schindler's list factsEverett Collection

"Schindler's List" already looked like an instant classic the moment it was released 20 years ago this week (on December 15, 1993). Shot in timeless black-and-white, Steven Spielberg's based-in-fact account of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved 1,200 Jews from the Polish city of Krakow during the Holocaust by putting them on his factory payroll, became a landmark film, becoming the definitive depiction of the Holocaust for many viewers around the world. It also made a star out of Ralph Fiennes, an A-lister out of Liam Neeson, and an Oscar-winner out of Spielberg, who proved once and for all that he was not just a director of kiddie fantasies.

Two decades have done nothing but burnish the film's reputation as an artistic masterpiece and educational tool. Still, even though everyone's seen it, there's plenty you probably don't know about how it got made, from the project's birth in a Beverly Hills luggage store, to the directors who almost shot it, to the surreal ways Spielberg coped with the horrors he was recreating every day. Here, then, are 25 things you didn't know about "Schindler's List"

1. Poldek Pfefferberg, one of the Jews Schindler saved, spent more than 40 years trying to get a film about Schindler made. Having emigrated to the U.S. in 1948 and opened a luggage store in Beverly Hills that brought him into contact with high-profile Hollywood folk, he tried as early as 1951 to interest director Fritz Lang (himself a German émigré) in Schindler's story. Finally, he persuaded Australian author Thomas Keneally to write the 1982 novel "Schindler's Ark" that would become the basis for "Schindler's List."

2. Steven Spielberg was quick to acquire the rights but felt that, in his late 30s, he wasn't yet mature enough to handle the subject. He tried to pass it off to other directors, but they all said no. Sydney Pollack begged off, having addressed the Holocaust in "The Pawnbroker." Roman Polanski, who had himself survived the Holocaust as a child in Krakow, felt the material was too close to his own life for objectivity, though he did eventually direct a true-life Holocaust story, "The Pianist." Martin Scorsese thought it would be better to have a Jewish director tell the story, but he reluctantly agreed, until Spielberg took it back, swapping the project with "Cape Fear."

3. Universal agreed to let Spielberg direct the film, provided he shoot "Jurassic Park" first. Spielberg agreed, knowing he wouldn't feel like making a dinosaur movie after finishing "Schindler's List."

4. Branko Lustig lobbied to produce the movie for Spielberg by rolling up his sleeve and showing him his tattooed serial number from Auschwitz. In fact, as a producer, Lustig had already filmed at Auschwitz for the TV mini-series "War and Remembrance."

5. A number of high-profile leading men were up for the role of Schindler, from Kevin Costner to Mel Gibson to Warren Beatty, but Spielberg didn't want to cast anyone with movie-star baggage, about whom the audience would bring preconceived notions. He settled on Liam Neeson after seeing him on Broadway in a revival of "Anna Christie."

6. For Nazi overseen Amon Goeth, Spielberg picked the even more obscure Ralph Fiennes after seeing him in the 1992 film version of "Wuthering Heights" and the TV movie "A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia."

7. Fiennes gained 28 pounds to play Goeth. His performance was so dead-on that Pfefferberg's wife, Mila, went into a trembling fit when she met Fiennes in character.

8. Spielberg refused a salary on the project, considering any fee he might receive to be "blood money."

9. The director decided to shoot in black and white for several reasons. It reminded him of documentary footage of the Holocaust. It had a timeless quality to it. And he felt that the film should be drained of color to reflect the draining of life during the Holocaust.

10. Most of the film was shot on location in Krakow, in the actual remnants of the Jewish ghetto. The Plaszow concentration camp was rebuilt in a pit on the edge of town, but that was the only major set construction.

11. At Auschwitz, Spielberg shot outside the gates but not inside, out of respect for the dead.

12. "The most moving thing that happened for me was on Passover," Spielberg said in an interview upon the film's release. "We had Passover at the hotel, and all the young German actors who were playing Nazis came in with yarmulkes and haggadahs [Passover prayer books] and sat with the Israeli actors and took part in the Passover service. I wept like a baby."

13. After shooting Holocaust scenes all day, Spielberg spent his evenings editing footage from "Jurassic Park," which he'd shot the previous autumn.

14. Part of Lustig's producing job was wrangling locals as extras. Talking to Time magazine in 2013, he recalled that the most painful part of the shoot was recruiting children to sing songs while they were being herded onto trucks as the ghetto was liquidated. "I was the one who went to schools in Krakow to ask the little children to sing the song, and brought them to the location we built, to march and sing," Lustig recalled. "That was the first time and the only time during the shoot when Steven came to me and took me away."

15. For Spielberg, the hardest moment was the sequence when the Polish extras, playing concentration camp prisoners, were stripped and humiliated. He said he couldn't actually watch that part of the shoot. Frequently during the filming, he would break down in tears.

16. To cheer himself up, Spielberg had Robin Williams phone him. He also would watch episodes of "Seinfeld" -- probably not imagining that there would be an episode of "Seinfeld" where Jerry causes outrage by making out with his new girlfriend throughout a screening of "Schindler's List."

17. In one of the film's few instances of color, Spielberg's camera singled out a little girl in a red coat. She was played by Oliwia Dabrowska, then 3. Spielberg warned her not to watch the completed film until she was 18, but she saw it when she was 11 and was traumatized. But she watched it again at 18. "I realized I had been part of something I could be proud of," she told the London Times in 2013. "Spielberg was right: I had to grow up to watch the film."

19. In real life, there actually was a little girl in Krakow known for her red coat, Roma Ligocka. She survived the Holocaust, and she published a memoir in 2002, "The Girl in the Red Coat."

20. The film cost a modest $22 million to make. It went on to earn $96 million in North America and another $225 million overseas.

21. At the Warsaw premiere, there was a klezmer band up front, playing traditional Eastern-European Jewish music. "I didn't know that Steven plays saxophone," Lustig said of Spielberg. "He took the saxophone and played with them for five or six minutes. And I'll say he played very well"

22. "Schindler's List" was nominated for 12 Academy Awards. It won seven, including Best Picture, Best Director (Spielberg's first Oscar in that category), Best Adapted Screenplay (to Steven Zaillian), Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Score. Neeson and Fiennes were nominated for their performances but didn't win.

23. Not everyone loved it. Most of the complaints came from scholars, rather than popular-press critics. Author Sara Horowitz noted that the focus on Goeth as villain ignored the role that ordinary Germans and Poles played in the Holocaust. Brown University history professor Omer Bartov noted that the Jewish actors all seemed small and furtive compared to the large and imposing Neeson and Fiennes, and that they seemed like spectators to their own story instead of protagonists. Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, whose epic "Shoah" is considered the definitive Holocaust documentary, called "Schindler's List" a "kitschy melodrama" and a "deformation of historical truth," and criticized Spielberg for presenting the story from the point of view of a German protagonist.

24. Neeson and Fiennes reunited in 2010's "Clash of the Titans" and 2012's "Wrath of the Titans," as Zeus and Hades, respectively.

25. Spielberg was inspired by the project to star the Shoah Foundation and record the testimony of as many Holocaust survivors as possible. To date, it has preserved more than 50,000 interviews.