LONDON — With all the Oscar hype surrounding "Schindler's List," it has nearly been forgotten that Steven Spielberg's epic isn't the first film to have been made about the legendary Oskar Schindler, who saved 1,100 Jews from Nazi death camps.
A decade ago, filmmaker Jon Blair made "Schindler," an 80-minute documentary for Britain's Thames Television about Schindler's life. It won a British Academy Award.
Owing to the renewed interest in Schindler's story, Blair's film has resurfaced. It is airing on BBC television here tonight--and Blair believes Universal, which owns rights to his film outside Britain, may release "Schindler" on video to coincide with the video release of Spielberg's film. The film also will be shown in Los Angeles on March 19 on KCOP Channel 13.
"There are certain differences between (novelist) Thomas Keneally's account of Schindler's life and mine," said Blair, a South African-born producer, playwright and former war correspondent based in London.
"I read his book, spoke to Tom at length and made use of some of his contacts. But I started again, using my own sources."
Along the way, Blair landed a few coups. He interviewed Schindler's widow, Emilie, on camera; she reflected on her late husband's seductive appeal, claiming she "could fight against one woman, but 10 or 100. . . ." Blair also talked to Schindler's mistress Ewa Kisza, who attests in "Schindler" to Oskar's impulsive nature and his craving for attention.
Most remarkably, Blair tracked down Ruth Kalder, known as Majola, the mistress of concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth (played in Spielberg's film by Ralph Fiennes). The footage of Majola is harrowing; she is suffering from emphysema, and wheezes alarmingly. The day after Blair interviewed her on camera, he heard from Monica, her daughter by Amon Goeth, that Majola had taken a drug overdose and died. (In a remarkable introduction to his interview with Spielberg in the current British edition of Esquire, Blair, who is Jewish, admits to fantasies of seducing Monica for revenge, then telling her afterward of his ethnicity.)
On camera, Majola says she never saw Jewish children or old people at the camps with Goeth. She adds that he "was not a brutal killer . . . he didn't kill Jews just for the fun of it." When Blair questions her about Schindler, she turns the question back on him: "You think Schindler liked Jews? He was a lovable opportunist. He needed them so he worked with them. But he didn't take them to his heart."
This statement contrasts strongly with the views of many Schindlerjuden who tell Blair they regard Schindler as an angel who delivered them from certain death. But one of them, Joachim Kinstlinger, dissents: "I don't believe (Schindler) was a Jew lover. He was a German, a Nazi, a guy who made money."
"I included (Kinstlinger) as a representative of the few people who are more skeptical about Schindler," said Blair. "But it was hard to find anyone who had a bad word to say."
Blair persuaded Dirk Bogarde, the English actor who was present at the liberation of the Belsen death camp, to narrate the voice-over for his film. After it had aired on British TV, he donated his transcripts for the documentary to London's Imperial War Museum. He was flattered to learn the British actors in "Schindler's List" had used the transcripts as research for their roles.
Of "Schindler's List," Blair says: "It's an extremely powerful fiction, true to the essence of Schindler's story. If Spielberg and (screenwriter Steven) Zaillian had altered any critical factual elements, there might be some debate, but it's a faithful representation of Keneally's book."
In contrast, Blair now looks back on his own work in "Schindler" and sees flaws: "I think I got one thing substantially wrong, which was the relationship between Schindler and Stern (played in "Schindler's List" by Ben Kingsley). Zaillian was right to have concentrated on it, and seems to have got much closer to the truth. I never got good enough material from other people about Stern, and I misjudged it. It shows how TV style determines content."
But Blair is also concerned whether his film or Spielberg's portrays the relationship between Schindler and Goeth accurately. "I feel they were much more meshed together than either of us have made it. If that's true, it puts Schindler into the opportunist camp. He and Goeth were locked together in a fraud. It did Goeth no harm to keep going with Schindler's charade, and I think he knew it was a charade."
Blair's film also includes archive footage of Schindler from a 1973 German TV documentary; he is seen strolling around the streets of Frankfurt. At that time he said he saved all the Jews he could because he couldn't stand all the killing; he gradually came to feel he must do something.
"I have to accept that's what he felt," Blair says now. "But I always felt it was a weakness in my film that I couldn't explain Schindler's motivation, and Spielberg told me the same about his--it seems impossible to crack that enigma."