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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spielberg's 'List' Comes Quietly to Moscow

Lech Walesa was on hand for the opening of "Schindler's List" in Warsaw. Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres showed up in Tel Aviv. Director Steven Spielberg stood side-by-side with famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal at the Vienna premiere.


There was less fanfare at the Russian premiere of "Schindler's List" this week.


Instead of the Kremlin House of Congresses -- as originally scheduled -- the seven-time Oscar winning film opened at the Khudozhestvenny Kinoteatr on Novy Arbat. And instead of Spielberg -- who failed to show up first for a proposed June 22 opening and then again for a September date -- the premiere was opened by film critic and People's Deputy Alla Gerber.


The film's long-awaited grand opening in Russia was hardly the event it was intended to be. For one thing, "Schindler's List" has already penetrated much of Russia on pirated videocassettes. Bootlegs voiced-over in Russian have even turned up in Israel, said Gerry Lewis, the London-based director of international distribution for Amblin International, Spielberg's production company.


Moreover, Spielberg's masterwork has met a rather luke-warm critical reception. Most ordinary theater-goers interviewed last week said they were moved by the film, but advance press for Spielberg's Holocaust epic has been ambivalent, charging that the film "Hollywoodizes" the Holocaust or duplicates generations of Soviet World War II films.


"My sense is that there has been a different response in Russia," said Lewis from London, where he has overseen the film's distribution worldwide. In the rest of the world, "almost without exception, the film has met with a very enthusiastic response. In Russia, it seems that there has been a more questioning response. In some cases it has been quite hostile."


Judging from the audiences in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and elsewhere in the former East Bloc, Russia should be a good market for the film -- but so far Amblin has met with unexpected coolness from the Russian media, Lewis said.


"There has been a lot of response similar to the rest of the world, but there is this undertone," he added. "I suppose it could be because in Russia the Holocaust is not seen as a major drama, compared to their own losses" in World War II.


"They say that 'Schindler's List' plunged the Western public, and especially Americans, into shock," the editor in chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vitaly Tretyakov, wrote in a front- page editorial Thursday.


"They must not have known how many Jews were killed by the Third Reich, and how.


"I, raised in the communist Soviet Union, knew."


Not all of Russia's leading lights were hostile, however. Former acting prime minister Yegor Gaidar said after seeing the movie: "The inoculation against fascism is only good for 50 years. I would like wholeheartedly to thank the artist for understanding this ahead of time."


Resentment also was fueled by Spielberg's failure to appear in June. The director had been scheduled to open the film on June 22 in St. Petersburg. Two weeks before the scheduled premiere -- after the advertising campaign and the press screenings -- Spielberg cancelled the trip because of what his staff said were business commitments.


The cancellation was "a bit of a blow, to say the least," said Nicolette Kirk, Moscow general director of the East-West Creative Association, which coordinated Russian distribution of the film. "The public was expecting Spielberg to arrive. For cinema-loving people like the Russians, this was a very big event."


That was particularly true in St. Petersburg, where "Schindler's List" was the planned centerpiece to the Festival of Festivals. [Spielberg's anticlimactic cancellation caused resentment and rumors. June 22 -- the date originally set for the premiere -- is also the day the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, and one version of events suggested that Spielberg was disturbed by the choice of date and cancelled the trip, said Alexander Kan, a columnist in St. Petersburg.] [this can be cut, if necessary]


Alexander Mamontov, who organized the June festival, said the cancellation had been a huge inconvenience, forcing him to replace his main attraction and reprint all his programs two weeks before the grand opening. He said anti-semitic opposition to the film could have been an element in the cancellation.


"On one hand, as they told us, there was a real problem within Spielberg's studio. On the other hand, there was a group of people who could have led a boycott," Mamontov said. "This doesn't involve all of Russia, but there was a group of people who were against it. Maybe somehow he knew about that."


Amblin Entertainment chose not to open the film in July, as planned, because the dubbing process was not finished and Russia's summer audiences are thin, said Lewis. Then, quietly, Spielberg cancelled his September appearance due to "a combination of a terrible schedule" within Spielberg's production company, and "particularly with 'Schindler's List,' he had to schedule around an awful lot of major Jewish holidays that fall in September," said Kirk. "He had very much wanted to come."


According to some distributors and theater owners, the audience response to "Schindler's List" has been undiminished. Rather than resenting Spielberg's two-time no-show, Russians "are just grateful to him for having filmed it," said Nina Prokopova, director of the Khudozhestvenny Kinoteatr. Spielberg "has achieved so much in his life that we can forgive him all his caprices," she added. Most ordinary theater-goers agreed. As pensioner Ariana Orlova, 68, left one of the first matinees of "Schindler's List" last week, tears were running down her face.


"For us, none of this was a mystery. We are not surprised," said Orlova. Nonetheless, Spielberg's film had been artfully made and "unexpectedly moving," she added. "Write that when they see this film, Russians -- and not only Jews -- cry."