The original production notes for Schindler’s List included a statement from actor Ben Kingsley. “This period of history must be retold to every generation,” he said. “I’m afraid if we don’t, whatever year this film appeared, it would be relevant somewhere in the world.”
It’s now been 20 years—the standard length of a generation—and Oscar-winning producer Branko Lustig is as aware of that truth just as much as ever. Lustig, now 80, is a native of Croatia and spent three years in concentration camps during the Holocaust. In 1945, he was 12 years old when he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, as he told the Los Angeles Times. Later in life, he became a producer and, by the 1990s, Steven Spielberg had hired him to work on Schindler’s List (which has been newly restored for an anniversary Blu-ray). After the movie’s completion, Lustig was a founding advisor to the USC Shoah Foundation, the Spielberg-chaired archive of testimonies of genocide survivors. He spoke to TIME about the power of the movies and why it’s important to revisit history on film.
TIME: What first drew you to the movies as a career?
Lustig: It was so long ago that I almost forgot about it. My first film project was a German movie. I came back from a German concentration camp and the first thing I made was a German movie, a co-production with a studio in the former Yugoslavia. It was a very good movie. I learned how to be a production manager.
What was your first reaction when you had the opportunity to be involved in the making of Schindler’s List?
I came to the United States with a [miniseries] called War and Remembrance. We had built a Theresienstadt [concentration camp] in a little town; they didn’t let us into the original because the Russian tanks were still there. Then I came to Los Angeles, and I had been here maybe 2 years when I introduced myself to Steven Spielberg—not for Schindler’s List, although the movie existed already. So when I had my first interview, they told me that they would find me and call me if they need me. Then they called me for an interview for Steven. He was late and when he came his assistant said, “You have only five minutes.” That became a half hour. We talked about everything. About Schindler’s List. I knew [the project from] when they wanted to make [a version of it] in Yugoslavia. Then he left and he told me, “You are my producer. Bye-bye.” At first, I didn’t believe it myself. I came to America for a big reason, and the first big movie I made in America was with Steven Spielberg!
We decided we would make the movie in Krakow because everything is still there. I was there two years ago, and they hadn’t moved anything. The old synagogues are still there. We decided we would build the concentration camp [set near] the original place. That was in 1991. We started preparations and the movie started in 1992 around this exact time. I’ll never forget. We needed snow for the first shooting days and there was no snow, so we brought snow from the mountains. It was perfect. Then, three days before the shooting started, we went to the airport and here comes the plane with Steven—and with the plane comes snow. So we had too much snow. Snow gave us a lot of problems.
What was it like to work on a movie that hits so close to home with your experiences as a survivor?
I didn’t tell you for nothing the story about War and Remembrance. During that, we shot in Auschwitz, in the camp, so I had already experienced shooting a movie in Auschwitz. It was incredible that I was coming to the second time to the location where I was during the war. And we built gas chambers in Zagreb at the studio. Exact replics. Sir John Gielgud, a great British actor, he was in the movie and we shot some scenes in the crematorium. [Schindler’s List] was my second time shooting in the location where I spent my youth.
The only time I wasn’t very excited during the shoot was the scene when they put the children on the trucks and they sing a song. 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. That was the first time and the only time during the shoot when Steven came to me and took me away. That was the only time I felt very bad.
Why do you think the movie is still so important after 20 years?
It’s not just important 20 years later. It’s important one year later. It’s important two years later. It will be more important 50 years later. Telling the young people all around the world what happened. You have the statements at the Shoah Foundation, we made testimonies, 52,000 testimonies, of all the survivors telling their story of how they survived—someone might say ‘that’s enough.’ But when you see the movie you see what really happened. There are plenty of movies about the Holocaust. My passion is to [organize] every year a [film] festival in Zagreb, where we show Holocaust movies. There are many movies made but I think Schindler’s List is the one where the story is told so that you believe it and, as someone who is sitting and watching, you feel everything that is happening there. That’s the power of movies.
With Steven, I went to premieres all around the world, and everywhere where we showed the movie there was an enormous ovation, but not immediately. The movie finished and nobody moved. Steven said, “What’s happening here?” No one moved. No sound. You only heard that people were crying. And then all at one moment all the people got up. That was a feeling I had never had before. And my shoulder was completely blue because Steven was hitting me on my left shoulder every time there was a color section or a black and white section in the movie; I was running up to the operator and telling him to watch it, because the color [film] is thinner, and every time it switched we lost the focus because the operator was also watching the movie. Today this kind of problem doesn’t exist anymore.
We had a lot of reaction. Everything was incredible. In Warsaw the big movie theater was full and in front of the movie theater there was a klezmer band. I didn’t know that Steven plays saxophone. He took the saxophone and played with them for five or six minutes. And I’ll say he played very well.
And now the Shoah Foundation is doing a project connected to the anniversary of the movie, with a contest for students to document the ways one person can do good.
When we came back from Los Angeles from Poland, Steven asked how many survivors are still alive. I said I think about 350,000. He said, “We must take their testimonies. How much will it cost?” I said we’ll find out. We found out it was too much, more than $60 million. That was in 1994. We decided that we will form a foundation called Shoah and we will make testimonies; if we cannot make 350,000, we will make 50,000. We came back to Los Angeles and we tried to find production managers, producers and most important we tried to find money. Slowly we found people and we formed groups to go do interviews wherever there were Jewish survivors. Up to now we’ve made about 52,000. We’ve made documentaries from them. Now there are students making things based on these stories, connecting those stories to today, how people see the Holocaust today. It’s very important so that it should not happen ever again and the people from this generation know what happened years ago. Nobody can say he didn’t know, as long as he wants to know.