Schindler survivor wonders how 'List' will play in Germany

March 01, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

Berlin -- Once again, it has taken an American to bring a mass-media dramatization of the Holocaust to Germany. And once again, German words have had to be dubbed into the mouths of cinematic Nazis.

But for the German people, who have never quite agreed on how much guilt or remembrance they should bear from their country's murderous past, today's Frankfurt premiere of "Schindler's List" offers a new twist, one that may at last provide some common ground.

This time the good guy is a German.

He is the industrialist Oskar Schindler, far from a saint, but a man who during World War II tried to do the right thing. Schindler helped save 1,100 Jews from Nazi death camps by employing them in his factory, often by draining his fortune with bribes to Nazi officials.

This depiction of Schindler, a one-time Frankfurt resident who died in 1974, offers Germans a few rare moments of pride from a time of shame. And it doesn't hurt that the portrayal was shaped by an American Jew, director Steven Spielberg.

One result is a huge wave of pre-release interest in the film. "Three weeks before the premiere, our research figures showed that 40 percent of the people had an interest in seeing the film," says Doris Wolf, a spokeswoman in Frankfurt for the film's studio, United International Pictures. "Normally, if you're lucky, you have something like 20 percent."

So, United has planned a large release. Two days after the premiere, the film will open in 40 theaters in larger German cities. Two weeks later, it will be showing at 250 locations. While that won't rival the 400-theater release of Mr. Spielberg's last film, the dinosaur blockbuster "Jurassic Park," it's far beyond the average release of about 150 theaters.

Der Spiegel, Germany's leading news magazine, got caught up enough in the fervor to make "Schindler's List" last week's cover story, with the headline, "The Good German."

Mietek Pemper hopes all his countrymen will turn out to see the movie. At age 74, he is one of only a handful of "Schindler Jews" now living in Germany. "Me and my family were on Schindler's list in the fall of 1944," he says. "During the war, I worked in the factory."

Mr. Pemper worries that, despite opening to critical acclaim and large crowds in the United States, the film will be a flop in Germany. He remembers how the book about Schindler by Thomas Keneally sold poorly.

"It was about 13 years ago, and it was on the market only for half a year," he says. "This is a bad omen. I do not understand this. If this movie fails also, I would say that we have repression of these memories in Germany."

He can see how, for all the wrong reasons, even the image of a German hero from World War II might be too disturbing for some older Germans.

"It is not a question of whether it is right to show Schindler as a good German," Mr. Pemper says. "The question is if there were enough good Germans. After the war, we thought that there must have been more Schindlers, but there weren't."

This may be what made Germany's film industry shy away from the subject when director and producer Artur Brauner twice proposed a film on the subject. Mr. Brauner said in an interview with Der Spiegel that the Berlin Film Support Institution turned down his grant requests in 1984 and 1992 for such a film.

"Schindler's List" won't be easy for any German to watch, Mr. Pemper says, and that will go for him, too. "I am going, but I must say, though, that I will need a Valium. It is a difficult movie for me. All the memories, all the emotions will come back."

Mr. Pemper stayed in close touch with Mr. Schindler after the war, working as his accountant as he sought to regain control of his wartime industrial holdings.

"We had a very intense relationship," Mr. Pemper says. "He was a wonderful person. He always called us his children. We needed him, and he needed us. His life would have been worthless without his efforts during the war. He was a man for extraordinary situations, thus, the war was the best time for him, in a way."

And yes, he was far from perfect. He lived up to his rakish playboy image both before and after the war, Mr. Pemper says, "but that does not reduce my respect for him, not at all. . . . Of course, he also did all this because he wanted to be a successful factory owner. There was a mixture of different motives, I guess. But he still remains a great person. For us, it doesn't matter why he did it. Humanity and rationality were the mixture -- a lucky combination."

For some Germans, the movie couldn't come at a better time, especially with Holocaust doubters gaining new audiences and with neo-Nazi violence peaking during the past two years. And these dark moments have come at a time of economic recession, when some of the nation's doomsayers are warning of a repeat of the conditions that helped vault Adolf Hitler to power.

"Times are getting hard here," Ms. Wolf says, "and there are so many people saying: 'God, we have to get people to see how it really was then.' And we have to stop these people, these neo-Nazis, so it cannot happen again."

Before this evening's premiere, at a giant theater in Frankfurt holding 720 people, Mr. Spielberg will be honored at a mayor's luncheon. A host of government dignitaries, business executives and entertainment personalities are expected to attend the opening. Some fear there will also be neo-Nazi demonstrators at some point during the day.

But Mr. Pemper's sort of fear seems the most prevalent.

"To me," he says, "the film is a test to see if people in Germany

are willing and able to cope with the memory."

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