This Day in Jewish Movie History: Spielberg Tackles The Holocaust

Schindler's List premiered in Washington, D.C. on this day in 1993.

Twenty-four years ago, Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust drama “Schindler’s List” premiered in Washington, D.C. and the film is still as moving as it ever was. America’s Capitol may seem a weird place for a movie premiere, but this was one movie that would have felt out of place at a big studio premiere in sunny Los Angeles. 1993 was also the same year that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened its doors to the public.  

Shot in a grainy black-and-white meant to emulate the newsreels of the 1940s, “Schindler’s List” tells the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German industrialist who helped save hundreds of Jews from extermination in the Płaszów concentration camp by allowing them to work in his factory. A serial adulterer with a taste for an opulent lifestyle, Schindler gives up everything he owns to help these people. The moments where he begins to develop a conscience and stand up to the Nazi regime are just as powerful as the parts where Jews are being murdered in cold blood. Schindler was buried in Israel and there’s even a tree planted in his honor at Yad Vashem, the most famous Holocaust museum in Israel. Spielberg played a big part in the establishment of the museum’s visual center.

It’s the graphic content that makes this movie unique. For one, Spielberg refused to be paid for his work on the film, according to Joseph McBride’s “Steven Spielberg: A Biography,” calling any paycheck he could receive as “blood money.” Moreover, the entire grueling experience drove him to found the Shoah Foundation, which has the sole purpose of recording survivor stories. In fact, McBride's book also purports that being on set every day was so emotionally-draining for Spielberg that Robin Williams would call him with jokes at night to cheer him up. Franciszek Palowski's in depth look at the making the movie says that the director also spent his evenings editing Jurassic Park and overseeing the progress of the CGI-extensive post-production, which would be released that summer. 

Another great anecdote from filming is when the German actors put on yarmulkes and sat next to the Jewish actors for a Passover seder; the movie was made over 75 days in late winter/early spring of ’93. "All the German actors showed up. They put on yarmulkes and opened up Haggadas, [the Seder text] and the Israeli actors moved right next to them and began explaining it to them. And this family of actors sat around and race and culture were just left behind." Spielberg told Newsweek the same year.

While there are plenty of Holocaust dramas out there, “Schindler’s List” is notable for its authentic and unflinching look at one of the darkest moments in Jewish history. The performances, the cinematography, music, costumes, and set pieces are not gaudy or impressive. They are uniquely plain yet speak volumes. The movie doesn’t allow its viewers to hide behind special effects or explosions. It is history, exposed and splayed out for all to see. You must watch as a Nazi officer shoots a one-armed old man in the head. There’s no camera pan away from the violence forcing the viewer to confront it. 

Other Spielberg projects also tackled Judaism during wartime (think “Saving Private Ryan” and “Munich”) but none of the other projects endure as eternally as “Schindler’s List.” It is as near perfect as a movie can get, and the message it carries can be summed up in two simple words. Never Again.

Blueprint reached out to Amblin Entertainment for comment on the movie's anniversary. They did not immediately respond to the request for comment.

schindler's list

steven spielberg


Yad Vashem

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