Schindler's List focuses on an enigmatic non-Jewish businessman and
the Jews whom he saved during the Holocaust.
By Joel Stamberg
Excerpted with permission from Reel Jewish (Jonathan
David Publishers, Inc.).
Perhaps the most famous Holocaust film to date is Schindler's List,
Steven Spielberg's 1993 masterpiece, which won Academy Awards for best picture,
best director, best adapted screenplay (Steven Zaillian), best cinematography (Janusz
Kaminski), best original score (John Williams), best editing (Michael Kahn),and
best art direction (Ewa Tarnowska and Allan Starski).
Unlike some of its predecessors, which begin with clouds, birds, and other
symbols of freedom, Schindler's List begins with the somber lighting of
candles and the Hebrew blessing over wine. Spielberg and screenwriter Zaillian,
basing their work on Thomas Keneally's book, did not really wish to concern
themselves with lives before, but only lives during the Nazi horror. To have
"opened it up" might have lessened its impact. Even a cloud would have been too
"Who is that man?"
"Who is that man?" People in the story ask this question about Oskar
Schindler more than once, making him as enigmatic a character as Rick Blaine in
Casablanca--although in quite a different milieu--and one of the most
intriguing characters in all of Spielberg's filmography. A womanizer, gambler,
opportunist, and member of the Nazi party, Schindler--skillfully played by Liam
Neeson--hardly seems the type of man who would break down and cry, ever. But at
the end, when he realizes that he could have saved even more lives than he did,
that's just what he does, shamelessly and uncontrollably.
|Liam Neeson (left) and Ben Kingsley in
Schindler saved hundreds of Jews by hiring them to work in an enamel
factory, an industry that was relatively safe from the Nazi authorities because
its products were needed for the war effort. But he needs help to run the
factory, which the German authorities initially finance, and so he turns to a
skilled Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern, played with understated brilliance by
"They put up the money and I do all the work," Stern says to his new boss.
"What, if you don't mind my asking, would you do?"
"The panache," Schindler responds confidently. "The presentation."
As Schindler begins to turn what was a bankrupt factory into a successful
one, he reclines one evening on a comfortable bed and says to his mistress, "It
could not be better." In the very next scene, a Jewish woman in a ghetto home
says to her husband, "It could not be worse." At the same time as Schindler is
enjoying his good fortune, he also acknowledges that it is not luck that's
responsible for it, but war.
Humor, Irony, and Horrific Images
Like The Hiding Place [a 1975 Holocaust-themed film], Schindler's
List is a movie comfortable enough with its cast, story, and intentions to
use a little gentle humor. When Stern hires a man with one arm and Schindler
angrily asks him about it,Stern calmly says about the man, "Very useful," much
to Schindler's disgust. Moments later, when a suspicious Nazi officer asks
Schindler why he hired a man with one arm, Schindler says, matter-of-factly,
More significant than the humor is the irony. When the Nazi camp commandant
Amon Goeth, played with chilling evil by
Ralph Fiennes, admires Schindler's silk collar shirt at a party, Schindler
states with casual abandon, "I'dget one for you, but the man who made it is
probably dead. I don't know."
In a story like Schindler's List, humor and irony are very quickly and
easily overshadowed by sheer horror: Jews with foolproof hiding places are
suddenly caught because of noise they make when trying to sneak out; children
don't give a second thought to hiding in latrines filled with human filth;
Goeth relaxes in a chair on his balcony shooting Jews in the courtyard
indiscriminately as if it were a carnival game. It is Schindler's List
at its most uncomfortable.
"One day this will all be over," Schindler says to Stern in the middle of all
the insanity; "We'll have a drink."
"I think I should have it now," Stern replies. It, too, is a chilling moment.
Schindler becomes quite skilled at saving his Jews. At one point he grabs a
girl on her way to Auschwitz and shows her little fingers to a Nazi official to
point out how it is only little fingers like hers that can polish the inside of
small shell casings in his factory.
The End & the Aftermath
At the end of the movie, appropriately gray and damp, there is a light that
shines on Schindler when he talks to the soldiers ordered to kill the Jews
before the camp is disbanded. "Here they are," he says. "This is your
opportunity. Or, you can return to your families as men, instead of murderers."
The soldiers go, without firing a shot
Upon first hearing the story of Oskar Schindler, Spielberg knew that this was
a motion picture he needed to make both as an artistic and as a personal
statement. He became interested in the book upon its publication in 1982,
though it was more than a decade before the film was completed. Although it
does not concern itself with the previous lives of the Schindlerjuden
(Schindler's Jews), the film does present them after this period of
darkness. Several of them are shown at the end, as we read in a postscript that
the group Schindler saved has more than 6,000 descendants.
"There will be generations because of what you did," Stern says to Schindler
after presenting him with a ring the Schindlerjuden made for him. The
ring has the inscription, "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire." And
now there is a bigger world to appreciate the movie that was made about the one
who saved lives.
Joel Samberg, a humor and opinion columnist, also is the author of The
Jewish Book of Lists.
In 2000, the original list of Jewish employees drawn up by
Oscar Schindler to save them from Nazi death camps was discovered in a suitcase
full of papers left to a German couple, the German newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung
reported. Stuttgarter Zeitung said it planned to give the suitcase to Yad Vashem.
The Stuttgart couple, relatives of close friends of Schindler, found the list of
1,200 workers among the papers, which deal mainly with his life after World War
II. The papers were donated to the newspaper, the Stuttgarter Zeitung. They
include a speech Schindler gave on May 8, 1945, as the war ended. In it, he
urged the Jews who worked for him not to pursue revenge attacks.
The list obtained by the newspaper is on letterhead for Schindler's enamelware
factory in Krakow, southern Poland. Schindler wrote the names and jobs of 1,200
Jews at the Plaszow concentration camp and gave the list to the Nazi SS, said
Mordechai Paldiel, director of the department at Israel's Holocaust memorial Yad
Vashem in Jerusalem. Paldiel said no one at the memorial has ever seen the
original list, and that presumably it would have been saved in the SS archives.
It is also possible Schindler kept a copy, he said.
A second list, the one that appears in Steven Spielberg's 1993 film "Schindler's
List" was created a month before the war ended. Schindler made up that list with
fictitious jobs for each worker to convince the SS that they were vital to the
The suitcase was found by the Stuttgart couple at a relative's house in
Hildesheim, Lower Saxony. A former neighbor of Schindler's in Frankfurt, Dieter
Trautwein, confirmed that Oscar Schindler spent the last months of his life in
Hildersheim with friends after becoming ill.
Actual List from 1945