The cold could snap bones. And for the actors filming the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp scenes during their first weeks on location in Poland, the work itself was a chilling business that tore them out of their own place and time and engulfed them in nightmarish history. In one horrific scene, 300 naked actresses in shorn wigs crowded into an Auschwitz shower and were told to stare up at the menacing nozzles. As Jewish prisoners just transferred into the death camp, they were supposed to appear unsure if the fixtures would produce water or gasif they were meant for cleansing or for killing.
Their tears were real. Israeli actress Miri Fabian held a young girl close. She herself had been born in a concentration camp and had not yet told her mother that she had taken the role. The tension was unbearable. She had trouble breathing, then began hyperventilating, and was barely able to finish filming the sequence.
Other Auschwitz scenes played out against similarly haunting visions of hell. One member of the company recalls ''guard dogs going mad everywhere, huge burly guards with whips, chaos, blinding snow, a red haze coming from the chimney stacks.'' And this was just the beginning. For the next two and a half months, Steven Spielberg, directing with precise, singular vision, led the cast and crew of Schindler's List to the heart of the Holocaust's horror. ''I said to myself, 'How can I bring truth to these impossible images?''' Spielberg admits. ''There wasn't even an attempt to alleviate the sadness. Constantly, every week, somebody would lose it.''
Miraculously, the finished work brings audiences to the same awful place, securing Spielberg's position as perhaps the nation's preeminent filmmaker. He is a front-runner, alongside The Piano's Jane Campion, for the Best Director Oscar, an honor that the Academy has begrudged him so far, placating him only with 1986's Irving G. Thalberg Award for his work as, ironically, a producer. Schindler's very existence is a victory against astounding odds. It took a decade to adapt journalist Thomas Keneally's sprawling 1982 novel for the screenand the film's tight schedule required Spielberg to edit his other 1993 triumph, Jurassic Park, from Poland early last year. This month, Schindler's, which has made an impressive $10 million in limited release, opens in more than 250 theaters, with more to comea heartfelt monument to an event so ghastly that it stands oceans away from the reaches of art. This is the story of how Spielberg, an entertainer until now associated with soaring flights of fancy, hunkered down and bridged that gulf.
Steven Spielberg, 46 and known to brood on occasion, has lately been cheery in a way that befits a director who has new critical esteem to go with four of the 10 biggest movies in historyJaws (1975), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), and Jurassic Park (1993). Standing outside his Amblin Entertainment office at Universal Studios in jeans and sneakers, his salt-and-pepper beard matching long hair unfettered by his usual baseball cap, he greets Marvin Levy, Amblin's marketing consultant, who offers glad tidings.
The National Society of Film Critics has just given Schindler's Best Picture and Spielberg his first Best Director honor this year; other groups had chosen Campion. ''Great! Wonderful! This means we've swept all five critics' groups!'' Spielberg says with a grin.
When Schindler's List was published, Spielberg had recently finished E.T., mining his boyish nightmares and fantasies to great effect but earning a reputation as the Peter Pan of filmmaking. MCA president Sidney Sheinberg brought the novel to Spielberg's attention. The story, a moving record of what happened to 1,100 Polish Jewsthe Schindlerjudenwhose lives were saved when German war profiteer Oskar Schindler ''bought'' them as factory workers to spare them from the death camps, intrigued Spielberg. After scanning one review, he recalls saying to Sheinberg: ''It'll make a helluva story. Is it true?''
Keneally himself had been talked into writing the book while standing in a Beverly Hills leather-goods store, waiting for a credit-card authorization from the proprietor, Schindler survivor Leopold Page (born Poldek Pfefferberg). Page had first helped sell Schindler's story to MGM in the 1960s. The studio hired Casablanca coscreenwriter Howard Koch to work on the film, but the dubious character of Oskar Schindlera womanizing, boozing bear of a man who profited from the war by employing Jewsmay have made his story a difficult sell. The project was dropped and lay dormant for years before Spielberg decided to take it on.
Page, 80, insists that from their first meeting, Spielberg knew he would do the movie. ''When I met him,'' he recalls in thickly accented English, ''I asked him, 'Please, when are you starting?' He said, 'Ten years from now.''' But as those years passed, Page worried that he wouldn't live to see the film.
''Schindler's was on my guilty conscience,'' says Spielberg. ''Page was heaping on the fact that he was going to die.''
Like Schindler's motivation for saving his employees, Spielberg's reluctance to take on the project was both spiritual and pragmatic. He gave the project to two other directors, Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese, before tackling it himself. ''He didn't think he was ready,'' explains the film's screenwriter, Steven Zaillian (Awakenings, Searching for Bobby Fischer). ''He didn't have kids yet. He had to come to terms with his Jewishness. He kept putting it off.''
Spielberg wasn't the only one who doubted his abilities. Australian director Fred Schepisi (Six Degrees of Separation) implored him not to do it, warning him that his big-studio gloss would be the film's downfall. ''Give it to me,'' he told Spielberg. ''I don't think you have the courage to not use the crane and dolly.''
''Survivors would come up to me in Poland and say, 'What a strange choice,''' recalls Spielberg, ''and I'd have a sinking feeling in my heart, (worrying that) the world wouldn't accept Schindler's List from me.'' Now, as he sits cross-legged in a soft armchair in his office, the fear has fallen away. Spielberg leans forward and boasts: ''There is not one crane shot!''