How does an opportunistic, conniving Nazi playboy businessman get into the business of rescuing Jews? He doesn't have much compassion. What he does have is a very particular set of skills—skills that he initially uses to get rich off his Jewish workers but ultimately uses in the service of rescuing them.
Oskar Schindler is a study in contradictions. Thomas Keneally, the author of the book on which the film's based, knew the story would be compelling because "People love paradoxes" (source). They can't resist a "scoundrel-turned-savior" story.
Here are some real-life details about the man to set the stage:
Schindler was born in what is now the Czech Republic, but back then was part of the giant muddle of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He tried his hand at a number of trades and failed at all of them. But he had an eye for which way the wind was blowing and joined the Nazis in 1936, acting as a spy on their behalf when they marched into Czechoslovakia in 1938. He moved to Poland in 1939 and opened a very successful enamelware factory in Krakow… successful in part because he didn't have to pay any of his Jewish workers a living wage.
All About the Benjamins…Er, Reichsmarks
At the beginning of the war, Schindler was no hero. He wanted to make a lot of money and knew that he could make good use of the Nazi war machine to do it. He then actively exploited the Jews as slave labor and made a fortune.
The movie doesn't get much wrong.
Liam Neeson plays Schindler as a consummate con artist: someone who arrives in Poland intending to wine, dine, and charm the pants off the ruling Germans so they'll let him buy a factory. Once he's in business, he offers "jobs" to the Jews without actually paying them any money. He "hires" a Jewish accountant to run his business. He knows the Jews of Krakow didn't have any choice.
The local Nazis love him—they're dancing on tables with him at the end of the first scene. He explains to his Jewish investors, when he's setting up his business with their money, that he'll give them enamelware from his factory that they can trade for food and other vital supplies. By that time, Jewish businesses in Poland had all been confiscated; no one in the ghetto had any money. Schindler tries to convince them that goods to barter are what they need; money is useless in the new scheme of things.
Sound like a deal? Not really.
But the Jews can work for him and get surplus cooking pots to sell on the black market, or they can starve to death in the ghetto. To him, that's their problem. He just wants to make a whole lot of money. It's not personal; it's business.
Schindler spends his free time partying with the Nazi officers. He bribes them with cognac, chocolates, and other hard-to-find luxury items so they'll place large orders with his factory.
It works. The business is going gangbusters.
Schindler doesn't realize at first that his business manager, Itzhak Stern, is hiring people without factory skills who might otherwise be killed for being "nonessential" to the war effort. But as long as he's making money, it's all good.
SCHINDLER: We're doing well?
SCHINDLER: Better this month than last?
SCHINDLER: Any reason to think next month will be worse?
STERN: The war could end.
When Stern is mistakenly placed on a train to Auschwitz along with Jews considered unfit for work, Schindler panics—but not out of concern for Stern. After a last-minute rescue he tells Stern:
SCHINDLER: What if I got here five minutes later? Then where would I be?
Change of Heart
It's hard to know when Schindler's sympathies start to shift and he realizes the horror of what's being done to the Jews of Krakow. We know he allows Stern to hire an elderly, one-armed man to work in the factory and even goes so far as to defend the choice before a local commandant.
But the big revelation for Schindler—the moment when he stops being a money-grubbing war profiteer and starts to become something more—takes place as he watches the final liquidation of the Krakow ghetto.
He and his girlfriend happen to be out riding; from up on a hill, he looks down on the utter chaos and terror. Apartments are looted, people are being beaten and shot, herded onto carts. Terrified Jews spill out onto the streets as families are separated. The sounds of screaming and gunfire are everywhere. Oskar's eyes are drawn to a tiny girl in a red coat running through the streets looking for somewhere to hide.
From that moment, things change. When he goes to Goeth's labor camp to protest the loss of his workers, it's not clear whether he's doing it for himself or for his workers.
SCHINDLER: I go to work the other day. Nobody's there. Nobody tells me about this. I have to find out, I have to go in. Everybody's gone.
GOETH: They're not gone. They're here.
SCHINDLER: They're mine! Every day that goes by, I'm losing money. Every worker that is shot costs me money. I have to find somebody else. I have to train them.
Oskar convinces Goeth that he needs to keep making money, and that he has to be able to bring "his" Jews out of the Plaszow camp to work in the factory. Goeth finally agrees, and the bribes keep coming to keep his workers from being deported to extermination camps.
Oskar begins devoting more and more of his personal resources to helping the Jews in his factory and protecting them from Goeth's labor camp and and his random, senseless acts of murder. He uses the same wheel-and-deal skills to essentially con the Nazis into going along with his plan. He tells them it's just business.
The Long Con
Goeth is having a tantrum because he's heard that his camp is going to be emptied and the workers sent to Auschwitz. Schindler already has what he came for—a giant pile of money. He could have taken it and run, or even saved a handful of close friends like Stern and called it a day. Instead, he blows the whole wad saving as many Jews as he possibly can: to paraphrase Mark 8:36 in the Bible, he loses the whole world and gains his soul in the process.
First, he has to convince Goeth—with the help of some giant piles of cash—that he's not actually saving Jews but just trying to keep his business going. He talks the powers that be into letting him open a munitions factory near his hometown in Czechoslovakia. Then he has to spring the women and children from a misrouted train to Auschwitz, even convincing a guard that the little children slated for extermination are actually his essential workers.
SCHINDLER: These are my workers! They should be on my train. They're skilled munitions workers. They're essential. Essential girls. Their fingers polish the inside of shell metal casings. How else am I to polish the inside of a 45 millimeter shell casing? You tell me. You tell me!
It's a fantastic piece of balderdash and it completely buffaloes the guard. It also shows us how far Schindler has come from the man he once was. He's still hustling, only he's doing so to save the lives of others. It's a brilliant turnaround and a sign that those tears he sheds in the final scene are 100% genuine.
His workers survive to the end of the war. When Germany's surrender is announced, Schindler gathers them to commend their bravery through unthinkably horrible circumstances. When we see his workers—former teachers, musicians, and doctors—standing in the now-silent factory, it's clear that the whole munitions enterprise has been one long bluff. But now Oskar's the one in danger; he'll be considered a war criminal.
SCHINDLER: I'm a member of the Nazi Party. I'm a munitions manufacturer. I'm a profiteer of slave labor. I am a criminal. At midnight, you'll be free and I'll be hunted. I shall remain with you until five minutes after midnight. After which time, and I hope you'll forgive me, I have to flee.
Next, he turns to the German guards. He tells them that they can kill all his workers now, as they've been ordered to do, or they could return home to their families as men, not murderers.
They all leave.
Now Oskar gets his real reward: The Jews he saved will help save him. They all sign a letter attesting to his actions in case he's captured by the Soviet army. When the grateful workers present him with an inscribed gold ring, he totally loses it. The enormity of the death and destruction floods him with remorse.
SCHINDLER: I could've got more...I could've got more, if I'd just...I could've got more...
STERN: Oskar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.
SCHINDLER: If I'd made more money...I threw away so much money, you have no idea. If I'd just...
STERN: There will be generations because of what you did.
SCHINDLER: I didn't do enough.
STERN: You did so much.
SCHINDLER: This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people I could have got. This pin…two people. This is gold…two more people.
All of this makes Schindler's character arc a very recognizable one: the seriously flawed man who sees the error of his ways and changes for the better. There were many other people who saved Jews during the Holocaust at great risk to themselves, but none of them started out as members of the Nazi party.
Spielberg leaves open the question of what motivated Schindler to do what he did. Schindler wasn't really a political person; he was just an opportunist who sided with whoever was in power. He never bought the party line; he just wanted to get rich. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement with his Jewish workers: they'd make money for him and he'd he'd keep the dogs at bay. (Source)
Maybe that's what left him open to change; he was eventually able to see his workers as people rather than "units," as the SS referred to them. He wasn't blinded by Jew-hatred. He developed relationships with his workers over the years they worked for him.
We don't see much interaction between Oskar and his workers in the film; Spielberg focuses more on the Schindler and the perpetrators rather than the victims. But the real-life survivors remember how he'd walk around the factory chatting people up, making sure they had adequate rations, even remembering their names. He'd warn them of upcoming "actions" (i.e., mass shootings and deportations) in the ghetto. (Source)
It's hard to dehumanize people you see every day. That's why the Nazis isolated Jews in ghettos.
Whatever his reasons, Schindler showed enormous courage. His factory became an oasis of safety in a world of terror and death. After the war, the Germans condemned him a traitor. But the Schindlerjuden never forgot what he did. He kept them alive for four-and-a-half years.