Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Steven Spielberg (director), Steven Zaillian (writer), Schindler’s List (1993) 

The film Schindler’s List (1993) was produced and directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Steven Zaillian from the historical novel Schindler’s Ark (1982) by Thomas Keneally.  It tells the story of the anti-hero Oskar Schindler, a Nazi businessman and war profiteer who was somewhat of a rogue, whose compassion for the Jewish slave labourers in his factory in Poland saw him save 850 Jews from being sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp where they would have been exterminated. 

The late 1980s and early 1990s had seen a rise of neo-Nazism, the skinhead movement, and Holocaust denial, especially in Europe.  It was the Holocaust denial, in particular, that concerned Steven Spielberg.  Holocaust denial is more political than historical.  It involves either denying that the Holocaust happened or denying its nature, scope or scale.  Holocaust denial was a political attempt to deny the Jewish community the moral high ground and sympathy that comes from reminders of the Holocaust in books, films, plays, works of art and other representations.  Steven Spielberg decided to bring Thomas Keneally’s historical novel Schindler’s Ark (1982) to the screen in order to overwhelm the claims of the Holocaust deniers with a powerful, captivating and convincing cinematic portrayal of the Holocaust. 

Consequently, the film opens and closes with scenes from the present, filmed in colour and featuring Holocaust survivors.  The rest of the film that deals with historical subject matter was filmed in black and white.  This meant that the film somewhat resembles the newsreel footage from the Second World War that viewers appreciate as authentic.  Moreover, Spielberg used profits from the film to establish an organisation to record the experiences of Holocaust survivors and witnesses to provide an overwhelming body of evidence that can be used to marginalise the claims of any subsequent Holocaust deniers. 

Oskar Schindler appears in the film as a rather complex and paradoxical character.  He was a member of the Nazi party who ran a factory in Poland manned by slave labour from a concentration camp, yet he expended his fortune and risked his own safety to save the lives of hundreds of Jewish people whose lives were endangered by the Nazi policy to exterminate the Jews.  Schindler was initially out to make money, profiteering from the war and from the availability of cheap slave labour from the concentration camp system.  However, Schindler felt grateful to his Jewish accountant and to the Jewish slave labourers who had made him rich.  During the war, he tried to make them as comfortable and as safe as he could.  He protected them from most of the cruelty and mortal danger that threatened other Jews in the concentration camp system.  Eventually, he became so disillusioned with the German war effort that he ensured that the munitions made in his factory were unusable.   Due to his efforts, the Jews in his care survived the war. 

Oskar Schindler’s Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern, is presented in the film as the brains behind Schindler’s business success and as having had a profound influence on Schindler’s conscience.  He therefore emerges as the quiet hero who was working behind the scenes to save others.  From the moment the film introduces this character, he is advising Jews on what to say to SS officials to survive.  Stern realised that the SS needed factory workers for the war effort, not violinists or academics, so he told Jews to tell SS officials that they had practical skills. He also had an instinct for his own survival, agreeing to work for Oskar Schindler although he despises him as an exploiter of Jewish slave labour.  However, Stern takes advantage of his opportunity to use Schindler’s factory as a safe haven, realising that Schindler is not interested in cruelty or murder, only profits.  As his business becomes successful, Schindler comes around to appreciating Stern’s initiatives, allowing Stern to use his factory as a place where a select number of Jews could evade the fate of many other Jews from the nearby Krakow ghetto.  When the ghetto is brutally liquidated, this is witnessed by Schindler who subsequently becomes a strong supporter of Stern in his efforts to protect Jews.  With Stern making Schindler rich, and with Schindler protecting many Jews, these two unlikely friends become close.  Stern grows increasingly fond of Schindler as a flawed but good man.  Eventually Stern plays a major role in drawing up the long list of slave labourers that Schindler will save from extermination by bribing SS officials. 

The film concludes at the end of the war with Schindler almost penniless and a fugitive, moved to tears because he could not have saved more people.  At this stage in the film, Schindler has the respect of Stern and of the other Jews whom he rescued.  The film therefore concludes by expressing gratitude that these Jews survived the war but regretting that it was not more. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Schindler’s List meaning, Schindler’s List themes, Schindler’s List analysis, Schindler’s List notes