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history repeating

‘Schindler’s List,’ still the definitive Holocaust drama

Ben Kingsley (center) as Itzhak Stern in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”Universal Pictures/Globe File photo

It’s been 20 years since the release of “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg’s haunting film about the Holocaust, and special attention is being focused on it this week, on the eve of Yom HaShoah, which commemorates the victims of the Holocaust.

It tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and Nazi party member who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jews. The film was epic in scale. Nearly 30,000 people worked on it. Much of it was shot amid the remnants of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow, Poland, and part of it filmed on an ambitiously realized set that was a replica of a forced labor camp, complete with 34 barracks and seven watchtowers. (It was built from scratch using the original 1940s archival blueprints.) The film, which runs more than three hours, was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won seven, including picture, director, and original score — the latter for searing theme music by John Williams, which featured violinist Itzhak Perlman.


It was hardly the first time the story of the Nazi genocide had been portrayed in film, at least as a backdrop, including the dramas “Sophie’s Choice” in 1982 and “Au Revoir Les Enfants” in 1987. In 1985, there was Claude Lanzmann’s 9½-hour documentary, “Shoah,” which told the story through interviews with survivors, witnesses, and former Nazis. But “Schindler’s List” made the Holocaust accessible for the first time to a broad swath of the public. When it was first shown in Boston, it drew enormous crowds: Globe photographer John Tlumacki was assigned to photograph the long lines of moviegoers queued up to get in, and he recalls that many of them were already in tears.

“The film resonated because there had not yet been, in popular culture, a strong figure who could help navigate the complexities of what it meant to come out of the Holocaust,” said Stephen D. Smith, executive director of USC Shoah Foundation — the Institute for Visual History and Education, which was founded by Spielberg in 1994 after being inspired by the stories of the survivors he met in Poland during filming. Its mission was to videotape the first-person accounts of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses.


“Audiences were able to follow the vagaries of Schindler’s life, a Nazi who was profiteering but who ultimately did the right thing. People grabbed onto the coattails of Schindler’s character and went through his journey, and at the end came through it with some sort of — I don’t want to use that word redemption — but of hope that not all was lost. ‘Schindler’s List’ gave permission for people to speak about the Holocaust on a number of different levels. It also gave survivors permission to tell their stories.”

Yet, among critics, there was no consensus on what to make of it, owing at least in part to the fact that some couldn’t seem to evaluate “Schindler’s List” apart from the context of Spielberg’s work in the pop domain. A review in the Globe called it “a triumph of existential immediacy,” while another sniffed at the “dramatic artifice” and “shameless” ending. One New York Times critic declared that Spielberg displayed “an electrifying creative intelligence [and] made sure that neither he nor the Holocaust will ever be thought of in the same way again.” Another suggested he was either an “idiot savant” or “a misguided bar mitzvah boy.”

The past 20 years may have answered that question. Spielberg is a man who has the means to make things happen, and he made the USC Shoah Foundation happen. During its first two decades, it’s collected and indexed more than 50,000 testimonies of survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides. And this week Spielberg announced the creation of a new Center for Advanced Genocide Research at the University of Southern California to study why mass violence occurs and how to prevent it.


And it all got started with “Schindler’s List” — very possibly the most ambitious bar mitzvah project of all time.

“Schindler’s List” screens Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at the West Newton Cinema, hosted by Temple Beth Avodah. Admission is free.

Linda Matchan can be reached at l_matchan@globe.com.