As a writer myself and an aspiring film enthusiast, I wonder if what makes your creation or story good is not only the time and focus you put into it, but also knowing what makes you, you. For Steven Spielberg, he gained an appreciation for his Jewish heritage and it was not until he directed Schindler’s List that he actually embraced it.
His mom, Leah, ventured outside of her own Jewish roots and while Spielberg and his siblings grew up, she moved her children into a neighborhood where no Jews lived. She quickly learned what a mistake that was since the neighbors uncovered the roots anyway and the other kids would call them “dirty Jews.” When others pushed him around because he was Jewish, Spielberg sought a deeper answer when he was sixteen years old in an interaction with the same boy who bullied him.
“Instead of challenging him to a fight after school, I worked on making this boy into my friend,” Spielberg explained in a 2014 interview with USA Today. “It turned out his reason for bullying me was a fear of Jews. This taught me a lot — we became good acquaintances.”
In an older interview with The New York Times, Leah also observed that her son was “not terribly gregarious, not a fabulous student, but always saw things differently than anybody else.”
To add a personal note in that regard, sometimes people mistake shyness for reservation or reflective thoughts. Sometimes the deepest work for a writer, musician, movie director, or artist sparks when they listen to the world and do less talking.
Spielberg heard stories of Nazis breaking fingers off from Jews who were involved in the creative arts, including a pianist who performed a symphony that the government had disapproved of. Once he released Schindler’s List in 1993, he admitted that he felt his life take another course while he directed it and learned others’ stories. He produced the film in black-and-white instead of in color. The only part where he shows color in the film is the girl in the red dress, which we later learn as an audience is an indication he cannot save everyone, even if he wants to.
While Spielberg hired professional actors, for the first part of the film he focused on scenes of random Jews at the labor camps to show the real scenario of what was going on. The Nazis also did call them out and ask them their names before they decided what they would do with them, either kill them or spare them—at least for a time. One woman who studied engineering at a university observed that unless the camp rebuilt the foundation, it would cave in and kill them all. That alerted the Jews to what lay ahead of them and so, despite her defensive statement that she was just doing her job, a Nazi soldier shot her.
The Jews are stifled with any opportunity or a means of thinking for themselves. Spielberg’s choice also shows in no matter if Jews speak up, they are eventually destroyed anyway or remain at the mercy of those who choose to risk their own lives and save the Jews.
A couple of characters protect the Jews, including the main protagonist named Mr. Oskar Schindler who takes Jews into his own factory to keep it operating. While he does not murder any Jews, he has his own flaws such as being an alcoholic, a womanizer, and a money lover that affect the people around him.
His ulterior motive in hiring Jews was to rip-off labor from them while he pays them sparse wages. But in the end, the redeeming aspect is the care he accumulates for the Jews. He experiences a gray area when he admits to his accountant he kissed a Jewish girl and has a revelation he may be falling in love with her. After he presents a speech where he admits his fault, Schindler also asks for forgiveness from the Jews whose family members ended up murdered.
In a way, it reflects the impact on Spielberg’s own heart from making the movie and learning about the different characters’ individual stories. He even said in movie commentary that it changed the course of his life. Toward the end of the film, Spielberg changed the scenes to color to indicate that the present still has a hope that the people affected can remember the loved ones they lost and still move into a brighter future because of that.
What I enjoy about Spielberg overall is his ability to weave moralistic themes through complex people. Life is not cut and dry, but it is the characters who improve the life afterward and learn how they can work together despite such a tragic horror like the Holocaust. Spielberg, however, does not try to end the story happily, but he relays the information as it happened in the best way he can.
Because sometimes in life, there are no answers, despite the desperation with which we seek them. Sometimes all we can do is learn from history and that humbles us to transform into better humans and have the power to change perspectives from even the ugly stories.