From ‘Schindler’s List’ to ‘Lincoln’

From ‘Schindler’s List’ to ‘Lincoln’

How Judaism shaped Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s films, including his latest, “Lincoln,” continue to reflect his Jewish upbringing. Like most movies, the script of the legendary director’s life and career begins with some adversity – at first, he was ashamed of being a Jew.

Spielberg’s mother, Leah Adler, was a restaurateur and concert pianist, and his father, Arnold, was an electrical engineer involved in the development of computers. Their son was born in Ohio.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stands with American film director Steven Spielberg in 1994. Moshe Shai/FLASH90.

According to Lester Friedman, scholar-in-residence at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and author of “The Jewish Image in American Film,” American Jewish Filmmakers,” and “Citizen Spielberg,” there is more to Spielberg than meets the eye.

“It’s indisputable he’s the most successful filmmaker in American history, but he’s much more than that,” Friedman said. “His Jewish background is omnipresent. It cuts both ways.”

Friedman said that Spielberg’s parents “lived in predominantly Christian areas” and that Spielberg was “was the subject of anti-Semitism, everything from swastikas on the windows to rolling a penny down the aisle in class and students saying ‘go get it Jew-boy.'”

“He was concerned about hiding his Judaism,” Friedman continued. “His early films stayed far away from it. He doesn’t confront it until ‘An American Tail,’ where Fievel is the name of his grandfather. He confronts it in the most crucial and important way in two films – ‘Schindler’s List,’ in which he makes the archetypal Holocaust film, and 12 years later with ‘Munich.'”

In 1994, inspired by his experience making “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation to gather video testimonies from survivors and other witnesses to the Holocaust. While most people who gave testimony were Jews, the foundation also interviewed gay, Gypsy, and Jehovah’s Witness survivors, liberators, witnesses to liberations, political prisoners, and rescuers and aid providers, among others.

Within several years, the foundation’s Visual History Archive held nearly 52,000 video testimonies in 32 languages, representing 56 countries; it is the largest archive of its kind in the world.

Nigel Morris, author of “The Cinema of Steven Spielberg,” said that some critics “carelessly dismiss him as a children’s director or maker of escapist fantasies.

“They resent his enormous success, mistakenly focus on what they label as manipulation or sentimentality, or confuse him with George Lucas and naively blame either director or both for the blockbuster tendency that destroyed the freedom and creativity of early 1970s Hollywood, as if that were not an economic inevitability,” Morris said.

Morris agrees with Friedman that Spielberg had little desire to embrace his Jewish ethnic identity or faith until he was profoundly affected by making “Schindler’s List.” He was in his late 40s.

“Being Jewish has influenced Spielberg’s craft and sensibility,” Morris said. “The characteristic ‘God light,’ as the director has called it, is central to both Spielberg’s visual style and the deeper meaning of his work, flowing from his earliest memory of being pushed in a stroller through a Cincinnati synagogue aged just six months. The candles and dazzling reflections in candelabra became entwined with the awe of larger-than-life figures when he first saw a movie in a theater, creating the quasi-religious wonder that is repeatedly associated with spectacle, and particularly film, through all his output.”

Morris said that Spielberg moved often when he was a child as his father changed jobs, and he suffered from bullying and anti-Semitism. One coping strategy was to seek popularity by casting his oppressors in the movies he made outside school hours.

“Spielberg was quoted as saying that being ‘Jewish and wimpy made me part of a major minority,'” Morris said. “This helped the fledgling director empathize with the civil rights cause and arguably led to his much later adoption of two African American children, as well as the interest in black culture manifested seriously and respectfully in several of his films.”

Morris said that “Schindler’s List,” which coincided with the Holocaust’s 50th anniversary, catalyzed arguments surrounding the new Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and resurgent neo-fascism and attempted genocide around the world. It also gave new urgency to recording a dwindling number of survivors’ testimony.

“Spielberg partly established the context and tone, for many of the attacks that were made as much against him as against the film,” Morris said. “When he imperiously declared, ‘If it takes my name to get people to see Schindler’s List, so be it,’ he suggested the project might not have been viable without him and implied higher aspirations than mere entertainment. Certainly, a black-and-white film, more than three hours long and without major stars, seemed unlikely to appeal to youthful blockbuster audiences, 60 per cent of whom were unaware of the Holocaust. Publicity portrayed Spielberg, who, it was understood at the time, waived his profits until the movie broke even, as pursuing a mission.”

According to Morris, Schindler’s redemption paralleled Spielberg’s transformation from shallow crowd-pleaser to serious Jewish artist.

“Promotion and interviews stressed Spielberg’s return to ethnic roots and newfound faith, as well as identification with Schindler,” Morris said. Spielberg repeatedly spoke of his own anti-Semitic experiences, thereby identifying himself, a descendant of German Jews, with Holocaust victims. Equating seriousness, solemnity, and quality, industry names finally recognized Spielberg, bestowing Academy Awards just as media coverage was distancing him from Hollywood entertainment values.”

With “Lincoln” Hollywood has another popular film – but Spielberg has more. He has his finger on the heartbeat of a historic and still relevant American dilemma by examining President Lincoln’s decision of whether or not to prolong the Civil War to get the amendment abolishing slavery passed.

Perhaps Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page best answered Spielberg’s (and Lincoln’s) question when he wrote, “Democratic governance of a large, diverse republic requires compromises. You can’t always get what you want, but we can work together across partisan lines to get what we need.”

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