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'Schindler's List' A Grim Reminder For Ben Kingsley

NEW YORK -- I've spoken with Ben Kingsley before. I've even crossed the Atlantic with the actor, sitting at the next table on the QEII. I would not say I know him, because he is a private man who uses good manners as a way of maintaining a certain distance.

But I have often seen a quiet smile in his eye, as if the world contains private jokes at which he is much amused. That smile was rare in his performance as "Gandhi" (1982), but it was one of the reasons he won the Academy Award as best actor: It took the edge off the character's nobility, and made him human in his greatness.

Now I am talking with Kingsley about his work in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" (opening Wednesday at the Water Tower), and I notice a subdued quality in his manner. I have noticed it with all of the actors in this film. I sense, beneath their words, the feeling that this film left them almost literally speechless, that the experience of making a true story about people trapped in the Holocaust, and filming scenes on the actual locations where the originals of their characters lived or died, was a sobering ordeal. That while they are proud of their work, the elation actors sometimes feel during premiere interviews is not appropriate.

Kingsley plays a man named Itzhak Stern in the film. He is a Polish Jew, hired near the beginning of World War II by a man named Oskar Schindler to run a factory that makes cooking pots. The word "hired" is not quite appropriate, because Stern has little choice in the matter, and by the end of the war, his job is literally necessary to save his life.

Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, is a man of Czech nationality and German descent, who has the manner of a blowhard. He's tall and bluff and prides himself on knowing where to get all of the latest black-market luxuries. He has come to Poland, hoping the war will make him a millionaire. He hires Jews to work in his factory because their wages (which are paid directly to the Nazi bureaucracy) are cheaper than those of Poles.

Schindler knows little or nothing about business. What he knows about is making contacts, paying bribes, giving "gifts" to Nazis and their wives, and picking up the checks in nightclubs. Itzhak Stern is the man who knows about business, about keeping books and making schedules. He will run the factory and make Schindler rich.

That is the plan at the beginning of the war. By the end of the war, Schindler has very quietly turned his factory into a device for saving the lives of his 1,100 Jewish employees. He has stopped making pots and started making shell casings - making them so badly that not one shell from his factory ever killed anybody.

As Schindler changes from profiteer to humanitarian, so Stern changes, too, but very subtly, because at any moment, he must be careful not to reveal too much of what he is thinking - not to anticipate developments. The film is very subtle in revealing exactly what Schindler thinks at each moment, from the beginning, when his motives are obscure, to the end, when his motives are quite clear. He provides a test for Stern, and another one for the actor Kingsley: How to reveal the changing nature of a relationship in which neither person ever says all he is really thinking.

"I think the word reveals is one that I would completely agree with," Kingsley told me. "I think that there was a potential act of great heroic humaneness in Oskar Schindler, but it was buried under a pile of ego baggage and entrepreneurial talent. I think he was hugely fortunate to recruit Stern as his accountant: Stern, a Talmudic scholar and a man who was a great judge of character. Apparently, the conclusion Stern came to after their first meeting was, 'This is a man in whom I can place total trust, and he will ultimately be very good for my community.' But you have to wait for this inner core to be revealed; you can't force it, you can't demand that it comes, you just have to wait." 

So Stern knew that Schindler had humane qualities before Schindler did?

"This is how I understand it, yes. Exactly."

You talked to a lot of people who were there, who experienced this, didn't you?

"I talked to Poldek Pfefferberg, and I talked to other survivors, but I let them volunteer information. I'm always very loathe to open up old wounds, so I had no questions to ask. I would just stand next to them and listen to them talk."

Pfefferberg, now a man of about 80, was one of "Schindler's Jews," one of the survivors who later worked in Israel to gain recognition for the odd, enigmatic man who had single-handedly saved so many from the Holocaust. In the film's overpowering final sequence, he and other real people are seen placing stones on Schindler's grave.

"Actually," Kingsley said, "I didn't meet that many of the survivors while we were shooting the bulk of the picture in Poland. Not until we got to Jerusalem - and then, of course, we were surrounded by as many of the survivors as could be gathered in one field." A heroic feat.

At the end of the film, it is noted that the Jews saved by Schindler, with their descendants, now number 6,000, and that there are only 4,000 Jews now living in Poland. That puts into perspective what this one man accomplished.

Kingsley nodded. "And such a complex man he was. Apparently at the beginning, all he wanted was to make money in his factory. His role in history only gradually occurred to him. I think we did manage to put on the screen the utterly incomprehensible and unbelievable. That is what I find any narrative of those years to be - totally baffling. You cannot explain them. But when you leave the spoken word behind, and you move into illuminating images of light, shadow and pace, music and rhythm, juxtaposing one against the other, you find a language that can describe what happened in a very loving and moving way."

There is a scene, where Stern and Schindler don't know if they will ever see each other again. They may be saying goodbye.

"It was a wonderful scene to film."

It must not have been an easy scene to film.

"Well, Liam and I became friends, and mutually supportive in the very difficult process of making this film. And I think our characters share the same relationship that we did. It's marvelous when that real feeling can be brought to the camera." 

But there's an understatement in that scene, too. In fact, throughout the movie, there's no effort to exploit the emotions. Spielberg doesn't go for big emotional punchlines and payoffs; we don't feel any effort to wring tears from the audience. Your character is caught in a day-to-day situation that he's dealing with on a matter-of-fact basis.

"I totally agree. There are enormous benefits in not manipulating the audience's sensibility, which I don't believe this movie does for one single frame. What you reveal is a filmmaker saying to his audience, not feel this now, but look at this. I think that's what he succeeded in doing, frame after frame after frame: Saying simply, witness this."

For Kingsley and Neeson, and the other actors, the movie was a physical ordeal. They shot the 184-minute movie during a cold, snowy winter in Krakow, using such actual locations as Schindler's original factory, and then moving on to the charnel house of Auschwitz. The acting style chosen, from the leads on down, was one of somber realism, and in the case of Stern, there is a certain watchfulness: His own life, and the lives of 1,300 others, depend on the motives of a man who never really says what his motives are.

It is a strange part for Kingsley, an Anglo-Indian from Britain, but no stranger than many of his other roles. After becoming a film star and winning the Oscar for "Gandhi," Kingsley has been cast in such an array of intense ethnic types that the only roles he seems really to have missed would be other Indians in addition to Gandhi. His parts have included the gangster Meyer Lansky in "Bugsy" (1991), a Turkish spy in "Pascali's Island" (1988) and even Sherlock Holmes' chronicler Mr. Watson in "Without a Clue" (1988). But there is one role that was an obvious prelude for "Schindler's List." In 1989, he played the title role in "Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story."

"That was important preparation," he said, "but a lot of my preparation for this period in history started a long time ago. It's odd; you see something as a child, and you remember it years later. I remember when I was about 11, watching a series called 'War in the Air,' narrated by Richard Burton. As a schoolboy doing my homework in grammar school, I was watching this program, and they got to the scenes of the relief of the Belsen concentration camp.

"I remember that my heart stopped beating. I had no idea that people did this to people. I was watching it at home in the sitting room by myself, on this black-and-white television, and I was just poleaxed. And I'll never forget that footage, seeing it as a child, as long as I live.

"Playing Wiesenthal for HBO, on 'Murderers Among Us,' I saw a lot of documentary footage, photographs and read a lot of firsthand accounts. Pretty devastating stuff. And then about four years later I was asked by Spielberg to do 'Schindler's List,' and I found that I've got so many images, stories, conversations with Wiesenthal, all sort of laminated into my memory, that I don't really need to research. What I needed to do is to wait for an empathy to form between myself and the character Stern. It did very early on in the film."

You don't ask for a thing from the audience in your performance. You simply go ahead and do it, and that's why it's so effective. A role like this must have some sort of effect on your life. You're a busy actor, you work a lot, you're very successful, but does something like this give you pause for a second before you rejoin the mainstream?

He was silent for a moment. "I think it has to," he said. "Walking this tightrope, revealing that which should be witnessed rather than acting, you are, in fact, throwing a massive amount of old tricks away. You are thereby making yourself very vulnerable to the material. On a daily basis, in Poland, it was absolutely exhausting, and it did take me a while to tell myself, 'You've got enough . . . rest and let the bruises heal. Just rest and take it easy.' I was exhausted."

You talk about "throwing your tricks away." I'm not aware that you have very many tricks, but there is one that I've noticed over the years - if it is a trick - and that's your smile of immense inner pleasure. There isn't anything to smile about in this film, and the moment isn't there.

"Well. There is one moment where Stern sees Goeth, the Nazi, pardon the stable boy. There's the beginnings of a smile, but no, there isn't a lot to smile about."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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