The film begins in 1939 after Germany defeated Poland in two weeks. 10,000 Jews arrived in Krakow daily, and Jewish families are being registered for relocation, as their names have been placed on lists. There are many lists in the film, mostly the Nazi ones, used to identify, use, and exterminate the Jews, until we finally get to Schindler’s list toward the end of the movie. There is a cut to Schindler, looking affluent in comparison to the Jews being inventoried. He flashes cash, wears nice clothes, drinks alcohol, and smokes. The camera angle is upward to mirror the elevated status and high opinion of himself that he wants to project as he sits in an elegant restaurant with classical music playing in the background. Schindler observes the beautiful women and the men wearing Nazi uniforms. He sports a swastika pin on his suit jacket lapel, not because he is pro-Nazi, but to ingratiate himself with the Third Reich officials in order to exploit the situation. He tells the waiter to bring drinks to the visitors. He says tell them “they are from me.” His anonymous generosity makes the others curious, wanting to find out more about him. He is sort of like a spider spreading out his web to capture his prey. First a subordinate is sent over to gather information, but when Schindler has him sit down, the higher ranking officer must follow. Schindler is charming and the number wanting to join the party swells. Schindler’s sophistication is obvious, as he suggests the names of several wine vintages. (It is interesting that he rejects the German Riesling, and wants French wines, which can foreshadow his future alienation from Germany, or, if you agree with Ebert’s assessment, shows how he is anti-Germany from the start). He ingratiates himself as the alcohol flows and singing begins. He gets pictures taken with the high ranking officials, which he can later use to show his connections to powerful people. Meanwhile we hear some of the Nazis talking about how the Jews must now wear the Star of David, and they contribute to the stereotype about Jews and money by saying that the Jewish tailors are profiting by producing the labels, suggesting they are cashing in on the persecution of their own people. One soldier says how the Jews have survived throughout history. But another, reflecting how the Nazi propaganda campaign has convinced Germans that they are the superior race, boasts when he says getting past the SS is tougher than lasting out the Romans.
Stern does make overtures to Jewish investors. They want a percentage of Schindler’s profits. Schindler correctly tells them that goods, not money, will be the best form of payment for them, since they will be excluded from utilizing currency. He says there will be no contract between them, because there is no court which would uphold it for them, again hammering home the dire realism in the new world order. He is a pragmatist, and he knows how to make the situation work for him. Schindler keeps sipping his booze, and he offers some to Stern, who refuses, because he feels he has made a bargain with the devil in order to help Jews acquire some goods to trade. Stern tells Schindler that the wages he would pay a Jew in his factory goes to the SS, and the Poles get a higher wage than the Jews and the salary goes directly to them. It is only logical to Schindler that it is cheaper just to have Jews work in his factory.
Goeth, the new local Nazi leader arrives, and is briefed as he rides into the ghetto. The Germans are all about organization, dividing up the Jews into two camps of able-bodied workers and “surplus” laborers consisting of the old and infirm. It is the latter group that Goeth must start with, in essence, to cleanse. Goeth has a cold and, annoyed, wants the top of the jeep raised since he is “freezing.” He always complains about what he is going through. He constantly sounds like he is congested, as if the whole experience dealing with the Jews causes an annoying allergic reaction. He is pestered by the bureaucratic pains of dealing with the Jews, and just wants things taken care of. So, killing Jews or getting something built are all equally just things that he must unfortunately deal with.
Schindler observes the nightmarish scene, as do the audience, feeling as if we are watching a horror movie, although what he sees is all too real. He is up on a hill, on a horse, far removed from the soldiers’ raid, but unable to turn away from witnessing the cruelty below. Schindler makes out a small girl dressed in red, which stands out amid the black and white of the film. Spielberg has said that the use of color and the little girl is distracting in contrast to what is going on around her, which makes her appearance symbolic of how many allowed themselves to ignore the atrocities occurring while they looked away. Schindler watches the people herded together, stripped of their possessions, and many of them shot. He goes back to his office at the silent factory and looks down, again, from his lofty position which only provides him a negative image of the manufactured goods which are bereft of workers that made them, like grave markers for those gone.
There is again a parallel cut to Goeth looking down from his balcony. He is naked from the waist up, showing a bit of a pot belly, revealing his affluent position, watching as more lists are read of the Jews rounded up. In one of the more disturbing images depicted, he picks up a rifle and shoots two Jews who don’t happen to be engaged in work at the moment. He then returns to the naked woman in his bed, and playfully points the gun at her. She says he is acting like a child, as if he just has a toy gun. But his scary antics are not just for play.
Schindler shows up at a dinner with Nazi leaders. He meets Goeth, who compliments him on his silk suit. The two appreciate the finer things in life, but Schindler’s response sets them apart. He says he would get one for Goeth but the man who made it is probably dead. This remark can be taken as being funny, but Schindler’s stern look implies the Nazis are killing off the very people who can create what they value. When he meets with Goethe one-on-one, he says nobody told him about the eradication of the ghetto, and now he has an empty factory because his workers are gone. When Goethe says they are still there, Schindler angrily says, “They’re mine!” which is possessive, but it is also protective, and the force in his voice shows his strength. He says every day that they are not working is bad for business. Schindler says “Thank you,” to Helen (Embeth Davidtz), the woman Goeth took out of the line-up to be his servant. Goeth hears Schindler being polite, and imitates him, trying to show that he can be as refined as Schindler. But, the scene also displays his envy, as Goeth feels deficient in not being capable of human decency. Goeth says that he heard that Schindler knows how to show gratitude in tangible ways. Schindler says if Goeth makes things easier for him, he will be grateful. So they reach an agreement, and the workers return to the factory. But, Goeth meets with Stern saying the accountant’s primary task is to ensure that he gets his cut of the profits, and that he is really working for Goeth now. During a party to ingratiate himself with the Nazi officials, Schindler has a brief secret meeting with Stern who talks to him about business details which just annoy Schindler. Since Stern is basically Goeth’s prisoner now, Schindler smuggled out some food for him, and this time Stern gives a genuine thank you.
In another vile act, Goeth visits a forced labor factory where he clocks a worker making hinges, because he has to make room for workers coming in from Yugoslavia. So if the man doesn’t make the grade he will be killed. The man finishes the task quickly, but Goeth notes he hasn’t made enough hinges for the day. They drag him outside to shoot him. He has to wait in agonizing terror as Goeth’s guns keeps jamming. The worker tries to explain that they were recalibrating the machinery that day and he was placed on a detail shoveling coal which explains his low production. Goeth does not listen and just gets more agitated as the guns don’t fire, again showing his irritation when what are to him small details don’t go his way. He finally just whacks the worker on the head with the gun. Stern tells Schindler about the man, and Schindler gives him his gold cigarette lighter to bribe an official so the man can be safe working in Schindler’s factory. Here, Schindler is able to counteract Goeth’s brutality. But, it’s difficult to limit Goeth’s violence. In another scene, a chicken is stolen, but the soldiers are not sure who took it. Goeth lines up several Jews, but when nobody confesses, he takes a rifle and shoots a man. At that point a little boy steps forward. He says to Goeth that he himself didn’t do it, but he knows who did. He cleverly points to the dead man, so that nobody else will be shot.
At the end of the party, Goeth is wasted and says that Schindler is never drunk. To him that is control, which is power. Schindler, trying to use his influence to change Goeth’s behavior, tells him killing people for “crimes” is justice, not power, but emperors showed their real power by being able to supercede the laws and pardon people. Later, when Goeth comes across a boy in the stable who has dropped his horse saddle, he says it’s “alright,” taking the cue from Schindler about the meaning of power. Goeth sees a soldier dragging a woman on the ground for smoking on the job. He just says to tell her not to do it again. But, then there is a young boy who couldn’t remove stains from Goeth’s bathtub. At first Goeth says “I pardon you.” But his warped mind has been empowered by the license given him by the Third Reich to do whatever he wants, so shoots the boy as he walks away.
Hungarian Jews arrive on trains, and Goeth says he must separate out the sick from the healthy to “make room,” for the added workforce. In ironic contrast, Goeth undergoes his own physical examination, which only carries minor advice that he must lose some weight and cut back on “the cognac.” As the tables with more lists are set up, there is the announcement to those in the trains that “those that are alive,” must come out, which is a ridiculous statement, since who else would hear the statement. But, it also shows how the transportation itself was a weeding out of those too sick to make the journey. As the Germans play music, whose sweet sound is in disharmony with what is happening (like the piano music during the ghetto liquidation), the soldiers humiliate the Jews, forcing them to run naked in circles to see how they will hold up. The women use needles to draw blood to smear over their faces, to give them a rosy, healthy color. One woman urges another “to look alive,” so she will stay alive. Many of the prisoners are emaciated. The Germans cruelly play sing-along music as they march the children into trucks. Those that are considered healthy to keep alive in order to do work go to the barracks. Those who are transported, including the children, will be sent to death camps. Some children run away to hide, under floors, and even in filthy latrines, so they can prolong their survival.
Schindler shows up at the station, where those that are to be sent to the camps are loaded onto the train. It is a hot day, and the passengers are gasping for air in the overcrowded cars. Schindler says to Goeth to indulge him by using water hoses to drench the cars. Schindler laughs, and as they wet the passengers, and Goeth says laughingly that Schindler is cruel for giving the Jews hope. Schindler is again being the con man, masking how he is attempting to lessen the suffering of those confined in the cars. Goeth thinks that Schindler is a sadist, like himself, and his motives are to torture the Jews. But then, Schindler brings water bottles in baskets and tells the soldiers to give the passengers water every time the train stops, showing his true concern for the prisoners.
Schindler is put in jail for kissing the Jewish girl. Goeth pleads on Schindler’s behalf, saying Schindler just loves women and they love him, and he doesn’t think about their background. Goeth actually uses a racist argument to try and get Schindler released, saying that when you work close to Jewish women they cast a spell and infect a man like a disease. He even tries to bribe the jailer. Schindler is released from custody and is lectured by a German superior official, who says there is no future in kissing Jews since they have no future. It’s not a matter of “good old-fashioned Jew hating,” it is government policy now not to fraternize. Racism is no longer just in the mind of the individual, something ugly to be hidden. The rulers of the current regime have made bigotry the law of the land.
As they leave the factory, Schindler is still showing his concern, telling Stern how to take care of his people, giving them cloth, cigarettes and vodka to trade. The workers signed a letter explaining how Schindler helped them, and they give it to him to prove what he has done if he is captured. A worker donates one of his gold-filled teeth, in contrast to the desecrating extractions conducted by the Nazis on Jewish bodies. It us used to make a ring to give to Schindler with an inscription in Hebrew from the Talmud which says, “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” Now, Schindler’s facade of strength breaks down, and he cries as he says “I could have got more out.” He says that he threw away so much money, and he says, “I didn’t do enough.” Stern says that 1,100 were saved and there will be future generations because of him. But, Schindler persists, saying he could have saved ten more people if he sold his car. He feels guilty because he believes he could have freed at least one more person. As he cries, Stern, Emilie, and others hold him. He then rides away. A Russian officer says the Russian government have liberated the workers, but he tells them don’t go east, because they hate the Jews there, and he wouldn’t recommend going west either. The plight continues, only in different ways and in other times and places.
Goeth was arrested in a sanatorium and his last words before he was hung were, “Heil Hitler,” stressing how he was given the authority to indulge his murderous ways by a demented man at the top of the government. We are told that Schindler’s marriage failed, and so did several of his businesses after the war, so, ironically, he was at the height of his accomplishments at one of the lowest points in human history. There is a shot of Schindler’s Jews walking toward a town as we hear Jewish folk music sung. The film ends with the actual people that Schindler saved, and their descendants, accompanied by the actors who portrayed some of them, walking toward Schindler’s grave and placing rocks on his marker, which is a traditional Jewish expression of respect. At the time of the film’s making, there were fewer than 4,000 Jews left alive in Poland. There are more than 6,000 descendants of Schindler's Jews. In 1958, he was declared “a righteous person,” by the council of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and was invited to plant a tree in the Avenue of the Righteous.” The tree still grows, as does hope against tyranny.
The film shows many ways to deal with fascism. One can ignore it, run and hide from it, become a collaborator, succumb to its power, use humor, adapt, or an individual can find a way to fight it. Let’s hope if faced with this evil, we will choose Schindler’s way.
The next film is Sense and Sensibility.