Begins Reaping Accolades

Beginning with three Golden Globe Awards in January, 1994, director and producer Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List was honored widely for its powerful depiction of factory owner Oskar Schindler’s successful efforts to protect twelve hundred Polish Jewish workers from extermination by the Nazis. The worldwide success of Schindler’s List challenged indifference, ignorance, and denial regarding the historical realities of the Holocaust.

Summary of Event

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Steven Spielberg Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Steven Spielberg[Spielberg] built an international reputation as a director of amazing skill and vast popular appeal. The success of Jaws (1975), Spielberg’s first of many blockbusters, reportedly saved Universal Pictures from bankruptcy. In 1982, when Universal bought the film rights to Australian author Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, Schindler’s Ark (Keneally)[Schindlers Ark] a nonfiction novel about the Holocaust, Spielberg was not an obvious choice to direct. As Spielberg said in numerous interviews, he needed ten years to grow into such a daunting project. During the intervening decade, Spielberg directed two period dramas—The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987)—with mixed results while continuing to dazzle audiences with fantasy-adventure entertainment. Keneally tried his hand at writing a screenplay based on his book, but the script was finally passed to veteran script doctor Steven Zaillian, whose screenplay was later revised repeatedly during filming. Schindler’s List (film)[Schindlers List]
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[kw]Schindler’s List Begins Reaping Accolades (Jan. 22, 1994)
Schindler’s List (film)[Schindlers List]
Motion pictures;Schindler’s List[Schindlers List]
Holocaust;Schindler’s List[Schindlers List]
[g]North America;Jan. 22, 1994: Schindler’s List Begins Reaping Accolades[08810]
[g]Europe;Jan. 22, 1994: Schindler’s List Begins Reaping Accolades[08810]
[g]United States;Jan. 22, 1994: Schindler’s List Begins Reaping Accolades[08810]
[g]Poland;Jan. 22, 1994: Schindler’s List Begins Reaping Accolades[08810]
[c]Motion pictures and video;Jan. 22, 1994: Schindler’s List Begins Reaping Accolades[08810]
Schindler, Oskar
Spielberg, Steven
Keneally, Thomas
Page, Leopold
Kaminski, Janusz
Lustig, Branko

Joining Spielberg as producers on Schindler’s List were frequent associate Gerald R. Molen Molen, Gerald R. and Branko Lustig, a television producer and survivor of Auschwitz. The reported budget of $25 million was considered modest, especially in comparison with the $63 million cost of another Spielberg project, Jurassic Park (1993). Despite the objections of the studio, Spielberg insisted on black-and-white cinematography for the core narrative in Schindler’s List, and he was equally adamant about location shooting in Poland. To add to the desired art-film effect, Spielberg cast relatively unknown, non-American actors in the leading roles: Irishman Liam Neeson Neeson, Liam as the charismatic German entrepreneur Oskar Schindler, Englishman Ralph Fiennes Fiennes, Ralph as the cruel Nazi commandant Amon Leopold Goeth, and biracial Englishman Ben Kingsley Kingsley, Ben as the faithful Itzhak Stern, a composite character based on several Polish Jews who assisted Schindler. Polish and Israeli actors—and Schindlerjuden, Jewish survivors saved by Schindler, such as Leopold Page (born Leopold Pfefferberg)—played the majority of the more than one hundred speaking parts.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski was named director of photography on the film; he headed a predominantly Polish crew. Born and raised in Poland, Kaminski immigrated to the United States when he was twenty-one years old and was educated in American film schools. Shooting began in Kraków, Poland, on March 1, 1993, and was completed ninety-two days later.

After months of intensive postproduction work, Spielberg premiered the greatly anticipated film in Washington, D.C., on November 30, 1993, several months before the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in the nation’s capital. Immediate reactions in the popular press were almost uniformly glowing. Frequently mentioned aspects of the film were the riveting, dynamically edited sequence of the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto, the strong performances, and the enigmatic character of Schindler, who transforms from war profiteer to savior. Critics discussed the haunting documentary-like quality of the black-and-white cinematography and the emotional impact of the documentary epilogue, filmed in color in Israel, in which Schindlerjuden, along with the actors who portray them in the film, leave remembrances on the actual grave of Schindler, who was buried in a Catholic cemetery on the slopes of Mt. Zion in 1974. Many public officials, including President Bill Clinton, Clinton, Bill urged Americans to see the film; popular talk-show host Oprah Winfrey Winfrey, Oprah claimed she was a “better person” for having seen it.

On January 22, 1994, Schindler’s List received the first of many official accolades to come: Golden Globe Awards Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture (Drama), Best Director, and Best Screenplay. The film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and won seven, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (Adaptation), and Best Cinematography. Academy Awards;Best Picture
Academy Awards;Best Director
Academy Awards;Best Screenplay
Academy Awards;Best Cinematography Major awards from Japan and Britain joined scores of other honors from around the world. Spielberg attended eventful premieres of Schindler’s List in Germany and Israel, spoke about the project in a wide range of venues, and arranged for free educational screenings of the film.

Negative responses to Schindler’s List took longer to surface, but some were strongly expressed. Several publications—including The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic—printed second, unfavorable reviews of the film in response to earlier praise. Academic writers were especially vociferous in their objections. The most extreme position challenged any photographic representation of the Holocaust, pointing to Shoah (1985), Shoah (film) the 563-minute, interview-driven documentary by French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, as an admirable example of such rigorous exclusion.

More often, commentators decried Spielberg’s decision to focus on a Holocaust story, albeit a true one, that featured Nazi redemption and Jewish survival. Critics also expressed concern that the tremendous popularity of Schindler’s List would result in widespread misunderstanding of the overall tragedy of the Holocaust. A related complaint challenged Spielberg’s melodramatic focus on a struggle between “a good German” and “a bad German” while experiences of Polish Jews served as mere backdrop to the mythologizing of a heroic Gentile.

On February 23, 1997, Schindler’s List aired on broadcast television in the United States in an unprecedented format. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) screened all commercial advertising for the time period before the film began and then broadcast the “director’s cut” without interruption. That evening, the docudrama was viewed in sixty-five million American households.


Although the film’s influence continued to be debated, Schindler’s List had an indisputable impact on popular memory. Since its release, the film has served as the master narrative through which many millions have come to know about the Holocaust.

Schindler’s List was a turning point for Spielberg’s directorial career. It earned him the award that had so long eluded him: the Oscar for Best Director. Spielberg would later win a second Academy Award for Best Director for another docudrama, Saving Private Ryan (1998), and a nomination for yet another, Munich (2005). Long admired for the virtuosity and tremendous commercial appeal of his films, Spielberg was finally recognized for directing serious drama with maturity and dignity.

Spielberg’s association with the Schindler project led to the filmmaker’s creation of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, an organization that, between 1994 and 1999, collected the testimonies of fifty-two thousand Jewish and Gentile survivors of the Holocaust from fifty-six countries in thirty-two languages. The resulting 120,000 hours of video became the basis for extensive, widely circulated educational resources. Schindler’s List (film)[Schindlers List]
Motion pictures;Schindler’s List[Schindlers List]
Holocaust;Schindler’s List[Schindlers List]

Further Reading

  • Brecher, Elinor J. Schindler’s Legacy: True Stories of the List Survivors. New York: Penguin Books, 1994. Dozens of personal histories and photographs collected from Schindlerjuden and their families.
  • Crowe, David M. Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. Despite the sensational title, a soundly researched biography with extensive endnotes, bibliography, appendixes, photographs, and index.
  • Keneally, Thomas. Schindler’s Ark. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1982. After interviewing fifty Schindlerjuden, Keneally employed novelistic devices to tell a true story of cruelty, heroism, and survival.
  • Lipkin, Steven N. Real Emotional Logic: Film and Television Docudrama as Persuasive Practice. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002. Discusses Schindler’s List as a prototypical docudrama because it references actual people and events through a melodramatic narrative to make a moral claim.
  • Loshitzky, Yosefa, ed. Spielberg’s Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on “Schindler’s List.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Collection of a dozen scholarly assessments, ranging from celebratory to hostile, of Spielberg’s film.
  • Mintz, Alan. Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. Provides a comprehensive summary of published praise and criticism of Spielberg’s film, in addition to the author’s discussion.
  • Novick, Peter. The Holocaust in American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Ponders the issue of heightened Holocaust awareness in the United States during the decade of the 1990’s.
  • Palowski, Franciszek. The Making of “Schindler’s List”: Behind the Scenes of an Epic Film. Translated by Anna Ware and Robert G. Ware. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol, 1998. Written by Spielberg’s Polish interpreter, this production diary appeared in Poland in 1993, prior to the film’s release.

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