Spielberg reflects on life as a Jew and a filmmaker

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.

Steven Spielberg (photo credit: Courtesy: Kim Fox)
Steven Spielberg
(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.
Recently, after launching his iWitness Video Challenge (see related story), he sat down for an exclusive interview.
Would you have made Schindler’s List without your own Jewish background? 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 Reform.
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 Holocaust.
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 scary? 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 story.
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? When 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 personality? 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.
I 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 these films? 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 were.
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? I 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.
Susan Freudenheim contributed to this interview.