FILM / The Real Thing: Steven Spielberg, fueller of fantasies, wizard of wonder, is making a film about the Holocaust. It's a million miles from 'ET'. Why is he doing it? Zoe Heller went to Poland to watch the filming and talk to the director.

STEVEN SPIELBERG was having trouble with the SS when we arrived on set, somewhere on the outskirts of Krakow. 'Officers,' he said, adjusting his baseball cap in a gesture of suppressed frustration. 'Please remember this is a crime you're witnessing, OK?'

It was an uncommonly hot day for a Polish April and the Schindler's List production crew was crammed into the muggy, manager's office in an enamelware factory. The job of the SS - a group of Polish extras, growing sticky and distracted in their thick uniforms - was to provide reaction shots when Liam Neeson, Spielberg's male lead, pecked a little Jewish girl on both cheeks and then gave a young Jewish woman a languorous kiss on the mouth. Spielberg was looking for disgust and outrage, but the SS had managed only mild and slightly gormless surprise.

The translator translated Spielberg's reminder and the SS nodded obediently. Under the boiling arc-lights, they practised appalled expressions. In preparation for the fifth take, a man rushed about the set with a Dickensian contraption that belched black fumes. 'Cigarette smoke,' Spielberg explained. 'Everybody smokes in this movie.' He coughed slightly as swirls of grey mist advanced across the set like the pea-souper in a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

'OK, let's go,' he said. The crew sprang to their positions. 'And officers,' Spielberg added, taking a sip of herbal tea, 'let's keep it real.' He smiled at the SS in a kindly way. 'Would you keep it real for me please?'

Spielberg's career hasn't presented him with many opportunities for grappling with the problem of evil. There have been plenty of colourful baddies in his movies, but until now, the most realistically sadistic character he has ever had to direct was probably the killer truck in Duel. With a few exceptions like The Color Purple, Spielberg's world has been fantasy - UFOs, ETs, monster-sharks, little boys who never grow up. As a film-maker, he is best known and most commonly praised for his evocations of the tribulations and romance of childhood. Now he has decided to make a film about the Holocaust. As departures go, this could not be more major.

The dollars 23m ( pounds 15.3m) MCA-Universal production of Schindler's List has been shooting in Krakow since February. Based on Thomas Keneally's 1982 Booker-prize winning novel (published in this country as Schindler's Ark) it tells the true story of a German industrialist and Nazi party member, Oskar Schindler, who arrived in Poland in 1939 anxious to reap the profits of war and ended up saving more than 1,000 Polish Jews from the concentration camps - principally by employing them as unpaid labour in his enamelware factory.

The film stars Liam Neeson as Schindler, Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern, a Jewish accountant who assists Schindler in his mission, and Ralph Fiennes (last seen as Heathcliff in Peter Kosminsky's 1992 remake of Wuthering Heights) as Amon Goeth, the SS Commandant at the Plasow concentration camp in Krakow.

The shooting has gone well so far and the production is three days ahead of schedule, a fact that Spielberg attributes to 'the passionate urgency' everyone feels about the project and, more particularly, the efficiency of his Polish crew.

With him on his Polish sojourn, he has brought a family entourage that includes his wife, his wife's friend, his four-year-old adopted son, his teenage step-daughter, her three friends, a tutor for the girls, and two cooks. To accommodate this little army, he has taken over a small hotel just outside Krakow and had it completely refurbished. New furniture has been bought in Vienna. (When he leaves, it will be donated to a local orphanage.) And a satellite dish has been installed, so that when Spielberg is not night-shooting, he can spend his evenings doing special-effects edits on his forthcoming dinosaur adventure, Jurassic Park. 'It's great; I've got a dish that transfers the material from Poland to Washington, from Washington to San Francisco.'

At weekends, Spielberg flies to Paris, to dub Jurassic Park. And in his rare free moments, he watches American television programmes picked out each week from TV Guide and sent over on VHS from his Los Angeles office.

In spite of these comforts, his stay in Poland hasn't exactly been a gas, he says, and he won't be altogether sorry to leave: 'Schindler's List must be the only film I've worked on where for more than 60 per cent of the movie, no one's cracked a joke, or said anything funny. There are some very moving moments of hope that we're portraying in this movie, but they're rare. My wife won't even watch the dailies any more. She finds them too upsetting. I keep telling her: 'Honey, I'm not going to hold the shot for that long]' Spiritually, I think we'd all like to start breathing again.'

In the factory office, the struggle with the SS went on. 'CUT]' Spielberg yelled and everyone went limp. 'Why,' Spielberg asked, pointing at one of the officers in the foreground, 'are you looking into the lens?' The man shrugged and muttered an excuse in Polish. 'I don't care,' Spielberg said. 'Just don't look in the lens.' A gofer arrived with another cup of herbal tea. The man with the smoke machine reappeared to repair thinning patches in the cigarette fog. Spielberg took the tea and turned, only a little wearily, back to his actors. 'Real, all right? Remember to make it real.'

THE PUBLICITY notes for Schindler's List make the usual boasts about the production's extravagant pursuit of verisimilitude. With its 100 speaking parts and 30,000 extras, the film uses 18,000 individual costumes, most of which, according to costume designer, Anna Biedrzycka Sheppard, are 1940s originals. A complete replica of the Plasow camp - including its roadway made of desecrated Jewish tombstones - has been built in a disused quarry. And for the film's epilogue, surviving members of the real Schindlerjuden group are being flown from around the world to take part in a 'symbolic' sequence with their film counterparts, at Schindler's grave in Jerusalem.

But Spielberg's desire for 'realness' has not stopped at these elaborate measures. His original intention, he says, was to shoot the film in German and Polish - with subtitles. He was forced, in the end, to give up this dream: 'I realised that I really didn't know the languages well enough to be able to tell if the actors were giving good performances or not. Plus I didn't think people would sit through the subtitles.'

But he has at least partly made up for the disappointment, by getting his way on the question of the cinematography. Despite the best efforts of the studio executives, Schindler's List is being shot in black and white.

'We have decided,' Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's director of photography, says, 'to go very real. We're not trying to be beautiful. If people come out and say: 'What a beautiful movie', it would be a failure.'

Spielberg has come close to shooting in black and white before, but always thought better of it at the last minute. 'I could have easily done it with Empire of the Sun or The Color Purple. I actually did Whoopi Goldberg's test for The Color Purple in black and white. And then I chickened out.' He takes off his glasses, rubs his big, ingenuous eyes and smiles. Spielberg has the most boyish and charming of exteriors, but if you watch long enough, you catch glimpses of a quite formidable will.

Working in black and white is clearly a personal triumph for him. But it isn't automatically clear how it will contribute to the authenticity of the film. 'I knew Schindler's List had to be black and white, the moment I decided to make the movie,' he explains. 'It's entirely appropriate because I've only experienced the Holocaust through other people's testimonies and through archival footage which is, of course, all in black and white.'

He will be using local splashes of colour throughout the film but only, he insists, to make dramatic points. 'We're not going to use colour just to change things, or because it's prettier. Black and white is also appropriate because I don't want, accidentally or subconsciously, to beautify events.'

There is room for doubt here. Surely, in today's film language, colour is the realistic medium and black and white the romantic aesthetic? Janusz Kaminski describes the style he has adopted for this film, as 'a mixture of German Expressionism and Italian Neo-realism'. Doesn't Spielberg run the risk of transmuting war-time Poland into a poetic landscape of light and shade?

'No,' Spielberg says. 'Black and white is more grainy and gritty. It doesn't distract the eye so much.' He glances around the set. 'See that bowl of oranges? In black and white, they won't stand out the way they do now. Nothing visually gets in the way of the scene.'

All of this has, he concedes, been hard for the guys at MCA-Universal to swallow. Only Sid Scheinberg, the president of MCA-Universal, whose suggestion it was to make the movie in the first place, thought black and white was a reasonable idea. 'Everybody else had a problem with it,' Spielberg says. 'Nobody at the studio really wanted me to make the movie at all. One studio executive who shall remain nameless said, 'Why don't we just make a donation to the Holocaust Museum - would that make you happy?' I blew up when I heard that.' A twangy righteousness enters into Spielberg's tone when relating the studio's philistinism. 'Then it was: 'Look, we've got a dollars 23m budget' - which is actually a low budget for me - but they said: 'We have this dollars 23m budget and how do we make that back if you go and do it in black and white? Given the subject matter, few enough people are going to come and see it anyway.' '

Acknowledging the commercial risk that Schindler's List represents, Spielberg is 'rewarding' MCA-Universal by not taking a salary for his direction and by giving up 'first dollar gross', the standard deal whereby the director receives his percentage of profits the moment the box office starts taking money. 'The studio will make all their money back before I make a dime,' he says. 'And I'm very happy with that. I would consider a salary blood money. I feel more comfortable knowing that I'm not motivated by material gain.'

IT HAS taken Spielberg more than a decade to get Schindler's List into production. His ambition was first conceived shortly after ET opened in American cinemas in 1982. Most of the intervening 10 years have been spent trying to come up with a satisfactory screenplay.

The first writer to attempt a script was Thomas Keneally himself. Spielberg wasn't happy with the results. 'It's very hard for a novelist to adapt his own novel,' he says. 'It was the same with Peter Benchley and Jaws, Michael Crichton and Jurassic Park. Often they want to change things around and do something different just because they've got bored with their own material.'

The next candidate was Kurt Luedtke, a former journalist who wrote the screenplays for Absence of Malice and Out of Africa. Luedtke toiled over Schindler's List for four years and by the end had only managed to come up with a first draft of the first act.

'I almost forgot about the whole thing in the meantime,' Spielberg says. 'Luedtke couldn't find a way to shake the book down without the movie becoming nine-hours long. I think he also had worries about his own German, gentile extraction.' (Obstructive gentile guilt has also been a feature of shooting. Some of the big, blond Germans who play heinous Nazis agonised about having to act aggressively towards the Jewish characters. Spielberg had to coax them into hitting the Jews with the appropriate ferocity.)

After Luedtke had admitted defeat, Spielberg approached Tom Stoppard about having a go but Stoppard was otherwise engaged and it was Steve Zaillian, author of the screenplay for Awakenings, who eventually provided a viable script.

The long wait may have frustrated Spielberg but there is a sense in which even the delays have contributed to an aura of grand earnestness surrounding the Schindler's List project. Already, Luedtke's four-year struggle to produce 30 pages has become part of the film's romantic legend - a badge of its epic seriousness, just as surely as Spielberg's disavowal of financial interest. The occasional appearance of real Schindlerjuden on the set functions in much the same way. 'Their presence really reaffirms what we're doing here,' Spielberg says, 'that it's important.'

The day I was at the enamelware factory, a Schindlerjude called Niusia Horowitz came to visit. As a 10-year-old, she was sent from Plasow to Auschwitz and lived there for two months before being called up to work in Schindler's factory, where she stayed for the rest of the war. Niusia was the little girl whom Schindler had kissed in front of the Nazis, in the scene that Spielberg was now filming.

It was odd standing next to Niusia - as if the history of the 20th century had suddenly contracted and turned in on itself. This elegant woman - who had been driven from Krakow's Jewish ghetto by the SS, who had staved off hunger pains in Auschwitz by smoking cigarettes made of onion skins and newspaper - was now, half a century later, standing calmly amid a group of unshaven grips in leather jackets and baseball caps, watching her experiences reconstructed by a world-famous director.

Naturally, she cried. 'She says the memory of what they are acting here is fresh like three days ago,' her friend translated for her. At the end of the take, Spielberg came over. 'Did she cry?' he asked, with slightly gruesome eagerness. 'Niusia,' he said, 'the little girl who's playing you would love to meet you.' The girl was duly brought across. Niusia looked embarrassed, confused, moved. For a fleeting moment, the encounter rose above the fixed-up, kitschy quality of the occasion.

Later, Spielberg and one of his producers, Branko Lustig, also an Auschwitz survivor, fell into a disjointed conversation with Niusia and her friend. Spielberg wanted to know about the flames that issued from crematorium chimneys. 'Ask her how high the flames were,' he said. 'About 18 feet would she say?' Niusia seemed to think that was about right.

'Hey, tell her we did that scene yesterday,' Spielberg said, 'with that stuff she told us about people swallowing their jewels in bread when they leave the ghetto.'

Niusia's friend said a man he'd met couldn't swallow anything when he left Auschwitz. 'Yeah,' Spielberg said, 'you have to wean starved people with porridge, like cats.'

'Do you ever feel like it didn't happen?' Branko asked. 'Sometimes when I'm skiing in the mountains, I think I must have just read about it. And then I look at my number.' He rolled up his sleeve to show his tattoo. 'No,' Niusia said, 'for me the memory is always fresh.'

When shooting restarted, I asked Niusia if she had any doubts about a Hollywood portrayal of the Schindler story. She paused. 'Yes and no,' the friend translated. 'At first I thought it would be just another big American film. But I have watched him on the set - his knowledge of the subject is great. Naturally, the fact that he is Jewish makes a difference. Another director might not be so emotionally involved.'

Spielberg is inclined to agree. His emotional involvement has never been greater, he says. 'This is the first movie I've made for my mother and for people of her generation. With this movie, I'm doing service to my Jewishness for the first time. I was raised in an orthodox family but in Arizona, in a gentile environment. I didn't have any Jewish friends. I was an outsider and as a result, I wasn't proud of my Jewish heritage - I was ashamed. I never imagined I'd get to the point where I regarded my Jewishness as an asset.'

Spielberg's rediscovery of his Jewishness began when he started working in Hollywood and friends would invite him round to their houses for Seder. 'It was - well, not exactly a traditional Jewish rebirth, more a traditional, Jewish, Hollywood rebirth.' Later, when he started a family, he realised that he wanted to bring up his children in the Jewish faith. And now he is making a film that pays his dues to the roots that he ignored for so long. 'I'm paying them from my heart, not just my conscience. I mean, I really, really wanted to do this movie.'

He denies that Schindler's List is his big bid for artistic credibility. 'Naah, Duel, ET - they were full up of artistic credibility. I've enjoyed plenty of credibility already - until everybody got sick of me in the US . . .' He laughs. 'But no, this isn't an art-house movie.'

A passing crew member, overhearing, yelps in mock outrage. 'It is art, Steven]'

Spielberg laughs again and adjusts his baseball cap. 'I guess it depends what you mean by art-house movie. Is this a Merchant Ivory kind of movie? No. Is it Citizen Kane? No - there's only one of those. Is it the first movie I've made that is personal to me? No - it's the second. ET was the first personal movie I made. This is the first movie with a message I've ever attempted. It's a very simple message - that something like this should never happen again. But it's one that's very close to my heart.'

Of course, it's precisely testimony like this that gets the people at MCA-Universal chewing their fingers. Of all Hollywood genres, the 'labour of love' or 'pet project' is probably the most feared and reviled. And studio executives aren't the only doubters. There are plenty of others who worry about Spielberg's weakness for gloopy sentiment. Can he, they ask, resist turning the Holocaust into a misty, water-coloured memory?

This concern was part of what was at work when the World Jewish Congress raised objections to Spielberg filming inside Auschwitz. Their ostensible reasons were that the film crew would bring chaos and an atmosphere inappropriate to the site. Henryk Halkowski, president of the Jewish Cultural Association in Krakow, recalls that when the War and Remembrance TV production filmed in the camp, they stuck up signs saying: 'Extras' lavatories in the crematorium'. 'It was not,' he remarks, 'very sensitive.' But it wasn't just the idea of a movie that upset people. It was the idea of a Spielberg movie. Spielberg ended up filming only outside the Birkenau gatehouse. 'Documentaries in Auschwitz are all right,' says Kalman Sultanik, vice-president of the WJC, 'but you can't control fiction. You may get an offensive interpretation.' Halkowski is blunter. 'Nobody wants a Hollywood Holocaust.'

Is this prejudice? Can we really be certain of what Spielberg's portrayal of the Holocaust will be like? Some clues were provided in his recent interview with Newsday. He described how, as a three-year-old, he watched his grandmother teach English to Holocaust survivors. One old man used to teach him figures, using the tattooed number on his forearm.

'He would show me a three and a two and a five and a seven. Then he said: 'I'm going to show you a magic trick.' He said, 'Here's a six.' Then he moved his forearm up, and then he said: 'Now it's a nine.'

You can imagine exactly how he would film this: the little boy at grandma's long table, his eyes growing big and round with incredulity; the raspy chuckle of the twinkly old man; the motes drifting dreamily down through the honey glow of the lamp-light . . . It isn't anything Spielberg can help - this tendency to reduce experience to magical, golden moments. It's the way he sees things. But it's easy to imagine how, when applied to the Schindler story, it might produce painfully glib results.

Spielberg, aware of these concerns, is anxious to assert his tough-mindedness. On our way down to lunch, he discussed his portrayal of Schindler. It would, he insisted, be thoughtful, unshrinking and rather more sceptical than Thomas Keneally's. 'The book is based on the testimony of witnesses who were saved by him and obviously, from their point of view, he was a saint. In the movie, his character will be more complicated than that. For Schindler, I think there was a balance between saving lives and maintaining his profit margin until very late in the war. This movie isn't about a saint. It's about a Nazi manufacturer. It asks how a person like that could have done what he did.'

When we got down to the factory grounds, a group of Jews and Nazis were queueing for the catering van and a Nirvana tape was blasting from a boom-box. Spielberg surveyed the scene with a jolly, proprietorial air. 'You know, I'm attempting to be dispassionate in this picture,' he said. 'But because my name's on it, sentimentality will always be an issue.'

A woman with a yellow star flapping on her lapel rushed past us to peer at the food on an SS officer's TV-dinner tray. 'Turkey?' she groaned. 'Oh God . . .' Spielberg continued musing. 'Sentimentality,' he said, 'That's my tattoo.' He began to toy with his baseball cap. 'It's like the media have tattooed sentimentality on my forearm, and now, I can't get rid of it.' -

Quentin Curtis on Spielberg's oeuvre, page 30

(Photographs omitted)

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