Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
We don't see much of the ordinary world, save for the brief scene of a family participating in Shabbat in the initial scene. "Ordinary" is the world before the war. It's a world about to be destroyed.
Call To Adventure
Nazis, occupation, deportation and eventual murder in a concentration camp for the entire population of Poland's Jews—goodbye ordinary world. Heroes were in very short supply. Enter Oskar Schindler, who's certainly nobody's idea of a Campbellian hero. As with a lot of such heroes, however, he's going to surprise a few people—himself among them—by answering the call in a way no one would have thought possible.
Refusal of the Call
Refusal? You betcha. Schindler has no interest in anything besides money. He'll exploit the Jews for slave labor if it means padding his pockets. He's a parasite taking full advantage of the Nazi occupation; the Jews are just another resource to use.
Meeting The Mentor
Itzhak Stern doesn't look like much of a mentor. He's subordinate to Schindler in every way that counts—acting as his factory manager for nothing in exchange… well in exchange for not getting frog-marched out into the courtyard and shot. But Stern is compassionate, as well as a very good manager, and that gives him insight that Schindler desperately needs.
Stern advises him about his business, but also plants the seed of a plan to save his Jewish workers by getting them out of the camp and into the factory. What starts as a partnership of convenience eventually becomes a co-conspiracy of the most humanitarian kind.
Crossing The Threshold
The moment where Schindler crosses the threshold—that is, the moment where he stops looking out for number one and starts looking after his workers—is very deliberate. He berates Stern for hiring a machinist with only one arm, despite Stern's admonitions that the man is "very skilled." He isn't, and the Nazis shoot him. When Schindler is called on the carpet about the one-armed guy they're passing off as a machinist, he backs Stern's play. "He was a metal-press operator," he says. "Quite skilled." Suddenly, he's no longer just about the money.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
The tests come in keeping Schindler's factory open and, by extension, keeping his workers out of the death camps. His allies in this? Stern primarily, but also his Jewish workers, who work hard to make the factory appear valuable to the Nazis. The enemy is the Nazi war machine, as personified by Amon Goeth.
And what an enemy. Goeth has so much power he can literally stroll out onto his balcony and randomly gun down the workers just because he feels like it. He's not an enemy that can be defeated with force. It's gonna take some clever deceit and manipulation.
Approach To The Inmost Cave
The darkest time of crisis is when the Plaszow camp is emptied and the Jews are sent to Auschwitz as part of the "Final Solution." Schindler's Jews are threatened with the same fate and he's determined not to let that happen. It's interesting to note that the threat here isn't to Schindler—he's not in danger—but in the community he's fighting for.
From a Campbellian perspective, the battle is more spiritual than physical for Schindler. He needs to save these people using all of the tricks at his disposal. If he doesn't, then he's going to live with the guilt for the rest of his life.
Schindler's ordeal is less physical than financial, and less a matter of brute force than complete cunning. First he has to rescue the women and children from the very jaws of Auschwitz by convincing the SS that they're essential to his business. Then he has to make sure his new factory in Czechoslovakia doesn't produce a single functioning piece of ammunition. This is something that could probably get him shot for treason at that stage of the war.
He's broke, too, using what remaining money he has to keep the Nazis from asking too many questions. And his reward for all of that? Running for his life as a fugitive just ahead of the advancing Soviet army, who will treat him as a war criminal and profiteer.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
Is it worth it? Just ask the people he saved. His courage and sacrifice kept 1,100 people alive. As Stern puts it, "There will be generations because of what you did." Part of his reward is their tribute and gratitude. They present him with a ring, made from the only thing they have, inscribed with a passage from the Talmud.
The Road Back
In this case, the road back leads to Israel. The final scene takes place in the cemetery where Schindler is buried. And just as Schindler's journey is a spiritual one, so is his redemption: from a rogue Nazi to miracle worker, the reason those visiting his grave are alive to pay their respects.
Schindler's symbolic resurrection appears in the form of his grave on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. He's been granted the title Righteous Among the Nations, a designation that Israel gives to non-Jews who actively helped save Jews form the Holocaust. And surprise, surprise… he's the only member of the Nazi Party ever to receive such an honor.
Return With The Elixir
We see the elixir alongside Schindler's grave in the last scene: the real-life survivors who Schindler saved, walking arm in arm with the actors who played them. They leave small stones on his gravestone—a symbol of love and respect, a statement that "We were here." Thousands of Jews from all over the world visit this grave.
The narrative tells us that there are more than six thousand descendants of the workers who Schindler saved (and fewer than 4,000 Jews in Poland today). They're the beneficiaries of Schindler's magic potion, which was the human compassion that changed his life and theirs.