Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Schindler's List"

Sep 1, 2015


Seventy years after the end of the Holocaust, teaching new generations about it is becoming more difficult than ever. In emphasizing the sheer number of deaths and atrocities, one loses a sense of the individual victims. But in emphasizing anecdotes and the stories of individuals, one loses a sense of the Holocaust's enormity and scope. Moreover, as time goes by, the temptation to treat it as a one-time occurrence in the distant past grows ever greater.

Schindler's List, directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg, brings immediacy to the Nazi era, making it a powerful tool for teaching about the horrors of the Holocaust and the nature of genocide. Although roughly based on the story of Oskar Schindler, a Nazi factory owner who helped 1,200 Jewish prisoners escape the Holocaust, the film is probably best described as a work of historical fiction. The following discussion will for the most part focus on the story as Spielberg presents it.

The Film

Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a former German spy who travels to Poland at the onset of World War II in hopes of building a fortune as a military contractor, making pots and pans for the troops. To this end, he builds a rapport with high-ranking Nazi officers by treating them to lavish parties.

In need of money to get his factory off the ground, Schindler seeks out wealthy Jewish investors. Since Jews are barred by the Nazis from owning businesses and money will do them little good in the Kraków Ghetto, where the authorities have forcibly relocated them, Schindler proposes to repay his investors in the factory's enamelware, which can be sold on the black market. Having secured the funds, Schindler sets up the German Enamelware Factory (DEF) with the help of Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley). Stern proposes to Schindler that they hire Jewish workers as a way of saving money. (Notably, all Jewish workers' wages go directly to the SS, meaning that Schindler's factory workers are effectively slaves of the Nazis.)

By this time, Nazi officials have started dividing Jewish prisoners into two groups: workers essential to the war effort and "non-essential" workers. Essential workers are allowed to stay in the ghetto; non-essential workers are sent away to concentration camps. Having been put in charge of running Schindler's DEF, Stern uses his position to offer factory jobs to academics, artists, and other "non-essential" workers, thus transforming them into "essential" ones. Schindler first becomes aware of Stern's scheme when a one-armed man comes to thank him for saving his life. Schindler is outraged, asking Stern what use his factory could possibly have for a one-armed machinist.

In March 1943, Nazi officials liquidate the Kraków Ghetto, murdering Jews by the hundreds in the streets. Survivors fit to work are sent to Płaszów concentration camp for forced labor, while the rest are sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, which is already infamous among Europe's Jewish community. Schindler witnesses the liquidation of the ghetto from a nearby hillside, unable to tear his eyes away.

Survivors sent to Płaszów find themselves even worse off than they had been in the ghetto. The camp's commander, Amon Goeth, (Ralph Fiennes) takes great pleasure in tormenting and murdering his prisoners. (In real life, Goeth was eventually relieved of command of the camp by the SS for theft of Jewish property and the horrendous treatment of prisoners, among other offenses.) Arguing that the treatment his workers are receiving is negatively affecting his business, Schindler procures the right to create a sub-camp, and ends up housing his workers at the factory.

Around this time, it becomes obvious that Schindler's motivations go beyond pure concern for his factory's bottom line. After a confrontation with Stern over the personal risk involved with saving workers from Płaszów, Schindler bribes a clerk into sending him two older prisoners whose daughter has pleaded with him to save them. Shortly thereafter, the elderly, the sick, and the children of Płaszów are taken away by the Nazis. With the Płaszów camp facing a final shutdown, Schindler devises a plan to open his own camp and munitions factory in his native Czechoslovakia, to which he can move his workers.

In order to keep up appearances, Schindler continues to socialize with Nazi officers, and pretends that his motivations for protecting his workers are purely financial. He bans guards from the factory floor in Czechoslovakia, arguing that harsh treatment and executions are detrimental to productivity. "If you shoot without thinking," declares Schindler, "you go to prison. I get paid. There will be no summary executions here." He also rescues children from Auschwitz, claiming that the children's small fingers are necessary for polishing the insides of shell casings.

In reality, Schindler's undertaking is now coming at great personal cost. By war's end, Schindler has spent most of his personal wealth on constructing his camp, providing food for his Jewish workers, and bribing Nazi officials.

Once Germany surrenders to the Allied forces, Schindler, who is still a member of the Nazi Party, is forced to flee his factory. Before he leaves, his workers present him with a letter explaining what he has done, signed by every worker at his factory. They also give him a golden ring with the Talmudic inscription: "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire." Moved by the workers' gratitude, Schindler breaks down crying, lamenting all of the Jews who could have been saved if he had been willing to let go of more of his most valuable possessions.

The following morning, the Jewish workers are met by a Soviet soldier who declares that they have been liberated by the Soviet Army. In the aftermath of the war, the Israeli government award Schindler the title of one of the Righteous Among the Nations—an honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. He is buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion.

"What Would I Do?"

Although critically acclaimed and frequently ranked among the greatest movies of all time, Schindler's List has also been criticized—not least for its decision to focus on the unlikely rescue of 1,200 Jews, rather than the murder of 6 million. Writing for The New York Review of Books, Jason Epstein argues that this emphasis obscures perhaps the most disturbing lesson to be taken away from the Holocaust: "Hitler's victims were multitudinous, but his accomplices—both active and passive and not simply in Germany—were far more numerous. Schindler was an exotic exception and Spielberg's film lets viewers take comfort and pride in his virtuous behavior . . ."

Whether Schindler's List truly lets viewers "take comfort and pride" in anything is a question open to interpretation. The film has no shortage of Jewish victims who suffer violent abuse and even death—often brought on by such minor "violations" as failure to do one's job properly (like the boy who couldn't clean Goeth's tub), taking one's job too seriously (like the engineer who pointed out a flaw in a barracks' construction), or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The casual manner in which these murders are portrayed is a powerful testament to Nazi officials' indifference toward Jewish lives.

Moreover, the faceless and utterly ordinary looking masses of German soldiers and bureaucrats who are carrying out—or otherwise complicit in—these atrocities ought to leave the viewer with perhaps the most haunting question of all: "What would I have done if I were a German at that time?"

To answer with certainty that one would rebel is to suggest that this capacity for evil is a personality trait shared by nearly everyone in the greater Germany of the 1930s and '40s—yet somehow absent in ourselves. How many of us would really have had the courage to stand up against the system, knowing that we might be risking our lives and those of our families? A serious reflection on Schindler's List may cause viewers to consider the notion that they themselves might have been cogs in the Nazi machinery.

That said, Epstein's concerns about Spielberg's emphasis should not be dismissed entirely. The danger that Schindler's List will be interpreted as a story of triumph and exceptionalism is absolutely real. At the same time, it is hard to imagine a film about the Holocaust reaching an audience of this size without giving the viewer some cause for hope and optimism.

The Value of Human Life

Schindler's lament over all the money he wasted is one of the movie's most memorable scenes. Looking at his car, he declares that 10 more people could have been saved if he had been willing to give it up. If he had sold his golden Nazi Party lapel pin, he is convinced he could have rescued at least one more.

While the price of saving a life may have felt more salient to Schindler as he looked into the eyes of the people he'd rescued, most citizens of developed countries find themselves in a similar situation every day. The cost of a single meal at an affordable New York restaurant could easily provide food for an undernourished child in Sudan for a month. Moreover, as the cost of HIV/AIDS treatment in the developing world has plummeted, many of us spend more on coffee in any given month than it would cost us to pay for an HIV/AIDS patient's yearly supply of antiretroviral drugs.

The answer to the question of whether we're doing enough is never black and white. But when confronted with the dollar value of saving or significantly improving a life, it's hard to argue that we're really doing all we can. In this sense, Schindler's realization that he could have done more may be the movie's most universal moral reflection.

Discussion Questions

1. Can one responsibly create a work of historical fiction about the Holocaust? If so, what considerations does one have to make? If not, why not?

2. Do you see Oskar Schindler's narrative as a success story, or a story of failure?

3. Schindler's original plan was simply to make money off the war. Are the people who profit from wars morally responsible for them, or are they simply businesspeople?

4. Throughout the movie, we meet Jewish prisoners acting as enforcers for the Nazis in the ghetto. Why do you think Spielberg chose to emphasize these characters?

5. In his portrayal of the 1943 liquidation of the ghetto, Spielberg juxtaposes footage of the massacre with footage of an SS officer playing Mozart on a piano in one of the apartment buildings. What do you think Spielberg is trying to convey by doing this?

6. In a conversation with Amon Goeth, Schindler tells the SS officer that it is not the ability to exercise violence that makes somebody exceptional, but rather the ability to pardon the "worthless" for no apparent reason. One interpretation of this scene is that Schindler is attempting to convince Goeth to treat his prisoners better, but is it possible that Schindler is really explaining his own motivations?

7. Immediately before fleeing his factory after Germany's surrender, Schindler laments all the additional lives he could have saved. Do you experience this kind of tension between spending money on yourself and spending it on others whose lives may depend on it?

8. In addition to those directly involved, many others both inside and outside Germany knew that terrible crimes were being committed against Jews, yet did nothing to stop them. Did these people have a responsibility to act? If not, why not?

9. Why do you think Schindler agreed to help Stern rescue his workers from the Holocaust? Do his motivations matter?

Works Cited

"100 Greatest Films of All Time," The Hollywood Reporter, 2015

"Best Movies of All Time," Metacritic, 2015

"A Dissent on 'Schindler's List'," The New York Review of Books, Jason Epstein, April 21, 1994

"Ethics on Film: Discussion of 'Fire in the Blood'," Carnegie Council, Andreas Rekdal, September 7, 2013

"IMDb Top 250", IMDb, 2015

"Schutzstaffel," Wikipedia, last modified on August, 25, 2015

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