Study Guide

Schindler's List Production Design

Production Design

35 mm Black and White

The film was shot in Krakow, Poland, on a $22 million budget. Some scenes were set in what's left of the Krakow ghetto. They used Schindler's real factory and recreated the Plaszow labor camp in an area outside the city. They built replicas of the Auschwitz camp but shot a few scenes outside the gates of the actual camp.

Spielberg chose to set almost all of the movie in black and white, save for a few brief exceptions in the middle (head over to our "Symbols" section for those exceptions), and at the scenes in the beginning and the end of the film. Nobody really made black and white movies in 1993, so Spielberg had specific intentions.

One was his desire to shoot it like a documentary: to leave out all of the stylistic bells and whistles and shoot the drama as if it were actually unfolding before us. Documentaries used black and white back then because it was cheaper. They also didn't use fancy tricks like zoom lenses, crane shots, or steadi-cams, so neither did Spielberg. He also used handheld cameras, which you see plenty of today, but which almost never appeared in big budget movies in the 1990s.

The documentary feel was more than just for authenticity. It also connected us to the past in ways that color film just couldn't. We usually see the past in black and white, because the photos and cameras that recorded it weren't available in color. (Well, they were, but it took more time and expense than you could spare marching across Europe with the Allies hot on your trail.) That puts the viewer inside the period in ways that color never could. It helps Spielberg stress the fundamental point of this movie: that it all really happened.

The two scenes shot entirely in color are at the very beginning (when we see a Jewish family conducting a Sabbath ceremony) and at the end (when the real-life survivors and the actors who played them arrive one by one to Schindler's grave and pay respects to the man who saved them). The message is clear—Jewish culture was alive in Europe before the war and thriving in Israel by the current day. In between was darkness.

Spielberg says that director Fred Schepisi begged him to let someone else make the film. Schepisi (and the rest of the world) knew the look of a typical Spielberg film and he thought that it would destroy the story. Even some of the Polish survivors Spielberg met thought he was a strange choice to make a movie like this. In the end, the director was proud of the restraint he showed. He happily told an interviewer, "There is not one crane shot!" (Source)

The production was an emotional nightmare for everyone involved. Spielberg, doing some of the camerawork himself, had to leave the set from time to time just to recover. Cameramen broke down in tears. In between the freezing cold and the searing scenes, the Polish extras hired to play inmates lost it. Spielberg resorted to having Robin Williams call him to cheer him up; he watched some Seinfeld episodes for comic relief. (Source)

One of the film's producers was Branko Lustig, who as a child was imprisoned for two years in Auschwitz. One of his jobs was to recruit child actors from local Polish schools. He taught them to sing the song that the children in the film sang as they were being herded onto trucks. He couldn't bear to watch the scene being filmed; Spielberg personally led him off the set. (Source)

So yeah, not your typical production. The emotional obstacles were as challenging as the technical ones.

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