Study Guide

Schindler's List

Schindler's List Introduction


Release Year: 1993

Genre: Biography, Drama, History

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Steven Zaillian, Thomas Keneally (novel)

Stars: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley


Nazis. We hate those guys. We bet you do, too.

So why on earth do Jewish visitors to Jerusalem stop by a Catholic cemetery in Jerusalem to pay their respects to a Nazi spy and war profiteer who made a fortune during the war using Jews as slave labor?

Good question.

Schindler's List is your answer.

In 1939, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany launched a war to conquer all of Europe. While they were at it, they thought it would be a good idea to exterminate the Jews of Europe—the "Final Solution" to the "Jewish question," as they called it.

Hatred of Jews as the source of the all the world's problems was a central tenet of National Socialism. Hitler called Jews a virus, a "racial tuberculosis" that would infect all of Europe if something wasn't done about it. They happily added other "undesirables" to their hit list—homosexuals, gypsies, the disabled, and political opponents were targeted, too—but mainly, they wanted Europe to be judenfrei: free of Jews.

They almost succeeded.

In just a few short years, the Nazis systematically annihilated more than 6 million Jews and another 5 million people. They set up a killing machine of deportations, death squads, and extermination camps—gassing, shooting, and generally murdering almost 70% of the Jews of Europe, including 90% of the Jews in Poland. They were stopped only by their complete defeat at the hands of the Allies in 1945. (Source)

Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, released in 1993, is first and foremost a testament to the Holocaust. It's the true story of Oskar Schindler, the guy in that cemetery in Jerusalem, a factory owner and member of the Nazi party who has a moral awakening. Through a combination of sneakiness, bribes and sheer guts, he ends up saving more than 1,100 Jews from certain death at Auschwitz by bringing them into his factory to work.

Director Steven Spielberg was persuaded to make a cinematic testament to the Holocaust after he was approached by Poldek Pfefferberg, one of Schindler's Jews, about adapting Thomas Keneally's book Schindler's Ark. He put it off for ten years, fearing he wasn't up to the challenge. Finally, worried that Pfefferberg would die while he was obsessing about it, he got with the program. He hoped that the film would convey the extent of the Nazi atrocities in a way that was honest, challenging, and engrossing.

We'd say he succeeded beyond his wildest expectations. A project he was once too scared to undertake became a global box office phenomenon, with a worldwide gross of more than $300 million. It won universal accolades (check out that scorching 96% on Rotten Tomatoes). It scooped up a passel of awards (topped by 7 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director), as well as letting Spielberg finally shed his reputation as a lightweight filmmaker and join the Grown-Up Director's table.

  

Of course, Spielberg himself would say that all these awards matter less than simply providing documentation of the Holocaust. He wanted to tell a story that everyone could relate to, in a way that no one could ignore. He found a doozy—a rare story of endurance and survival that just happened to be true. It allowed audiences to think about the realities of the Holocaust without feeling like they're being forced to eat their broccoli.

During showings of the 3+ hour film, you could hear a pin drop.

It takes a good director to deliver a history lesson. It takes a great one to beautifully and truthfully portray a truly horrendous series of events. In Schindler's List, we see a legendary director at the top of his form: compelling, hypnotic, even entertaining at times… all for the sake of educating and enlightening people about what just might be the worst atrocity ever committed in human history. Spielberg knew that Holocaust survivors were aging and dying. He needed to tell their story before no one could.

Trigger warning: this film is extremely graphic and disturbing. Spielberg wanted it to be disturbing. In this guide, we'll have to describe some of those scenes and images, so think before you click.

What is Schindler's List About and Why Should I Care?

Where to even begin? This is Schindler's List, for crying out loud.

For starters, it's a stirring drama created out of a subject that can be difficult to even think about, much less depict on the big screen. It makes beautiful use of black and white, and gives us star-making turns out of both Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. Then there's the whole "Steven Spielberg: Greatest Director Ever" thing, which people should probably be hip to if they want to study the movies.

Great reasons, all of 'em. But over and above all of that, Schindler's List needs to be studied as a testament. And that reason trumps all of them: Because the things we see in this movie—and by extension the Holocaust itself—really happened.

Denial Isn't Just a River in Egypt

Never let the facts get in the way of what you believe. That seems to be the M.O. of Holocaust deniers—people who believe that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened. Some of their typical ideas include…

  • Some Jews were killed in Europe during the war, but there was never a mass extermination plan.
  • There were no such things as gas chambers and crematoria.
  • Some Jews died in internment camps, but it was from disease.
  • The Holocaust was a Jewish conspiracy to promote their own agenda.
  • The Germans were the real victims; the Jews were the perpetrators, creating an excuse for the Allies to enter the war.
  • The Jews were in cahoots with the Nazis.
  • Jews made up the whole thing to get worldwide sympathy for a homeland in Palestine and extort money from Germany.

In many countries in Europe, you can get arrested for publicly denying the Holocaust. But that doesn't stop scores of "scholars" and heads of state from doing just that. Western deniers have exported their views to the Arab world, where the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has created fertile ground for seeing the Holocaust as a Zionist fabrication. Iran even hosted a conference in 2006 for deniers to get together and share their views on the real story behind the "Six Million Swindle," as one denier has called it. (Source)

Even former Nazis have had to step up and speak out against this denial by confessing their own role in guarding extermination camps, herding people into gas chambers, and disposing of corpses. How weird and ironic is that?

Schindler's List is an antidote to this kind of thinking, which is often driven by the same kind of anti-Semitism that led to the genocide in the first place. Spielberg knew this was a story that had to be told because the number of survivors and witnesses to the genocide were dwindling fast.

The Facts

The Holocaust is one of the most well-documented tragedies in history. The Nazis were obsessive record-keepers, and even though they destroyed lots of records at the end of the war, many still exist. American and Russian soldiers who liberated or toured the extermination camps left written witness to the horrors they saw. Survivors chronicled their stories. Even former SS officers and camp guards testified about what happened.

The facts go like this:

During World War II, Nazi Germany launched a program of genocide using up-to-the-minute logistics and technology expressly created for this purpose. They rounded up more than 11 million people from German-occupied countries, including 6 million Jews, perpetrating mass shootings and herding millions into cattle cars to be exterminated in death camps like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Buchenwald, and Treblinka.

Many gentiles, at great risk to their own lives, hid and aided their Jewish neighbors. But the Nazis found eager helpers in occupied countries throughout Europe, which was steeped in anti-Semitism for centuries and welcomed the opportunity to get rid of its Jews once and for all. Even the United States, far away from Europe and with a history of welcoming political refugees, turned away boatloads of Jewish refugees and returned them to Europe to face extermination.

Human beings forget. As the survivors and witnesses pass on, the immediacy of events fades into history. Schindler's List, and movies like it, stand as a bulwark against that all-too human tendency. The film shows us what happened in way that moves us, holds our attention, demands that we acknowledge what took place… and reminds us of the 6 million Jews who didn't make it onto somebody's list.

In other words, this happened.

Trivia

Ralph Fiennes (sigh) was cast as Amon Goeth in part because of his sexual charisma. According to Time Magazine, Spielberg claimed he "saw sexual evil" in the man's eyes. He'd seen Fiennes' performance as Heathcliff in a version of Wuthering Heights that just so happens to be one of Shmoop's favorites. So take note: if you do brooding-and-tormented-on-the-Moors really well, you might just land a big part in a Spielberg flick. (Source)

Steven Spielberg wasn't the first director to be considered for this movie. Roman Polanski turned it down because… well, remember the scene where they liquidate the Krakow ghetto? Polanski was there. His mother got him out before she herself got sent to the camps. So yeah, the subject may have been a little personal for Roman. (Source)

Polanski went on to direct a Holocaust movie of his own called The Pianist, which earned almost as much praise as Schindler. It's also a lot darker even though it tells the story of a Jewish man who stayed free of the camps and captivity throughout the war. (Source)

Steven Spielberg dropped out of college to start his career as a filmmaker. (Disclaimer: Shmoop doesn't recommend this for everyone.) But he never forgot the work undone, so he secretly re-enrolled at Cal State Long Beach with an eye on finishing his degree. As his final thesis, he had to submit a student film. His choice? Schindler's List. The department seems to have deemed it acceptable, and Spielberg finally earned his college degree in 2002. (Source)

Schindler's List Resources

WEBSITES

The Shoah Foundation
Here's the official link to the foundation that Steven Spielberg set up with the profits from Schindler's List.

Rotten Tomatoes Page
The assembled critics weigh in… and that 96% suggests that something may be wrong with the other 4%.

Metacritic's Page
Another passel of critical reviews for your perusal.

Schindler's Website
The "official" website recounting the real-life history of Oskar Schindler.

BOOK OR TV ADAPTATIONS

The Novel
No one's going to make another version of this story, but here's the novel on which it's based.

The Shooting Script
Here's a PDF copy of the shooting script, which differs slightly from the actual movie, since there was some ad-libbing, and some scenes got cut in editing.

The Tryst at the List
Believe it or not, the seriousness of the film was the source of a "Seinfeld" spoof. Jerry's spotted making out with his girlfriend at a showing of the film, and Elaine's friend laments that he "could have done more" to be a better host to Jerry's parents. Ever wondered what "chutzpah" was? This was it.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

The List
Here's a copy of the actual list that Oskar Schindler and Itzhak Stern made.

The Testimony of Itzhak Stern
The real-life Stern met up with Oskar Schindler again in 1962, along with a number of other Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jews).

A Biography of Schindler
From the Jewish Virtual Library.

Another Biography of Schindler
From the Holocaust Research Project.

AMC's Site
AMC provides some blow-by-blow insight into the film.

Thumbs Up
The one and only, late great Roger Ebert delivers his thoughts on the movie.

Variety's Review
A review of the film from the venerable showbiz mag.

Did You Know…
If you didn't, you will now. Mental Floss has the behind-the-scenes 411.

VIDEO

The Trailer
This is the official trailer for the film released in 1993.

Best Director
Spielberg still has brown hair in the clip of his speech after winning the Oscar for Best Director in 1994.

And… Best Picture
Spielberg and his producing partners accept the Best Picture Oscar, and Spielberg makes the pleas that will eventually set up the Shoah Foundation.

Two Thumbs Up
Siskel and Ebert unfold their thoughts on Schindler.

Siskel and Ebert's Choice for the Best Film of 1993
Bet you can't guess what it is.

The Real Oskar Schindler
Want to know more about the man? Here's a fascinating bio from A&E, including his life after the war until his death.

IMAGES

The Poster
The original poster for the movie.

The Real Oscar Schindler
And his real list.

The Real Amon Goeth
Smile for the mug shot, you filthy animal.

Rest in Peace. We Mean It.
Schindler's grave on Mount Zion outside Jerusalem. The Hebrew inscriptions means "a righteous among the nations."

Neeson and Spielberg
The boys put it all together on location in Poland.

Still Scary After All These Years
The Krakow ghetto today, with a plaque on one of the existing walls.