He has shot blockbusters like Jaws and Jurassic Park. With “ET – The Extra-Terrestrial” he moved millions to tears, the Holocaust drama “Schindler’s List” brought him the first director’s Oscar. With “West Side Story” he dared to film a musical for the first time last year. Now Hollywood’s master director Steven Spielberg is bringing what is probably his most personal work to the screen with the family story “The Fabelmans”.

The coming-of-age drama captures the early experiences that shaped Spielberg’s ideas, emotions and imagination. It is the story of Sam Fabelman, who grew up with his Jewish parents, Mitzi and Burt, and three younger sisters in different places in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. It becomes immediately clear that little Sammy is actually Steven. It is Spielberg’s journey back in time to his own childhood, to the beginning of his passion for moving images.

Beginnings with an 8mm camera

The trigger is a train accident on the screen. Sitting between his parents, Sammy looks spellbound at a spectacular crash scene in the film “The Greatest Show on Earth” on his first visit to the cinema. These pictures won’t let him go. At home he crashes the carriages of his toy train into each other. And with the help of his father’s 8mm camera, this later becomes his first little film.

But Sam is not a child prodigy who grows up in an ideal world. The family often moves, and there is a crisis in the parents’ marriage. At the new school in California, the young film buff is mocked as a sissy. Michelle Williams (“Manchester by the Sea”) shines as the art-loving mother, a concert pianist with a freedom-loving side. Paul Dano (“There will be Blood”) is the rational father, an electrical engineer. “In this family, science competes with art,” says the mother – and Sammy takes after her. In fact, father and son are often at odds, for example when Burt talks about the “hobby” of the teenager who has long felt called to be a filmmaker.

Hollywood newcomer Gabriel LaBelle is great as the sensitive boy who prefers to see the world through the film camera. He captures hilarious scenes from the family’s camping trip, but also witnesses the marital drama as the mother falls in love with Bennie (Seth Rogen), a close family friend.

Fear of your own mortality

According to Spielberg, he was hesitant to film his childhood for a long time. The fear of his own mortality during the corona pandemic ultimately gave him the courage to do so, the director recently said at the Berlinale. There he was awarded the Honorary Golden Bear for his life’s work. He always wanted to tell the story of his parents and sisters and the struggle between art and family. Spielberg’s father, Arnold Spielberg, died in 2020 at the age of 103. His mother, Leah Adler, who died in 2017, was 97 years old.

At the Golden Globe Gala in January, Spielberg’s Childhood Portrait won two awards, Best Drama and Best Director. There are seven chances to win at the upcoming Oscars, including in the top category “Best Picture” for director and leading actress Michelle Williams. For the first time, Spielberg is also nominated for the best screenplay, which he wrote together with US author Tony Kushner (“Munich”, “Lincoln”, “West Side Story”). Screen veteran Judd Hirsch (87) also received a supporting role nomination with a brief appearance as Sam’s grumpy great-uncle.

“You always have to do what your heart tells you,” advises mother Mitzi in “The Fabelmans” to the insecure teenager. Spielberg has apparently followed this throughout his long career. But never before has he given viewers such a candid look into his life – and at the same time created a homage to the wonder of moving images.

The Fabelmans, USA 2022, 151 minutes, FSK 12+, by Steven Spielberg, with Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch