Schindler’s List: Meaning and Motive Within the Film
Driven by motives neither pure nor simple, the characters of Shindler’s List challenge each other and their audience to weigh their intentions versus actions and outcome. Yet the grim scenario, namely using modes of death to preserve life, is as compelling concept in cinematography.
“The List is life.” Those are the words spoken by Schindler’s accountant and right-hand man Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) as he holds the completed list of names of Jewish prisoners Schindler is attempting to rescue from the death camps. In a cinematic story set in an era filled with death and despair, images of life in Schindler’s List transcend the grim statistics as if they, too, ar survivors. Director Stephen Spielberg doesn’t omit reminders of the horror: the piles of bodies ready for incineration, the scenes of brutal murders involving helpless victims. But the charisma of Schindler himself, played by Liam Nieson, defies the atmosphere of death which surrounds himself and his Jewish workers. The brief, intimate glimpses into the lives of these workers–watching their progress throughout the movie as they are rounded up, forced into labor, shipped off to camp, and retrieved by Schindler–make them symbols of life in contrast to the doomed masses.
Schindler’s motives are monetary to begin with, including his deals with the Jewish community to obtain their property for his growing business plan in exchange for (less valuable) goods for bartering on the black market. Itzhak agrees to help him with his business venture, and uses the platform to recruit workers and forge work papers in order to save the lives of Jews doomed to the gas chambers. Schindler’s factory of enamelware, emphasizing military supplies and kitchenware among its many uses, is structured to maximize Schindler’s profits–hence the employment of cheap Jewish labor and the deals with the black market operatives. Schindler’s interaction with others, while charming and friendly, is distant in terms of emotional interaction. He is estranged from his wife, keeps most friends on the basis of political and business needs, and his most sincere relationship seems to be with Itzak the accountant.
Schindler is not without human affection for life however; his interest in the human aspect of war and business grows as his life grows more intertwined with those of his workers. He toasts Itzhak at one point during the movie and tells the offended Itzhak “I’m trying to thank you.” His regard for Itzhak is great enough that he rescues him from being shipped to the death camp, helps him barter to stay alive in the camps, and even tries to gain his freedom from the Nazis camp at one point. Despite his obvious concern for his Itzhak‘s welfare, he maintains the business presence in almost every scene. Upon rescuing Itzhak from the Nazi train, he declares in gruff business-like tones, “What if I got here five minutes later? Then where would I be?”
The images of death only spur Schindler to save life. The girl in the red coat who is driven out of the ghetto and later burned along with other corpses which mark the Nazi’s brutality, strikes a chord in Schindler’s heart. The one-armed worker callously assassinated by a group of Nazi soldiers is aggressively defended as “an essential worker” by Schindler in a German office one day later, even though he himself had questioned the man’s usefulness prior to the incident.
The casual and business-oriented attitude with which Schindler regards the war serves to keep death at bay for the lives depending on him. He negotiates for their lives with a German officer explaining that he needs those workers in particular because of their experience working under him. He seems bored by the story Itzhak shares about the hinge maker in the factory facing a grim fate, but gives Itzhak a lighter with which to barter for the man’s life. When a young woman begging for him to save her parents declares that his factory is “a haven” and declares “everyone says so,“ Schindler grows angry over her claims and rants that such a reputation is dangerous. Yet he sends for the woman’s parents as additional workers to the factory. When the young girls are torn away from their mothers at a concentration camp by German officers who refuse to return them to Schindler’s factory because they are too young to be useful, Schindler intervenes and saves them from certain death “for business purposes.” He declares authoritatively to the soldiers that their small hands are perfect for polishing the insides of shell casings as he claims the children for the factory. “How else am I to polish them?” he asks the soldiers.
“You know the meaning of the word ‘gratitude’. That it’s not some vague thing with you as it is for the rest of us,“ Goeth, the arrogant German officer, says of Schindler at one point during the film. Schindler understands gratitude initially as part of compensation in good business. Through the lives of his workers, he understands the value of life and gratitude. When the war ends and Schindler is preparing to flee now that his workers are safe, they present him with a gold ring crafted from his worker’s own gold fillings. He is overwhelmed by their gesture of concern for his future. Gold fillings hade been pulled forcibly from the mouths of Jewish victims of Nazi crimes. But the gold for Schindler’s ring was freely given, most likely the last truly valuable possession among any of his workers. They are giving him a chance at life in the chaos of post-war Europe, just as Schindler gave them a chance for survival under Nazi terror.
The images of life in the movie represent the beauty and endurance of life. Against the odds, this small community of workers survives the ever present death and pain; their story of life is a triumph in the midst of details of grim loss. Schindler is an unlikely and sometimes hesitant barrier between these lives and death. “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire,” Itzhak quotes from Hebrew teachings in regards to Schindler’s sacrifice. Just as the ring of fillings is more than a humble gesture, his gift to the workers, while it may seem “not enough” to him, is an overwhelming gift to those who received it.