The Interview:
Thomas Keneally

By Harold Frost

Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1994

“I had nightmares while I was writing. Primarily about Amon Goeth, the SS commandant. Goeth is real nightmare material.”

The story of Oskar Schindler first achieved wide exposure in 1982 with publication of the book “Schindler’s Ark” by Australian writer Thomas Keneally. The work won the Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award. The film “Schinder’s List,” based on Keneally’s book, is the most talked-about movie of 1993 and has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards. The Oscar ceremony is Monday night. Keneally lives with his family near Sydney and owns a second home in Southern California, where he is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, and a teacher in the school’s Program in Writing. (The book’s original title “Schindler’s Ark” has been supplanted now by “Schindler’s List.” Keneally is pronounced kah-NEE-lee.)


Q. How did you first hear the story of Oskar Schindler, Mr. Keneally?

A. In October of 1980 I was returning to Australia from Italy, passing through Los Angeles, waiting for the Sydney plane. I walked into a luggage store to buy a briefcase because my other briefcase had come unsprung, and met a man behind the counter named Leopold Page, also known as Leopold Pfefferberg. He was known to his friends as Poldek, a diminutive of Leopold.

I gave him a credit card for my purchase; it took a long time to call the charges through; while we waited, Poldek started talking about Oskar. He had been saved by Oskar. He had filing cabinets full of material which had been gathered earlier when MGM had been thinking of making a film on Oskar. That film was never made.

I listened to the story and read some of the material and got very interested. One of the things that appealed to me about the story was that Oskar was so ambiguous. It was hard to work out his motivation. People are always asking me what motivated him; I’m delighted to tell them every time, “We can’t be sure what motivated him.” He was both an opportunist and a deliverer, a black marketeer and a savior – this attracted me to the whole thing. I was also attracted by the fact that you could approach the Holocaust from the direction of his little enamelware factory in Crakow; it gave you a means of looking at an inhuman event on a human scale.

Q. Did it hit you in the luggage store that this story could be a book?

A. Oh, definitely. And pretty soon thereafter it struck me that I wanted to write it the way I did, as a documentary novel, a work of “faction,” rather like Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff.” One reason I conceived of it in documentary terms rather than as a work of imagination was because that’s the way all the former prisoners I spoke to wanted it dealt with. They didn’t want me to alter the facts.

Q. Was the book difficult to write?

A. Yes. I had nightmares while I was writing. Primarily about Amon Goeth, the SS commandant. Goeth is real nightmare material. I also had a problem, in about the middle of the writing, with feeling the book wasn’t going anywhere – that it wasn’t doing justice. So I had a bit of a crisis, which was extremely stressful for me. When you have a crisis with a book – it’s the sort of thing that makes writers kill themselves, you know.

Amon Goeth, incarcerated. He was executed in 1946.

Q. Entertainment Weekly magazine recently ran a seven-page story on the making of the movie that barely mentions you. I found that to be odd.

A. Well, that’s the nature of the movies. That’s the normal arrangement. The movies are the movies, and literature is literature. I consider that I’ve had much more attention than a lot of writers of the original work get.

Q. You wrote an early draft the screenplay, correct?

A. Yes. In December 1982, after the book came out, Poldek and I had a meeting with Steven Spielberg and Sidney Sheinberg, the head of MCA and Universal; they said they wanted to acquire the film rights, and did so, in March 1983. I worked on an early draft which Spielberg didn’t particularly like. He said it was too close to the book. Then a number of writers had a part in it – Kurt Luedtke, who had won an Academy Award for “Out of Africa”; I think Tom Stoppard was involved at one stage late in the process; and Steve Zaillian, the man who got the credit. Steve Zaillian wrote a very good screenplay that was based on Spielberg’s reading of the book.

The Schindler that I see on the screen is very similar to the man I came to know. He’s dealt with as an ambiguous character, interested in income as much as decency, a man who gets gradually shocked by the scale of events – that’s pretty much as I depicted him in the book. Because of my experience in the Australian film industry, I never expected that the film would be a literal, exact rendition of the book.

Q. There was a showing of the film recently for students in Oakland, California, and several of the young people were asked to leave the theater after they laughed during the film’s scenes of murder. There were suggestions they were influenced by statements made by Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. What is your reaction to the incident?

A. I don’t think it’s the sort of movie that you can just drop kids into. Kids who weren’t around when this whole thing happened, who don’t know who Hitler was, and what the Germans were doing, need preparation. Most Americans were not around when Hitler was around; I think therefore that this is going to be a bit of a revelation to them, and if not a revelation, a bit of a mystification. As offensive as that laughter may have been to some of the adult viewers of the film, and as distracting as it would have been, I would doubt that it was necessarily based on racist malice. I didn’t read that incident as necessarily an insult to the film or to the Holocaust. I think it’s just distance of time and ignorance of the events. Of course, maybe they were partly influenced by Farrakhan-like statements; I don’t know.

Q. Caryn James writes in the New York Times about the “immense artistic leap” that Steven Spielberg made from the pure entertainment of “E.T.” to the gravitas of “Schindler’s List.”

A. It’s an extraordinary range for a director to have, isn’t it? However, I was not surprised that he could do it. I’d been talking about the project with him, off and on, since 1982, and I felt he was on the right track about Oskar. I felt this film was his way to a new level, his way to prove a lot to the critics who had been sometimes unkind to “The Color Purple” and “Empire of the Sun.” He was not interested in making an unreal adventure story out of it; he was interested in reproducing the paradoxes of Schindler’s character. His interest in it seemed to me to be, in a strange way – and a writer can’t use a nicer word about someone – it seemed to be literary.

Another reason I had confidence was because I saw a bit of the filming in Poland. I was only there about a week, but I went back to Australia and said, “I think this could be very, very good.” And when I saw the premiere last November I thought it could become a classic. ●