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The Tribeca Film Festival’s 25th anniversary reunion of Steven Spielberg with his Schindler’s List stars Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Embeth Davidtz and Caroline Goodall was surprisingly devoid of discussion about the Holocaust film’s current political relevance, particularly amid the increased prominence of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists and events like last summer’s deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But the acclaimed filmmaker did say that he felt more should be done to educate young people about the Holocaust.
In response to a question about a recent survey that found a lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among millennials, Spielberg said, “It’s not a pre-requisite to graduate high school, as it should be. It should be part of the social science, social studies curriculum in every public high school in this country.”
He clarified that he wasn’t saying his movie should be taught in schools necessarily, but that “these stories that Holocaust survivors have the courage to tell” should be on the curriculum.
Reflecting on the experience, 25 years ago, of making the film about “the banality of the deepest evil,” Spielberg said, “It feels like five years ago.”
Spielberg and the stars watched the movie, along with a packed audience at New York’s Beacon Theatre, before a post-screening discussion moderated by The New York Times‘ Janet Maslin.
For the director, it was the first time he’d watched Schindler’s List with an audience since the seven-time Oscar-winning pic was released in 1993, and he and his actors said they noticed things this time they had previously missed.
Spielberg was surprised by the “long, lingering look” the real Emilie Schindler (played by Goodall) “gives her husband’s grave” in the film’s closing scene, which features the real Oskar Schindler’s Jews placing stones on his grave.
“It blindsided me,” he said.
The director said this scene came about from his own insecurity, three-quarters of the way through filming, that people wouldn’t believe the film was based on true events.
“I’m so known for films that are nothing like this, I didn’t know that if people and the way they perceive me, and my own perception of myself, was enough to be able to present this movie as truth, which it was,” Spielberg said. “I got really worried and it came to me, ‘What if we can get as many of the Holocaust Schindler survivors and get them to put stones on Schindler’s grave?’ That was an idea that was never in the script — that was a desperate attempt from me to find validation from the survivors’ community itself to be able to certify that what we had done was credible.”
For Neeson, though, what he noticed was much more minor and his reaction to it gave the panel a needed moment of comic relief.
The actor pointed out that for a couple of the close-up shots of Schindler getting ready at the beginning of the movie, filmmakers used the second assistant director to show Schindler’s hands, which Neeson said were shaking, something that always bothers him.
On a far more serious note, both Spielberg and Neeson recalled the traumatic experience of filming the scenes at concentration camps.
Two Israeli actors, Spielberg said, had breakdowns after they filmed a scene in which they had to strip down and shower together, with many other people, cramped in a small room, afraid that they’ll be gassed.
“That aesthetic distance we always talk about between audience and experience? That was gone. And that was trauma,” said Spielberg. “There was trauma everywhere. And we captured that trauma. You can’t fake that. [Another scene] where everyone takes off their clothes was probably the most traumatic day of my entire career — having to see what it meant to strip down to nothing and then completely imagine this could be your last day on earth.”
Neeson, meanwhile, who said he felt “unworthy” of being cast in the lead role as he was making the movie, recalled filming a scene near the gates of Auschwitz, where producer Branko Lustig, himself a Holocaust survivor, told him, “See that hut there? That was the hut I was in.”
Neeson said, “It hit me, big fucking time.” The actor then recalled that he was so thrown his knees were shaking as he did his scene and he couldn’t get his lines right.
Spielberg also clarified some rumors about the origins of the pic and, in what may be a relief for those still disturbed by Mel Gibson’s past anti-Semitic comments, when asked if Gibson “could have been cast in the lead,” he said, “That’s not true.”
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