Neeson's portrayal amazes those who knew Schindler

December 28, 1993|By Barry Koltnow | Barry Koltnow,Orange County Register

About 150 Holocaust survivors were brought together in Israel by Steven Spielberg on the next-to-last day of filming of the director's epic movie "Schindler's List."

The survivors were gathered at a reception to meet the cast of the movie and to prepare for the next day's filming of a scene in which they would visit the actual grave of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved their lives nearly a half-century before.

But the reunion atmosphere of the evening took a back seat to an interesting phenomenon, according to producer Gerald Molen. Instead of hugging one another and reminiscing, the survivors seemed transfixed by actor Liam Neeson, who plays Schindler in the movie.

"They were blown away by Liam," the producer said. "They couldn't stop staring at him. As far as they were concerned, he was Oskar Schindler.

"And remember," the producer added, "none of these people had seen the movie yet."

Mr. Neeson, the tall, Irish actor best known for the films "Darkman," "Suspect" and "Ethan Frome," apparently was Mr. Spielberg's first pick for Schindler, a Nazi Party member and non-Jew who saved 1,100 Jews by employing them at his factory, which exempted them from the Nazi death camps.

But months passed after Mr. Neeson's screen test, and the actor said he was so sure that the director had changed his mind that he accepted a role in the Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie."

"Then, one night, Steven, his wife, Kate, and Kate's mother came to see the play," Mr. Neeson said. "They came backstage to say hello, and I guess Kate's mother was very moved by the play.

"She was crying, and I felt bad so I took her in my arms and hugged her. Kate turned to Steven and said, 'That's exactly what Oskar Schindler would have done.' The next thing I knew, I got the part."

Mr. Spielberg said later that he picked the actor because Mr. Neeson not only captured Schindler's spirit but also resembled the German businessman, as was apparent in the reaction of the survivors at the reception.

"Like Schindler, he has a commanding presence and a low booming voice, a wonderful cigarettes-and-cognac voice," Mr. Spielberg said.

To prepare for the role, Mr. Neeson, 41, said he read many books on the Holocaust and on Schindler, including Thomas Keneally's 1982 book, "Schindler's List," upon which the movie is based. He also watched two documentaries from the 1970s that included interviews with a then-aging Schindler.

"I wanted to see how he holds himself, how he lights his cigarettes and things like that, but I didn't want to do an imitation," Mr. Neeson said. "It's different if you're doing someone like Winston Churchill. Everybody knew what he looked like and sounded like. You're almost compelled to mimic the man. But the world doesn't really know who Schindler is, and that gives me a flexibility to make a leap of imagination.

"I tried to capture an essence of the man, and I guess I did that, because Emily Schindler [Oskar's widow] came up to me after a screening in New York and said, 'You were my husband, particularly when you weren't speaking.'

Mr. Neeson, a Northern Ireland native linked romantically to actress Natasha Richardson, said he never hesitated when Mr. Spielberg offered the role, regardless of the intense and depressing subject matter.

"It was a great script and a chance to work with the world's greatest cinematic storyteller," he said. " . . . And the experience met all my expectations and more. The wonderful thing about working with a great craftsman is that it elevates your craft."

But while the experience may have been extraordinary for him as an actor, it was devastating at times for him as a man.

"It's not like you could go back to your hotel each night and start partying," he said. "We were in the very city [Krakow, Poland] where all this took place, and I found the entire city very bleak. It was a miserable place.

"My hotel overlooked the castle that served as Gestapo headquarters, and every building in that city carries the energy of the atrocities that were committed there."

Mr. Neeson cited the rise of neo-Nazism around the world and recent polls that show that about one-third of all people don't know about or don't believe in the Holocaust as proof that films such as "Schindler's List" are important enough to be made and seen.

"It's tough to come out and sell this movie because it seems so mercenary. But I must do it, because this movie must be seen."

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