Amon Goeth was a monster: terrifying in his banality and executing the worst atrocities known to man with utter indifference.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but he was a sadistic, homicidal lunatic. A mass murderer. A psychotic serial killer. With these outstanding qualifications, the Nazis put him in charge of a prison labor camp.
What is it they say about monsters? The worst ones look no different from us.
The real Amon Goeth—and chew on that for a little while: this was a real guy—was born in Vienna in 1908. He was an early convert to Nazism, joining a Nazi group in 1925 at the age of 17, and the SS in 1930, three years before Hitler officially came to power in Germany. The Austrians weren't down with what he was doing, so he fled to Germany in 1933, where the jackbooted thugs who had just taken over welcomed him with open arms. After the Anschluss (German annexation of Austria) in 1938, he went back to Austria and lived there for the duration of the war.
As an SS officer, Goeth earned a reputation as a good "manager" of imprisoned and deported Jews. That meant he could round them up and kill them very efficiently, a useful skill for the Nazis. He was a major player in setting up three extermination camps in occupied Poland. In February of 1943, he oversaw the construction of the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp in Poland. This is where the movie catches up with him.
Goeth emptied the Jewish ghetto in Krakow in 1943—killing anyone who couldn't work in the camps—followed shortly by other ghettos in Tarnow and the Szebnie concentration camp. He personally executed many Jews in these places, which earned him rapid promotion in the Nazi ranks.
In 1944, the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp fell under his command. He would personally murder people for the tiniest slights—the business in the movie about shooting people at random from the balcony was totally true. The inmates lived in constant fear of being killed by him for any reason or no reason at all. There were mass shootings and public hangings. The average lifespan of prisoners in Plaszow was about one month. To quote the real Poldek Pfefferberg, "When you saw Goeth, you saw death." (Source)
He was so corrupt in his running of the camp that the Nazis charged him with theft of the property of his inmates, as well as failing to adhere to the rules of prisoner treatment. They decided that he was crazy—again, these are Nazis we're talking about here, where madness was normally grounds for a promotion—and was thrown in an asylum in early 1945. When the Americans arrived, they extradited him to Poland, where he was tried for war crimes and hanged in 1946. At least there's a happy ending.
A Fiennes Mess You've Got Us In
When it came time to portray him, Spielberg and his colleagues might have thought that the reality was too much: that no one would believe that anyone could be so casually evil. But Spielberg didn't flinch. The movie's version of Goeth treated execution the way you might treat putting your socks on or making a sandwich: something to be done whenever you felt like it. "I'm not going to have arguments with these people," he says while he's ordering a Jewish woman to be shot, in the same tone your teacher or boss might ask for the stapler.
As played by Ralph Fiennes, he's disaffected, almost bored, by what he's doing. He whines about the problems of running the camp; it's all just a giant hassle dealing with those troublesome Jews. But he's proud of what he's accomplishing. On the eve of the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, he tells his troops:
GOETH: Today is history. Today will be remembered. Years from now, the young will ask with wonder about this day. Today is history and you are part of it. Six hundred years ago, when elsewhere, they were footing the blame for the Black Death, Kazimierz the Great, so called, told the Jews they could come to Krakow. They came. They trundled their belongings into the city. They settled, they took hold, they prospered - in business, science, education, the arts. They came here with nothing. Nothing! And they flourished. For six centuries, there has been a Jewish Krakow. Think about that. By this evening, those six centuries are a rumor. They never happened. Today is history.
Disgusted by Goeth's random murderous rampages, Oskar tries to get him to show a little self-control Of course, he has to couch it in terms that Goeth would understand:
GOETH: You know, I look at you. I watch you. You're not a drunk. That's, that's real control. Control is power. That's power.
SCHINDLER: Is that why they fear us?
GOETH: We have the f***ing power to kill, that's why they fear us.
SCHINDLER: They fear us because we have the power to kill arbitrarily. A man commits a crime, he should know better. We have him killed and we feel pretty good about it. Or we kill him ourselves and we feel even better. That's not power, though, that's justice. That's different than power. Power is when we have every justification to kill - and we don't.
GOETH: You think that's power.
This makes an initial impression on Goeth, and he rides around the camp randomly pardoning some minor transgressions. Doesn't last though. He shoots his houseboy for using the wrong kind of soap. So much for being merciful.
In one particularly telling sequence, we see him attracted to his maid, Helen Hirsch, despite the fact that she's Jewish; every ounce of his Nazi self tells him that he should be revolted by her. He wrestles with his attraction to her, trying to tell himself that she's not really a sub-human. When he can't reconcile, he beats her savagely. This scene sums up how every bit of human instinct has been twisted beyond repair in this guy.
GOETH: I came to tell you that you really are a wonderful cook and a well-trained servant. I mean it. If you need a reference after the war, I'd be happy to give you one. It's kind of lonely down here, it seems, with everyone upstairs having such a good time. […] Sometimes we're both lonely. Yes, I mean, I would like, so much, to reach out and touch you in your loneliness. What would that be like, I wonder? I mean, what would be wrong with that? I realize that you're not a person in the strictest sense of the word. Maybe you're right about that too. You know, maybe what's wrong isn't - it's not us - it's this. I mean, when they compare you to vermin and to rodents and to lice, I just, uh...You make a good point, a very good point. Is this the face of a rat? Are these the eyes of a rat? That's not a Jew's eyes. I feel for you, Helen. No, I don't think so. You're a Jewish b****. You nearly talked me into it, didn't you?
Goeth continues making Helen's nightmarish life even worse. But is some distorted way, this shows us a shred of humanity—he has sexual and romantic feelings like everyone else. This isn't some different species, something we could never be and never understand. This is someone who we might walk past on the street every day, someone who has the same feelings and emotions that we do. It's a terrifying thought.
Goeth represents what's most heinous about the Nazi program of extermination: it was utterly irrational and arbitrary. It's just his job, and the "everydayness" of it, as Fiennes described it, is most horrifying of all.