FILM / Shadowing Reality: The Book that gave the Film its Look: Quentin Curtis talks to the Oscar-nominated cinematographer

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The Independent Culture
WHILE Janusz Kaminski was shooting the dollars 23m Schindler's List, he carried a book of photographs taken on a budget of almost nothing. Roman Vishniac's shots of East European Jewish settlements between 1920 and 1939 were low-tech even for those days. But a collection of them, A Vanished World (Allen Lane, 1983, now out of print), became Kaminski's bible. With a clear eye, and at great personal risk, Vishniac recorded Jewish life on the point of obliteration - its spirit and humour amid poverty, its curiosity and scholarship. With delicately modulated light and shade, he composed a gently resplendent elegy.

For Kaminski the book was a model and an inspiration: 'I realised that if Vishniac could do it using inferior equipment and film-stock, and no artificial light, I should be able to imitate it with Nineties technology.' There are poignant Vishniac details in the film, such as a window displaying the obscene skull-measuring device supposed to distinguish Jew from Aryan. But the book's influence was more general. Realism was the watchword.

'I tried to follow his style in working with light,' he explains. 'His pictures feel real: they're not silhouetted, or heavily contrasted as in other photos of the period, and not art-directed or organised. The kind of pictures that fixed in my mind were of children sitting at the table looking at the rabbi; or of older women walking in the streets or older rabbis just going by with their lives. I liked the softness and fading around the edges, and what he was doing with faces - always half light, half dark.' He found the same virtues in the great Gregg Toland's photography on The Grapes of Wrath (1940) - 'a Depression feel, with minimal technology' - which Spielberg screened before they left for Poland. They wanted to avoid the 'overdramatic' lighting which crept into Conrad Hall's 1967 work on In Cold Blood (another study aid), and played 'too much of a role in character'.

Working in black and white meant shooting from a new perspective. With things like wardrobe it was a question of tone rather than colour - blue and green appear the same in black and white, but red stands out because it has a brighter tone. There was also a desire for a documentary-style raggedness. On the first day's shooting, during a particularly harrowing scene in Auschwitz where women get separated from their children, Kaminski experimented with holding the camera on his shoulder. The resulting shots had an uneasy shakiness which became the feel of the film, with 40 per cent being shot with a hand-held camera. Spielberg abandoned his usual story-boarding and shot-planning, improvising a great deal, turning from calculation to instinct.

For Kaminski, the job was a journey home, though no romantic return. He left Poland as a political refugee in 1981, aged 21, arriving in Chicago with little English beyond how to order eggs and toast. For Schindler's List, Spielberg plucked him from the relative obscurity of fewer than a dozen features as director of photography, having spotted his work on a television movie and tested his mettle on another one for Spielberg's Amblin production company. Going back to Poland reinforced Kaminski's commitment to America. Though he says the reports of Polish anti-Semitism directed at the Schindler crew have been 'hyped up', there were disturbing incidents. In the Old Square in Krakow he saw a graffito of a Star of David hanging from a gallows. 'That's the most disappointing thing about Poland. In all the changes, the mentality and morality didn't change much.'

It's an indication of the shoah, the near-success of Hitler's planned annihilation of East European Jews, that, growing up, Kaminski was barely aware of Polish Jewry. Returning, after 12 years of American multi-culturalism, and looking at Vishniac's photos, allowed him to rediscover his country, particularly the lost Jewish culture of Krakow. His meticulous work on Schindler's List keeps faith with Vishniac's thin but vital remembrance. Vishniac himself wrote: 'I was unable to save my people, only their memory.' (Photograph omitted)