Steven Spielberg: People had ‘breakdowns’ on the set of ‘Schindler’s List’

Steven Spielberg: People had ‘breakdowns’ on the set of ‘Schindler’s List’

Last night, the Tribeca Film Festival hosted a 25th-anniversary screening of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning 1993 Holocaust drama “Schindler’s List,” the true story of a Nazi businessman who saved more than a thousand Polish Jews from concentration camps by employing them at his factory. The director and several cast members, including star Liam Neeson, assembled onstage at the Beacon Theatre afterward for a Q&A.

“You can’t help but think about how relevant it still is,” said Embeth Davidtz, who plays Helen Hirsch, the Jewish maid for the brutal Nazi Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes).

Spielberg said he hadn’t seen the film with an audience since its premieres in Germany and Poland in 1994. “Feels like five years ago,” said the director, who revealed that he’d worried about making such an ambitious historical drama at the time (it was the same year he was making the dinosaur blockbuster “Jurassic Park”). “I used to wake up in the middle of the night fearing people would see ‘Schindler’s List’ and not believe it,” he said.

The final scene, in which the actors and the real people portrayed in the film pay tribute at Oskar Schindler’s Jerusalem grave, was “a desperate attempt for me to certify that what we had done was credible,” Spielberg said.

One of the attendees, Emilie Schindler (played by Caroline Goodall, also in attendance), had never been to the cemetery before shooting the scene, Spielberg said. “The long look that she gives her husband’s grave — it blindsided me.”

The director and actors shared memories of how traumatic shooting the film in Poland had been. Swastikas were spray-painted around the set at night, Spielberg said; one local woman complimented Fiennes’ Nazi uniform, saying she was nostalgic for them “protecting us.”

Neeson, who’d flown to the set immediately after starring in a play in New York, recalled filming one of his first scenes: “It was very early in the morning, and we were at the gates of Auschwitz, looking at the real huts of Auschwitz. And Branko [Lustig, one of the film’s producers and a Holocaust survivor] pulls me aside and says, ‘That’s the hut I was in.’ And it hit me. Big f – – kin’ time.”

Neeson and Ben Kingsley, whose characters grow into a close friendship in the film, would have a ceremonial glass of vodka at night, Neeson said. And “when the Jewish actors and actresses were coming back from a particularly arduous day, we would stay up and buy them drinks.”

Still, not everyone was able to cope with the stress of re-creating the horrors of the Holocaust.

One scene in particular, in which a group of girls and women are pushed into a shower fearing that gas will be turned on instead of water, was too much for some. “We had two Israeli girls in that scene who couldn’t shoot for the next three days,” Spielberg said. “They had breakdowns.”

For him, shooting the “health action,” in which the Nazis made their prisoners strip naked and run around the yard to weed out the sick from the healthy, was the worst. “That was the most traumatic day of shooting in my career,” he said.

Spielberg had a secret weapon when it came to maintaining his sanity during the shoot: his friend Robin Williams, who would call once a week at a scheduled time. “He would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “And he’d always hang up on you right when he got the biggest laugh, like a mic drop.”

Kingsley spoke about the near-impossibility of finding language to describe the atrocities of the Holocaust. “But in the hands of a maestro,” he said, “you get echoes of what it really was.”

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