In the preface to “Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films,” film critic Molly Haskell writes how, in the weeks leading up to the 2014 Academy Awards, a reporter revealed that the top two names Oscar winners have thanked the most were Steven Spielberg (42 times) and God (19 times). Haskell recently spoke to JewishBoston about her new book, an astute biography that is the newest addition to the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series.

At the outset of the book, you say you were initially hesitant to write a biography of Steven Spielberg. Why?

I was not a huge fan, and had been very critical of his early films and the way they transformed the film industry. Suddenly, after a very adventurous few years in American cinema, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was all about blockbusters, opening wide, box-office intake, science fiction and kids—male kids. I wanted to re-evaluate Spielberg, taking into account my own prejudices.

Spielberg once said, “Everything about me is in my movies.” Are some of his films more autobiographical than others?

He has said “Catch Me If You Can” is the most autobiographical, and I think it is. A broken home, a mother who is an adulteress and a boy expelled from “paradise” trying to find his way back to a home, which is no longer his.

Molly Haskell (Photo by Jim Carpenter)
Molly Haskell (Photo by Jim Carpenter)

How does the paradox of assimilation and Jewishness play out in Spielberg’s life and work?

He lived in gentile neighborhoods and was confused about his Jewish heritage; he had assimilationist parents but Orthodox grandparents. He wanted to “be like everybody else,” and that was very, very difficult. He was also awkward. Filmmaking became his way of belonging, first to Boy Scouts, then to the world. He didn’t want to reach just one group, or just an art-house audience.

You have a chapter entitled, “The Kid with the Briefcase.” What does that evoke about Spielberg the man and Spielberg the director?

Spielberg couldn’t get into film school [because of his bad grades], so he went to work at Universal Studios in a lowly job, which gave him an opportunity to hang out on sets and watch directors at work. He wore a suit and tie every day and carried a briefcase to look executive. He found mentors and eventually worked in television, where he served his apprenticeship.

How did Spielberg sort out his confusion over his Jewish identity?

Eventually, he simply accepted it. After he had his son Max in 1985 and during the making of “Schindler’s List,” he began to identify with relatives who had suffered during the Holocaust or who had become refugees. He’d heard stories as a child, but now they all came rushing to the surface, with the attendant wrenching emotions.

Does “Schindler’s List” refute Theodor Adorno’s famous opinion that making art out of the Holocaust is unacceptable? Do you think Spielberg had Adorno’s sentiment in mind when he directed the film?

Elie Wiesel’s dictum, “How is one to tell a tale that cannot be—but must be—told?” is the answer to Adorno. That taboo has been revised, if not abolished, with the passage of time and the emergence of honorable works on the Holocaust. And I think it’s one most people today would agree with, while reserving the right to censure a movie they feel distorts, exploits, commodifies, denies, short changes or otherwise violates a set of unspecified ethical guidelines. Of course, no one can quite agree on what these are, and they can vary from person to person, as was the case in reactions to “Schindler’s List,” as I point out in the book. Each attempt to dramatize the Holocaust must be tread carefully, but each benefits from works that have gone before. Look at French film directors Alain Resnais and Claude Lanzmann. Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” made László Nemes’ “Son of Saul” possible.

Spielberg Book CoverIs it fair to say delving into the history of the Holocaust inspired Spielberg to take his Judaism seriously?

Yes, that and the birth of his son, though I wonder how he would have been affected if his first child had been a girl. I think while making “Schindler’s List” he understood he had a mission to expose and enlighten, hence his Shoah Foundation. It was first conceived as “Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation” and contained video-recorded witness testimony. When the material and mandate expanded and required advanced digital preservation technology, it was moved to the University of Southern California and renamed as USC Shoah Foundation: The Institute for Visual History and Education.

In the chapter about the film “Munich,” you quote Golda Meir: “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromise with its own values.” How is that reflected in Spielberg’s directorial interpretation?

Basically, it’s the terrible psychological cost when morally decent people become killers, and not killers in a “national army in wartime” way, but as rogue killers in a badly defined war of retribution. We see this in each of the Israeli counter-terrorists and in the bitter ending [of the film].

What do you think Spielberg’s legacy will be?

I’m constantly struck by a kind of prescience in his work. In reaching for large audiences, Spielberg displays an uncanny gift for sensing the mood of the country. His films reverberate with the preoccupations and concerns of the culture at any given moment: He started “Minority Report” before 9/11, but the movie’s anxiety about surveillance could have been an answer to George W. Bush, John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act; “The Terminal” features an immigrant stuck at JFK Airport without a visa; “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” is an extraordinary depiction of the terrors and gifts of robots; and “Lincoln” shows the fragility of democracy and its ideals, but also the kind of horse-trading required to make it work.