Turning Point -- `Schindler's List' Signals Spielberg's Dramatic Departure From Dinosaurs And Spaceships To Real, Personal Emotion

NEW YORK - "I'm not, in real life _ some of my friends know this, but not everybody knows it _ I'm not, in real life, what I am in my movies," Steve Spielberg insists.

He says this because he wants you to understand that, as far from reality as most of his movies are _ all those mega-hits drenched in fantasy, all those commercial juggernauts like "Jaws," "E.T." and "Jurassic Park" _ the new one, "Schindler's List," is the picture that reveals him.

"Schindler," indeed, will radically reshape Steven Spielberg's persona, make it impossible to dismiss him any more as box-office king of the high-tech movie brats.

Based on Thomas Keneally's history, it's a three-hour biography of Oskar Schindler, a real-life German factory-owner in Krakow, Poland, who decides to rescue his Jewish workers from the extermination camps, and wages a relentless battle of wits and chutzpah with Himmler's S.S. and the Gestapo. "Schindler's List," which opens Wednesday, not only redefines Spielberg. Full of twists and paradoxes, it throws new light on every Spielberg film that precedes it.

Reveals his personal side

After years of being associated almost exclusively with the emotions of childhood, he's examined another area, a realm so terrifying that adults become more powerless than children, more dependent and victimized. After years of playful, roller-coaster terror, he gives us terror raw.

But does "Schindler" really show a side of him invisible before?

"Not until this movie," Spielberg insists, and chuckles. "Not until this time! This is the first time I've ever allowed a part of myself that I use all the time in my life, with my children, with my wife and with my friends, to get into a movie.

"Now, a lot of my life got into `E.T.' My life flooded `E.T.' Some of my life got into `Empire of the Sun,' though that was designed to celebrate the end of innocence.

"But, in my life. . . . Hey, I have a life! You only know me through the films I've made.

"And I try very hard not to know myself through my films, because once I do that, I sometimes squint, and I sometimes flinch, and I go: `Ooooh, really? Oooohh. . . .' I do have another life. . . ."

Up to now, it seems his life has been the movies. The movie world of shark hunters, flying saucer chasers, extraterrestrials and Indiana Joneses: the movie magic he recreates for adults and families who share his nostalgia.

He's worked, with phenomenal financial success, in the greatest mass-market arena: putting, as director, seven films among Variety's all-time top 20 grossers (including the top two, "Jurassic Park" and "E.T."). Yet it's "Schindler's List," a project Spielberg has owned and developed for 11 years _ a $22 million, 3-hour, black-and-white art film about the Holocaust _ that, he insists, is the film that reveals his heart and soul.

Spielberg pauses. Revelation is perhaps not as easy as he thought.

"It's the first movie I ever made where I have a personal commitment to an idea, a personal commitment to a . . . message. A theme. Something that was as close to me growing up as my children are to me today. . . ."

Oskar Schindler's story first came to Steven Spielberg in 1982, the year of "E.T." Back then, Universal head Sid Sheinberg, Spielberg's longtime mentor sent him a favorable New York Times review of "Schindler's List" by Thomas Keneally, a much-admired Australian writer.

An amazing story

It was an incredible, madly inspiring tale. During World War II, Schindler, a Catholic German ceramics manufacturer, Nazi Party member and outrageously charming hedonist, had saved more than 1,300 Jews destined for the death camps, by employing them in his factories and, with amazing courage and guile, shielding them from the Nazi government. Schindler was not, by ordinary definitions, a "good," God-fearing man. He was a womanizer with a rare talent for carousing, whoring and partying his way through the war along with his Nazi employers, whom he feted and bribed shamelessly. That's why the Nazi officials loved him, why he could manipulate them repeatedly to save his Jewish workers.

Leopold Page, a Beverly Hills luggage dealer who was among the 1,300 people Schindler saved, learned Spielberg had read the book and lobbied him to make it a movie.

"It was 1982, right after `E.T.' " Spielberg remembers. "I didn't know who I was in '82. And I also felt it was over my head. I tried to give the project away to other directors - Marty Scorsese, Sydney Pollack - but it kept coming back to me.

Page "would call me regularly for years: `I don't see any activity! I don't see anything happening on this project.' I'd ask if he wanted to try someone else and he'd say `No! You're the one. I'm staying alive so you can make this movie. . . . I'm 71 years old when you buy the book,' he told me back in 1982, `Don't let me die before you make this into a film!' You see: huge Jewish guilt, Jewish top-spin."

It was while working on the $80 million Peter Pan fantasy "Hook," a project he describes as "made in creative neutral," that Spielberg suddenly decided "Schindler's List" would be his next film.

What fueled that determination? A web of influences, including the birth of his son Max in 1985, on the fourth day of shooting of "The Color Purple," the subsequent changes fatherhood wrought, and the new confidence he felt in directing actors since filming "The Color Purple" and "Empire of the Sun" in 1987.

Also there was his mounting distress at current events. "There was CNN reporting every day on the equivalent to the Nazi death camps in Bosnia, the atrocities against the Muslims - and then this horrible word, `ethnic cleansing,' cousin to the `Final Solution.'

"And on top of all that comes the media giving serious air time and print space to the Holocaust-deniers, the people who claim that the Holocaust never happened, that 6 million weren't killed, that it's all some kind of hoax. . . .

"I'm very politically conscious. I don't go out there and lead rallies, but I'm very active in a quiet way. I have opinions on everything. But I'd always told everybody that I'd never put it into one of my movies, but I'd save it for TV, where I could get more of an audience. I'd say: Don't count on me for something important in the cinema. I'll do it for TV someday." Religion influenced decision

Finally, there was Spielberg's deepening consciousness of his own Jewish identity, something relatively dormant since his youth.

Back then, his family, wherever they lived, whether in Cincinnati or Arizona or San Jose, Calif., were always a group apart. "We were always a Jewish family in WASP suburbs. Isolated, in a gentile culture."

Ironically, it's those mainstream American households that he celebrated in films like "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T."

"I wanted to assimilate," he says. "I always felt left out. I wanted to be accepted, like everybody else: a faceless member of the popular majority. I did not want to be a special tribe."

Spielberg refused his parents' admonitions to wear a yarmulke. And, when his grandfather came to the playground where Steven and his friends played football and called out the boy's Hebrew name - "Shmuel! Shmuel!" - Spielberg would ignore him, pretend he was calling someone else.

Yet, each week, Spielberg's parents, who were born in Cincinnati not Eastern Europe, would spin their tales of the Holocaust, tell him of Austrian and Polish relatives in the camps, recall his grandfather's cousin: a concert pianist whose fingers were broken by brown shirts.

Spielberg now claims he's seen Judaism from two sides: one of shame, one of pride. As a child, he says: "I heard more about the Holocaust than I did about the Kennedy assassination. . . . It was always: `Tell your children. We have to bear witness.' I heard `bear witness' so much, it almost became a Jewish cliche."

Dinosaurs get in the way

Universal's Scheinberg was the man who had first steered Spielberg toward "Schindler's List." But Universal executives had other priorities - mainly another hot project Spielberg, their old wunderkind, had brought them, based on Michael Crichton's bestseller "Jurassic Park."

Afire with enthusiasm, Spielberg wanted to start shooting "Schindler" right away. Universal insisted he make "Jurassic Park" first.

"They put a lot of pressure on me. They basically said to me: `Both films are important to this company. "Schindler's List" may be to the world, but financially, "Jurassic Park" is very important to (the company). We are not going to give you the money to make "Schindler's List" unless you make "Jurassic Park" first.'

"And they meant it."

So, fascinatingly, Spielberg directed "Jurassic Park," the movie which became the biggest worldwide box-office grosser of all time, as part of an agreement to get to another movie, the one he really wanted to make.

And perhaps the fact that he was committed to getting it done expeditiously helped "Jurassic," gave it a lighter, breezier feel. Working at top speed, racing to make Poland's winter to film "Schindler's List," Spielberg finished the logistically dazzling, technically complex "Jurassic Park" in 70 days, 14 ahead of schedule.

Sentimental ending

"Schindler's List" ends with a scene that may qualify as one of the all-time great movie tear-jerkers, one that recalls, in a weird way, the climax of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." After three hours of stunning monochrome evocations of a horrific past - shot in black and white, Spielberg says, because that's how we mostly remember the Holocaust - he shows a contemporary scene, in color, at the Catholic Cemetery in Jerusalem, where Schindler is buried.

At Schindler's grave, in small groups, dozens of the surviving Schindlerjuden, the people he saved, file by, accompanied by the actors who play them in the movie - and, at the end, Oskar's widow, Emilie - each placing a small stone on the grave to mark their passage. It's a scene that might wring tears from a stone.

Because of that sequence and many others, the film should be an odds-on favorite for the next Oscar.

Spielberg himself says: "I'm prouder of `Schindler's List' than anything else I've ever done."