A Life Marked by Triumph and Tragedy
Branko Lustig, a Croatian film producer and Holocaust survivor, led a life marked by both unimaginable horrors and unparalleled triumphs. Born in 1932 to a Croatian Jewish family in Osijek, Yugoslavia, Lustig experienced the atrocities of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps during World War II, losing most of his family members, including his father and grandmother, to the gas chambers. Despite the darkness of his early years, Lustig emerged as a beacon of resilience and talent in the world of cinema.
A Storied Career in Film
Branko Lustig began his journey in the film industry in the mid-1950s, working on local productions in Yugoslavia. His dedication and passion for filmmaking led him to work on international projects, serving as a location manager for Norman Jewison’s “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971) and as a local production supervisor on Alan J. Pakula’s “Sophie’s Choice” (1982). In the late ’80s, Lustig moved to Los Angeles, where he met Steven Spielberg, marking the beginning of a fruitful collaboration and earning him his first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1994 as a producer on “Schindler’s List.” and later for Gladiator in 2001.
Making him the only person from Croatia who won two best picture awards.
Winning Awards for “Schindler’s List” and “Gladiator”
Lustig’s work on “Schindler’s List” solidified his place as one of the most influential producers in Hollywood. His emotional acceptance speech at the Oscars highlighted the long journey from Auschwitz to the prestigious stage and emphasized the legacy left by those who perished. Lustig’s commitment to excellence continued with Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” in 2000, earning him his second Academy Award for Best Picture. His collaboration with Ridley Scott also included notable films like “Hannibal” (2001), “Black Hawk Down” (2001), “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005), and “American Gangster” (2007).
Anecdotes with Russell Crowe
The Russell Crowe Incident
Branko Lustig’s journey was not without its challenges. During the filming of “Gladiator,” he faced a tense and alarming situation with the film’s lead actor, Russell Crowe.
Crowe, reportedly unhappy with the pay for some of his assistants, called Lustig and threatened him, stating, “You motherfucker. I will kill you with my bare hands.”
This threat left Lustig, a Holocaust survivor, terrified, prompting him to call Steven Spielberg and express his desire to leave the production.
However, despite such incidents, Lustig remained committed to his craft, contributing to the creation of memorable and impactful cinema.
Russell Crowe, the star of “Gladiator,” shared a heartfelt tribute to Branko Lustig upon his passing, reflecting on the amazing life Lustig led. Crowe highlighted the disagreements they had but emphasized the enduring friendship they shared, stating, “He said to me once ‘you disagree with me a lot, but you’re always my friend on the days I need you.’ Yes. Much love Branko. Always your friend.”
A Legacy of Remembrance and Tolerance
Branko Lustig dedicated his later years to promoting values of a democratic society, film art, and a culture of understanding. He served as the president of the Festival of Tolerance, a Jewish film festival, and was named an honorary citizen of the City of Zagreb for his outstanding contributions. Lustig donated his Oscar for “Schindler’s List” to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and worked with Spielberg to set up the Shoah Foundation to record the testimony of over 50,000 Holocaust survivors.
Branko Lustig’s life is a testament to the enduring human spirit and the transformative power of art. From the harrowing experiences of his childhood to the pinnacle of cinematic achievement, Lustig’s journey is a story of resilience, dedication, and a relentless pursuit of excellence. His contributions to the film industry and his efforts to ensure that the world never forgets the horrors of the Holocaust will continue to inspire generations to come.