The master of fantasy masters the ugliest reality


Three months from now, Steven Spielberg will almost surely )) win an Oscar for having directed "Schindler's List," an epic about the Holocaust that opens Saturday. He won't win anything for "Jurassic Park." And there's a story there.

Up on the pretentious end of the movies -- where they bump into art and we are forced to take them seriously, even though they come from Hollywood, possibly the least serious place on Earth -- there is something that critics and scholars and buffs call the "auteur theory." The term is French. But the idea is simple: Good moviemakers leave a stamp on their work so distinctive that they might as well be the authors of it.

An ancient example is Alfred Hitchcock. A more modern one is Woody Allen. But the most successful of them all is Steven Spielberg.

Virtually anyone who has been to the movies since "Jaws" in 1975 knows what "a Spielberg movie" is all about: highly JTC polished fantasy, richly colored adventure, swashbuckling action and sweet, sweet manipulation. Mr. Spielberg thrills kids and entertains adults, the hardest movie trick of them all, and his work bubbles and froths with youthful energy. Admirers and detractors both call him Peter Pan.

So we know what to expect from him. Or at least we did. Last June, Mr. Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" was opening what would turn out to be a pretty good run at the all-time box-office record (before it's done playing around the world, "Jurassic Park" should become the most popular movie in history). But Mr. Spielberg wasn't paying attention. He wasn't even around for the opening-night fuss.

Peter Pan was in Auschwitz, filming his Holocaust movie. The "author" of "E.T." and the "Indiana Jones" movies had turned to "Schindler's List," a story, based on fact, about Jews in the camps. Peter Pan was shooting a three-hour-and-15-minute drama in black and white. He was making his masterpiece at last -- making a movie that he admits he could not have conceived making as recently as the 1980s.

"I wasn't mature enough," Mr. Spielberg said -- echoes of Peter Pan indeed. In 1982, he had just delivered "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial," which he remembers having thought of then as "this small, personal movie about children," to Universal Pictures. In return, Sid Scheinberg, who runs Universal, gave Mr. Spielberg a book. It was Thomas Keneally's "Schindler's List." Quite a swap, really; it's hard to figure who got the better deal. Still, this was not a project for Mr. Pan. Not yet.

"I think Sid knew me a lot better than I knew myself 11 years ago, and I don't think he expected me to run out to make the movie right away, because frankly I didn't know how to make that kind of film 11 years ago, I wasn't ready. I had so many other things on my plate that 'appealed' to me more, like 'Indiana Jones' and -- and family entertainment. I was interested in a different kind of movie then."

A different kind of movie: "Schindler's List" comes from a novel based on a story that is widely accorded to be true: that of Oskar Schindler, a Nazi entrepreneur who moved to occupied Poland and made a fortune using ghetto Jews as slave labor in his factory. Something apparently happened to Schindler, however -- some bud of humanity bloomed in the ash, and by the end of World War II Schindler had bankrupted himself literally buying back the lives of "his" Jews, laborers on an essential-workers list that spared them Auschwitz and Birkenau -- Schindler's list.

Schindler was the most unlikely and most complex of heroes, a Nazi who risked his life to save the lives of Jews -- but for Mr. Spielberg he personified the Holocaust in a way nothing else had. The son of Jewish emigres, Mr. Spielberg may have grown up dreaming of Hollywood pulp, but he was as fascinated by World War II and its genocidal subtext as anyone else in his generation -- perhaps more. Eventually, "Schindler's List" would come to seem to him inevitable.

"I was stunned when I read the book. It gave the Holocaust an identity which it hadn't had before. I'd seen every documentary, and read other books on the Holocaust, but not since Anne Frank had I been able to follow the stories of a number of victims and witnesses to these events.

"What gave it a spine for me was watching the inexorable grinding of the gears, the machinery of the final solution. From my perspective on history [Mr. Spielberg is 46], I knew that the Jews were relatively safe in '42, but they weren't in mid-'43. So the narrative in the book is the narrative of history, which is that the Holocaust was a man-made phenomenon of murder that increased in efficiency and productivity as the years wore on. The book has a kind of silent narrative -- you know how it's going to end, and you know what's going to happen to six, seven million Jews, and to millions of other people.

"I have trouble watching the movie because I don't see it as a film. I always like to feel safe watching my pictures as films. I can sit down and watch 'Jurassic Park' -- that's a movie, and that can never happen, at least not today. Most movies I've made as a director can't really happen. And I've taken sanctuary and pleasure in making pictures about things that can't really happen.

"Working on a project that did happen, that could still happen, had its share of pitfalls for me. It's painful for me to talk about it, it's painful for me to think about it, and I can see why people often choose not to think about it -- even Jewish people and especially survivors."

"I don't expect many people to see this film," he said.

At first it sounds like the ultimate in false modesty -- this is Steven Spielberg here, "Always" and "1941" notwithstanding. His name is a marquee attraction. But he is serious.

"I made 'Empire of the Sun,' which had my name on it, and not many people saw that. I hope many people see ["Schindler's List"], but I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't. Nor did I make the picture expecting that my name would be the 'Tom Cruise' for audiences to get their first glimpse at a Holocaust picture that is going to be in their face for three hours.

"I made the movie for everybody, knowing that not everybody will see it. I hope some day the film will assimilate itself through videocassettes, perhaps being shown in high schools. I think the film will do good, but it will take more than a theatrical exhibition of a couple of months for the message to get across."

And so Peter Pan has come to make an epic on his century's greatest horror, and he has made it unsparingly, without compromise, but with the full range of manipulative skills he has brought to bear, for two decades, on pure fantasy. It is clear to anyone who has seen "Schindler's List" that this is, finally, the movie that will bring him his Oscar (through "E.T." and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Color Purple" and the rest, he has never won).

Predictably, Mr. Spielberg will not discuss it. He probably wouldn't anyway, but the subject seems, somehow, beyond a prize. "I don't talk about it," he said. "As long as I don't talk about it, I'm happy."

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