I was a
normal child, a typical child, but I was somehow fascinated by scary stories at
the time.Even if they were real stories?
I didn’t know the stories were
real because I was a kid. A kid can’t tell the difference between reality and a
How about now, as an adult?
I am much more cautious today about
what I let in, because I can be hurt. I don’t like to be hurt. I am more
vulnerable as an adult than I was as a child, because I know more. I know my
history; I know what the odds were of any Jew surviving. As a kid, you don’t
know any of this stuff.You’ve said that when you started filming at the
gates of Auschwitz, the story became personal. How do you mean that?
I started shooting the movie, I realized it was not just a film, but that I was
about to embark on a personal journey. Everything I knew about the Holocaust,
what my grandparents told me, everything I had ever read, all the documents I
had ever seen about what was the worst period of the 20th century [made me
realize] that I would be growing up awfully quickly in Krakow during the
shooting of Schindler’s List.
I knew after the first day of shooting that
it was not going to be easy. I knew that at the end I would come out a different
person than when I went in.How did the experience change your
It certainly took me out of my own first-person and made me much
more empathetic about a third person’s experience – of everybody who survived,
and especially those who didn’t. In other words, I became much less
self-involved.When you were first approached about making Schindler’s
List, you said you wanted to wait 10 years. Why was that?
I knew I wasn’t ready
to do this movie when Sid Sheinberg [then president of Universal Pictures] gave
me Thomas Keneally’s book, Schindler’s Ark, to read in 1982. I knew I wasn’t
ready. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial had just come out in theaters. That movie was
about the imagination; it had nothing to do with the historical record.
needed to grow up and it took several movies to do so. The Color Purple, an
essentially adult story, and then Empire of the Sun – although it’s about a kid,
it’s about the death of childhood, about a kid who loses his childhood. I needed
these two films to really feel courageous enough to then take on the story
Keneally brought to the world.Is there a common theme running through
Yes; it’s about slavery, about “don’t stand by,” about enslaved
populations and enslaved individuals.
And in all these films we talk
about the danger of doing nothing. All these stories are about people who take a
stand and do something that is not predictable – not only what everybody else
thought about them but even what these characters themselves imagined they
Oskar Schindler did something that was so against his grain, his
business acumen, his great ability to make money on the backs of others. The
fact that he changed so still perplexes people who knew him.When you
finished Schindler’s List, you started the Shoah Foundation and also the
Righteous Persons Foundation. Do you find yourself aspiring to be like the
people you portray?
I think that, yes; but I am a consciously righteous person –
a lot of my heroes were subconsciously righteous people. Everything I have
learned about the human condition and the good in everyone, sometimes hidden,
has made me proactive in my giving – has taught me to be a better person, a
better husband and father to my seven children. We hope the kids will draw the
same from the iWitness program, will learn from the example set by the survivors
and go out into the world and put something back in.Much of your
humanitarian and educational efforts, like the iWitness project, seems to be
based on your belief that people can improve themselves, can become kinder and
more tolerant, through education and example. Yet all of history shows that
people will always be prejudiced and warlike. How do you maintain your faith?
was born an optimist and my parents are optimists.
I come from a
good-natured and goodhumored family. Anne Frank said that there is some good in
everyone and my parents believed that and passed that on to me and my sisters.
That doesn’t mean I’m Pollyanna-ish, but it means I have to try and make a
difference. It’s better to try and not succeed than just stand by and wonder,
“What if I had made a better choice or had lifted a finger?” My parents taught
me that and I am trying to teach it to my grandchildren.Do you see
yourself in the kids participating in the iWitness project? Do you remember your
own innocence at that age?
More and more, I see myself in my own kids; I see my
curiosity that I’ve had all my life through my own children and my three
grandchildren, that I’m very close to. I think I am – still – a child.
T.T.Susan Freudenheim contributed to this interview.