Branko Lustig, Holocaust survivor and Oscar-winning producer of 'Schindler's List,' dies at 87
By EMILY LANGER | The Washington Post | Published: November 16, 2019
Branko Lustig was just a boy, newly arrived at Auschwitz, when he witnessed a scene that would be seared into his memory. Seven prisoners at the Nazi death camp were to be hanged in a public execution, and Lustig found himself in the front row before the gallows.
"Moments before they were hanged, before the bench was kicked out from them, they all said as one: 'Remember how we died,' " he recounted years later. "Tell the story about us," they implored.
Lustig was 12 years old and suffering from typhoid when he was liberated from another Nazi camp, Bergen-Belsen, in 1945. He returned to his native Croatia and, in time, embarked on a film career that would take him to movie sets across Europe and to Hollywood, where in 1994 he shared the Academy Award for best picture as a producer of director Steven Spielberg's Holocaust drama "Schindler's List."
"It's a long way from Auschwitz to this stage," Lustig said at the awards ceremony where, clad in a tuxedo and before millions of television viewers, he collected the highest award in moviemaking. Lustig added, "I hope I fulfilled my obligation to the innocent victims of the Holocaust."
Lustig, who received a second Oscar as a producer of "Gladiator" (2000), the Ridley Scott epic of Ancient Rome starring Russell Crowe, died Nov. 14 in Croatia. He was 87. His death was announced by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, to which he donated his Oscar for "Schindler's List." Further details were not immediately available.
Lustig had a fruitful association with Scott, the English filmmaker with whom he produced films including "Black Hawk Down" (2001), based on a disastrous U.S. military operation in Somalia in 1993, and "American Gangster" (2007), starring Crowe as the New York City police officer who pursues Frank Lucas, the drug kingpin played by Denzel Washington.
But Lustig was best known for his work on "Schindler's List" and other films that, while sometimes criticized by survivors and others who oppose the dramatization of the Holocaust, have been widely credited with helping to preserve the memory of that time, as it recedes ever farther into the past.
Among Lustig's first American films was "Sophie's Choice," a 1982 adaptation of William Styron's novel about a Polish woman who is sent to Auschwitz and forced to choose which of her two children will be murdered. Meryl Streep played the title character and received the Oscar for best actress for the film, which was filmed partly in Yugoslavia, with Lustig as production supervisor.
Later that decade, he was an associate producer of two TV series, based on Herman Wouk's epic World War II novels, the 18-hour "Winds of War" and 30-hour "War and Remembrance."
"War and Remembrance," which cost a reported $110 million, was the first occasion when officials in Poland, where Auschwitz is located, allowed moviemakers to film at the camp for a major commercial project. The series featured actors including Robert Mitchum, Jane Seymour and John Gielgud - as well as nearly 4,500 extras.
Many of them, while soldiering through the frigid Polish winter, participated in re-creations of horrors that had taken place in the teeming camp. Some had their hair shorn and were stripped of their clothing. Lighting and other filming equipment was hauled into the camp, along with food and supplies for the cast.
"When we were first planning to shoot here, I was thinking, 'How can we do this, how can we make a picture here on this sacred land?' " Lustig told the New York Times. "But now that we are here it is terribly important that we make this picture here because people are forgetting what happened."
He added that he tried in the course of his work to "cling to being a professional, like the others," but that "once in [a] while, when we film children, I break down. When I was 12 I was here and my duties were to open the bar underneath the gate that said 'Arbeit macht frei' " - work will make you free - "when officers arrived."
Lustig met Spielberg in Los Angeles and formed an immediate connection with the director of such films as "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and the Indiana Jones series. Lustig told the Hollywood Reporter that when he recounted to Spielberg, who is Jewish, his experience in the camps, the director kissed the number tattooed on Lustig's arm and declared, "You will be my producer."
"He is the man who gave me the possibility to fulfill my obligation," Lustig said of Spielberg.
The film, based on a book by Thomas Keneally, starred Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who was credited with saving more than 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by giving them jobs in his factory.
Lustig was responsible for production work including re-creating a concentration camp in a Polish quarry, preparing the way for filming in Krakow, and assembling the massive cast of extras. Some of them, mainly Poles, needed money; others wished to honor relatives who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz. Lustig had a cameo as a maître d' at a Nazi nightclub.
Some viewers expressed concern that "Schindler's List" focused on a single, spectacular rescue effort - a bright spot amid overwhelming darkness - that was not representative of the history of the Holocaust. But mainly the film was celebrated as a masterwork of filmmaking as well as memory-keeping.
"Slowly, people are not making movies about the Holocaust," Lustig told the Los Angeles Times. "One day they will stop, like Westerns."
Lustig was born June 10, 1932, in the city of Osijek, located in what then was Yugoslavia and today is Croatia. Roughly 30,000 of the 39,000 Croatian Jews would be killed during the Holocaust by the Nazis and the fascist Croatian Ustasa regime, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Lustig was interned in labor camps before being sent to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944. When British troops arrived on April 15, 1945, to liberate Bergen-Belsen, the camp in Germany where he had been transferred, he heard the sound of bagpipes and concluded he was dead. "I'm in heaven finally," he recalled thinking, "and these are angels playing."
He and his mother were among the only members of the family to survive the Holocaust.
Lustig studied at the theatrical academy in Zagreb before making his first foray into movies as a film translator. Among his first noted projects was "The Tin Drum" (1979), director Volker Schlöndorff's adaptation of the novel by the German writer and future Nobel laureate Günter Grass. Lustig was an assistant director.
He was a producer of "The Peacemaker" (1997), a geopolitical thriller starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, as well as Ridley Scott collaborations including "Hannibal" with Anthony Hopkins (the 2001 sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs" from a decade earlier), "Kingdom of Heaven" (a 2005 epic set during the Crusades) and "A Good Year" (a 2006 romantic comedy starring Crowe).
Lustig and his wife, Mirjana, had a daughter, but a complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Lustig said he was acutely aware that as survivors died, only books and films would remain to tell the story of the Holocaust.
"Maybe the reason I survived the camps was to help make movies about them," he told the Los Angeles Times, "to show people what happened."