Why Saul Bass’ Schindler’s List Poster Was Rejected


Saul Bass was graphic designer best know for his collaborations with critically acclaimed Hollywood directors – including Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick – on posters and other marketing materials. His work is famously minimal; he commonly used stencils and incredibly simple colour pallets. The rejection of his poster for Steven Spielberg‘s 1993 film, Schindler’s List, is somewhat surprising, considering his legendary status in the world of cinema. I’ll be applying my knowledge of the film, Saul’s work, and the relationship between the two, in order to understand why Universal Studios might’ve rejected his beautiful design.

(Tom Martin)                                                       (Saul Bass)

(Lines of composition superimposed)

In case you haven’t seen the film, this is an incredibly brief synopsis:

Oskar Schindler is a vainglorious and greedy German businessman who becomes an unlikely humanitarian amid the barbaric German Nazi reign when he feels compelled to turn his factory into a refuge for Jews.’ – Harald Mayr

I have three primary reasons I believe contributed to the rejection of Saul’s poster design – these have been written based on the information that it was the studio, not Steven Spielberg himself, who rejected the design. The reasons all have a central theme: the poster wouldn’t have attracted the correct kind of audience for the film.

One, Pessimism:

Saul’s design is simple: barbed wire is piercing Schindler’s famous list – Schindler’s list of workers to be saved from extermination. Though the film tackles what is arguable the most inhumane series of atrocities in human history, the film is primarily about the unexpected humanity of the protagonist. The use of human characters juxtaposed against a dark background, in Tom’s poster, asks the viewer to see humanity amongst hostile and unforgiving surroundings, which embodies the paramount theme of the film.

The barbed wire piercing the list, in Saul’s poster, creates a powerful sense of violation, and a feeling of futility about the list. Whereas, Tom’s image of the hand of the Jewish girl in the little red coat – who appears once, walking unnoticed among Nazi troops – paints a more optimistic view of Schindler and his list; it’s as though Schindler is a rouge hero, walking unnoticed among his peers.

Finally, the list runs top to bottom of Tom’s poster, fading into the rest of the image, showing its enormity, as opposed to the list being a torn scrap in Saul’s version.

As a studio trying to sell a film about such a horrific event, it’s almost certainly a sensible option to present some optimism, or hope, in the marketing materials.

Two, Composition and Information:

As you can see in my graphic, the posters use two different rules of composition to guild the design. In Tom’s design, most obvious rule applied is the Z layout: which, in this case, leads the eye from title, through the characters, and onto the credits. This puts a certain weight on information about the studio and production crew, by finishing on it, unlike Saul’s design that almost totally disregards that information by positioning it in a separate box on the poster – and, though you can’t see in my graphic, outside the natural box that’s made by applying the rule of thirds to Saul’s image of the barbed wire.

It is obvious that this information would be important to the production studio, and would create an unsurprising preference for Tom’s design.

Three, Colour and Cinematic Relevance:

The film being primarily black and white, with several colour images – images of particular narrative importance – makes the choice of a poster that reflects that an easy option.

Saul’s poster doesn’t reflect any of the key cinematic elements in Spielberg’s final film – it’s minimal, which is very Saul Bass, but the film is full, practically oozing with life and death; it is rich in information and visually unrelenting.

Saul Bass also designed a more optimistic poster that was also rejected. I think the reason Saul’s work was so under-appreciated by the studio was its tenancy to attract a smaller, but more devoted audience, than Tom’s work.


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