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The Legacy of Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List debuted in 1993 and remains one of the most highly recognised Holocaust films almost 30 years later. The film is based on ‘Schindler’s Ark’ by Thomas Keneally (1982), a historical non-fiction novel which outlines the life of Oskar Schindler – the man who saved 1,100 Jews from the Holocaust.

It is one of my favourite historical films. It was one of the first Holocaust films that I felt expanded on knowledge I already had about the time period, but it also portrayed the characters through unknown (at the time) actors. My feelings for the film grew during a trip to Krakow in 2018, particularly when spending time in the Kazimierz district and the remainder of the Ghetto – it felt more personal and immersive, and I think that it helped create a more solid, realistic view of the film overall, creating an emotive reaction.

There are key points throughout the film that slowly peel back the stylish world of Schindler – his parties, womanising and gambling, all interlinked with the brutality of the Holocaust – the Kraków Ghetto, Płasów Concentration Camp and eventually, deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

A great example of the crossover of Schindler’s world and those of the Jews living in Kraków is the deportation of the citizens of the city and the surrounding areas into the newly formed Ghetto – as they walk through the streets, a young Polish woman viciously shouts ‘goodbye Jews’ whilst throwing mud, and hauntingly her shouts can be heard as Schindler inspects his new apartment (which is clearly seized Jewish property). I think the beauty of Schindler’s List is that it creates an internal battle – should Schindler be viewed as a flawed saviour or as a perpetrator?

A fragment of the Kraków Ghetto wall, photographed by Harriet in 2018.

One of the key relationships in the film is that of Schindler and Amon Göth, expertly played by Ralph Fiennes. So well played, in fact, that Mila Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor, was reminded of the real Göth when she met Fiennes in character; she shook uncontrollably. Göth is the audience’s view into the perpetrator’s world – a ruthless, indifferent member of the SS, tasked with overseeing the liquidation of Krakow as the commander of the Płaszów Labour Camp. We see him shoot inmates of Płazsów casually from his balcony, exhume and burn the bodies from mass graves at Chujowa Gorka with his fellow SS, whilst complaining about the work to Schindler. (And most disturbingly, the SS scream and laugh, shooting at the pyres in an unhinged hysteria). This portrays that the fate of the people around him is a mere inconvenience – a reality that I fear many perpetrators felt.

The introduction of Amon Göth in Schindler’s List – the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. Credit: Universal Home Studios Entertainment

In contrast, Schindler watches these events in dismay – but how could he be blind to this? Why does it take the mass graves and the risk of losing his slave labour to Auschwitz to change his mind? Liam Neeson plays the role of Schindler with pure emotion, adding a human element to a complex character that allows us to see his flaws. He witnesses the events unfolding around him, but where is the urgency? As the women from the Schindler transport arrive at Auschwitz, the haunting notes of ‘Auschwitz-Birkenau’ composed by John Williams follows them. This is made even more unsettling if you don’t understand German, as the guard explains that they are going to be disinfected. Your heart beats with them as they stand huddled in the room, praying that the shower heads above them emit water, not gas. The women are led one way, while another slow procession of people go another way, down to the cellar of an ominous building with a smoking chimney. We all understand the fate of those people.

The entrance to Birkenau photographed by Harriet in 2018.

Schindler too understands this fate. But do we, as the audience, share in his anguish? Or should we feel angry towards him? We have watched him fraternise with the SS throughout the film, bribing the guards whilst surrounded by starving prisoners who are being used as slave labour. As 1,100 people he saved from certain death surround him at the end of the film, he cries and reflects on how he could have saved more. We cry with him, we feel the anguish. We collectively embrace him with the survivors who pass by his grave with the actors who portrayed them. Does Schindler’s actions to save these people outweigh his collaboration and earlier indifference?

Schindler being embraced by Itzhak Stern in the film. Credit: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

To me, the most important part of Schindler’s List is the closing scene. The actors and the survivors whom they portray lay stones on the grave of Schindler, and the descendants show that the triumph and legacy are the children and grandchildren.

These ‘real life’ people are a reminder that behind Schindler’s List is a very true story of the Holocaust. With such a harrowing subject, it is important to remember that the audience may not always be aware of fact and fiction. Sometimes the truth is concealed in an effort to create a ‘happy ending’ to make audiences more comfortable, or even be completely inaccurate to create a popular narrative (see our blog post about The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas).

Harriet Mann

Harriet is one of the volunteers at HELC. She has travelled to various Holocaust memorials across Europe, and worked previously with an independent Holocaust research organisation alongside her full time work. She currently works within the HELC’s archive transcribing survivors’ testimony.

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