I was profoundly shaken after seeing an advance Manhattan screening 25 years ago of "Schindler's List." The film returned to area theaters this weekend in observance of its 25th anniversary.
I've been affected reasonably often by movie screenings, but not like this. I was struck dumb. I was in more than a little silent awe. I had no desire to talk to a living soul about the movie at that moment -- certainly not the happy chattering magpies among the nation's movie critics with whom I rode down in the elevator.
They were all rushing off to see another screening that night and urged me to come along with them. I just couldn't. I'd seen something that walloped me and I had no desire to intrude on the memory right away.
I immediately understood what was going on. It wasn't that gentile movie critics had no understanding of what they'd just seen. Far from it. We all understood we'd seen a movie milestone, but those of us who came from American Jewish families understood something else about what Spielberg had done. He'd broken forever Hollywood's unspoken but institutionalized studio fear of making a movie that was "too Jewish."
It's hardly a historical secret that Jews have been instrumental in making and developing American studio films (see Neal Gabler's definitive history, "An Empire of Their Own"). Nor had the Holocaust been a subject Hollywood avoided. One movie in particular -- Stanley Kramer's admirable "Judgement at Nuremberg" -- had many shattering moments.
But Spielberg had done a very special thing. He had done something that only American Jews of his generation understood profoundly, I think: he had resolved any implicit conflict between his identities as a Jew and an American by being as publicly Jewish in his work as any American Jewish filmmaker had ever been. In doing so, he was never more profoundly American -- not even later in "Saving Private Ryan."
I was far from alone in being shaken by that screening of Spielberg being so personal on behalf of a couple generations of "discreet" American Jews. A TV network movie critic known for his comic spritz and bankable good cheer was struck dumb by the film, too. He, too, in the descending elevator was chatteringly urged to the second advance screening that night. He too silently declined -- with tears still in his eyes, his face white as a sheet and larynx unable to function just yet. He was always publicly known for his good cheer. No one had ever seen him act like this on the air.
He, too, was obviously an American Jew who understood that Spielberg had done something that was really without precedent.
"Schindler's List" went on, of course, to almost universal classic status. No Oscar winner for Best Film has ever been more predictable or less controversial over the years.
Everyone in American film understood what Spielberg had done. He'd stepped forward as a human being at the end of the film -- and as a Jew -- to say his ethnic identity was one of the most important things about him. In Hollywood history, he was the first to make a film that did so within the film itself.
When I reviewed it, I said, quite frankly, that if Spielberg had decided then and there to never make another film, I'd understand. "Schindler's List" was unsurpassable as a dramatic American Holocaust film. The radical thing Spielberg did at the end of his film was follow his dramatic presentation of the life of Oskar Schindler -- the German industrialist who deliberately saved Jews from the death camps by employing them -- with a scene of the director himself and his family placing stones of remembrance on Schindler's actual gravestone.
He was doing an unprecedented thing in an American studio movie -- stepping forward in his real identity to speak for any other Jew who never wanted to "attract attention" and the hostility that sometimes went with it. He was doing a very different thing from what, say, Cecil B. DeMille did when he introduced his films.
Spielberg, I felt, could have ended his career right there if he'd wanted. "Schindler's List" made movie history and summed up everything great about his talent and spirit. "Jurassic Park," which came out almost simultaneously, reinforced his authority as Maharajah of movie box office.
He'd certainly given hints before of how important it was to him to be Jewish. His animated film "An American Tale: Fievel Goes West" was a deliberate attempt to make a Disneyesque animated feature to compete with the films of Disney himself, a Hollywood genius and commercial kingpin often accused of anti-semitism by employees, critics and Hollywood historians.
The re-release of "Schindler's List" was, according to an interview Spielberg gave to NBC News anchor Lester Holt, perhaps more important in America's current socio-political climate than it was the first time around.
We are, after all, coming off the horror of the anti-Semitic slaughter at a Pittsburgh synagogue, a clear-cut indication old poisons have been uncorked.
Among the many gentile critics who came to understand how very much Spielberg has been making films as a Jew throughout his life is the great feminist film critic Molly Haskell, who says that, in a way, E.T. himself, in Spielberg's all-time classic, could be seen as kind of "misfit" and "Jewish kid" in "Arizona jock culture."
"One of his greatest traits," wrote Haskell in her book-length study of Spielberg, "has always been a natural ecumenicism, a generosity of spirit."
But unquestionably, I think, in those I consider his greatest films --"Empire of the Sun" and "Schindler's List" -- he got as personal as he'd ever get. It's an ancient artistic paradox that going so deep also made those films universal.
He's never, in the last 25 years since "Schindler," made a bad film. Some in fact -- in particular his version of "War of the Worlds" -- had jaw-dropping moments.
But he and Lester Holt and so many other people all know that the one we always seem to need is "Schindler's List."
It was, I think, all by itself, more than enough to justify any film-making life.