Witness – The Making of Schindler’s List book review

by Franciszek Palowski, including a forward by Thomas Keneally (Orion Media, London, 1998).

Review appeared in the Australian Jewish News, 1999

If we ever need reminding about the enduring power of Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, we only need examine the extraordinary range of books which have been written about the film.  If you look through the growing library of Spielberg-iana, two types emerge:  “quickie” Hollywood-type biographies which breathlessly tell Spielberg’s history and filmography, and academic treatises which attempt to grapple (although not always so successfully) with the style and impact of Schindler’s List.

So it is refreshing when a totally different kind of book comes along, a personal account entitled Witness: The Making of Schinder’s List by Polish journalist and film-maker Franciszek Palowski.  Palowski is no less in awe of Steven Spielberg than the most fawning Hollywood gossip columnist; for him the “master” can do no wrong.  Long testimonies as to Steven Spielberg’s greatness include some very simplistic and occasionally incorrect “analysis” of Spielberg’s pre-Schindler films.  This is the irritating side of Witness, and readers seeking a thoughtful analysis of how Steven Spielberg makes films must look elsewhere.  But fortunately, Witness brings us something else:  a real insight into the making of the film by using the film of Schindler’s List to range over an astonishingly wide variety of people, incidents and places connected to the film.

Witness (the emotionally “loaded” name is not accidental) was originally published in Polish BEFORE the film was released, and discovered by British publisher Robert G. Ware (whose wife is a native of Krakow and a Holocaust survivor).  Palowski is one of a new generation of Polish journalists:  deeply steeped in modern European history, he has delved into Jewish history and researched the Holocaust extensively.  After reading a review of Thomas Keneally’s book early in 1983, Palowski tracked down Leopold “Poldek” Pfefferberg – the person who inspired Keneally to write the Schindler story – in Los Angeles, and developed a close friendship with him.  Palowski later made a number of documentaries for Polish television about the Holocaust and individual survivors.

So when Steven Spielberg made his first site visit to Poland some nine years later, Palowski became one of his guides and consultants.  He stayed with the film, acted in a small role and assisted on a variety of location shoots in Poland.  He also kept a diary, which formed the basis of this book.  The beauty of Witness is that the author has a journalistic passion for finding out the details on everyone, and digging out some great personal stories.  While many of the stories are no longer new (how Liam Neeson was cast, Ben Kingsley’s attitude to his role, the occasional antisemitic incident during film), Palowski brings a number of new insights to the process, including how the Schindler’s List production interacted so closely with almost all of the “greats” of the post-war Polish film industry.

Witness is not a very even book; the writing (or is it the translation?) is not fluid and often awkward.  There is a short forward by Thomas Keneally which is moving and beautifully written, however it makes no reference whatsoever to the rest of the book.  The editors have tried to “update” the book, including footnotes and endnotes about Spielberg’s later work as well as the success of the film.  None of these attempts quite hang together.  But Palowski’s story – the core of the book – will prove good reading for anyone seeking a new perspective on the film’s production.

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