Heart of Darkness

Ghosts in their millions haunt Steven Spielberg's powerful Schindler's List

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Finally, that storyteller, a master of movie technique, must have sensed in this tale elements that would bring out the best in him. Spielberg has always been a man who likes to work on big, crowded canvases, but he has never challenged his skills with a subject so dense and dark as this one, never used them with more tact or to better dramatic and emotional effect. There is a kind of morality -- a respect for one's tools and materials and for the intelligence of the beholder's eye -- in the craftsmanship he has deployed. It serves the interests of the tale, not the ego of the teller. In the annals of Hollywood "clout," this is almost as astonishing as the movie itself.

Or as Spielberg told the cast, "we're not making a film, we're making a document." Documents, of course, are printed in black and white, and so is Schindler's List. To Spielberg, these are the colors of reality. They may also be part of an effort to find the cinematic equivalent to the style of Keneally's 1982 novel, which is marvelously understated -- the only way to go, really, when your subject is so overwhelming that all but the simplest words are bound to fail it.

Spielberg strove for a similar artlessness with his camera. The film was made on location in Cracow, using the actual factory Schindler operated, even the apartment he once inhabited. The scenes in which the Jews are forced into the ghetto or endure the torments of camp life are shot documentary style, with hand-held cameras. As Spielberg says: "I didn't want to direct off a Cecil B. DeMille crane. I wanted to do more CNN reporting with a camera I could hold in my hand." To enhance this effect, he eschewed storyboards for only the third time in his 14 films. Instead in some sequences he filled several streets with hundreds of extras, rehearsed them extensively, then sent his cameras and the actors who had lines to speak into the melee, often requiring them to improvise dialogue and bits of business.

The process energized Spielberg, who "felt liberated for the first time in my career." He was finally realizing a dream he first entertained more than a decade ago and delayed while awaiting both the script he wanted (it was provided by Steven Zaillian, writer-director of Searching for Bobby Fischer) and the maturity in himself he felt he needed. Onlookers say he never sat down, never retreated to his trailer, and that he one day made an astonishing 51 setups. Yet always he moved in an aura of "austere calm . . . a man at peace with himself," in the words of co-producer Gerald Molen. At some point, impeccable professionalism simply merged with obsession.

Ben Kingsley, who plays Itzhak Stern, the Jewish accountant who both cooked the books for Schindler's lifesaving scams and served as guide to his conscience, was astonished at Spielberg's nerve: "I didn't think he would have the courage and the panache and the command to fill an area of five blocks, a big area of action where you are receiving information from what's happening in the foreground, in the midground and also in your peripheral vision." But these are among the greatest sequences of chaos and mass terror ever filmed.

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