Oskar Schindler, The Man, The Myth, The Fake

The Distortion of Oskar Schindler in the Film Schindler’s List 

By Benjamin Effa

Oskar and Emilie Schindler are lying in bed after the impromptu visit of Emilie to Schindler's new home. Emilie asks “Should I stay?” to which Schindler answers “It is a beautiful city.” Emilie poses an ultimatum to Schindler “Promise me no doorman or maître will presume I am anyone other than Mrs. Schindler and I’ll stay.” This may seem like an odd requirement, but the fact is that Schindler has an undesirable urge to be with many woman other than his wife. This is only one of Schindler's undesirable traits that have been intentionally overshadowed by the director and screenplay writers.  Schindler is only out to make money during the first part of the story told by the film, which requires him to make powerful friends, which according to the film, can do anything for Schindler. He also hires his assistants because he wishes to sleep with them which is emphasized by the scene with Emilie. This essay argues that the film Schindler’s List distorted history and over exaggerates the heroistic treaties of main chartier Oskar Schindler to a superhuman level. 

The film Schindler's List, directed by Steven Spielberg, is set during the Second World War in the Polish city of Krakòw. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) has moved to Krakòw in order to make a fortune. Schindler enlists the help of Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), a Jewish accountant, to recruit Jewish workers to staff a factory to produce pots for the German army. These workers are on the list that Schindler is credited with saving from the Holocaust. The film also follows the head of the Plaszòw concentration camp, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), along his and the guards’ treatment of the Jews held within his camp. When the film begins, the Nazi soldiers are moving the Jewish citizens out of the city and into the ghetto where they share very small rooms with as many as twelve people. Schindler recruits Stern to find Jews to work in Schindler's factory. The order comes from the heads of the Nazi party to move all the Jews to the camp from the ghetto. Many of the Jews are initially excited for this because it means that they are workers and will hopefully be safe from death. This feeling of safety is quickly taken away from the prisoners when Goeth shoots several workers off his balcony with a rifle. For fear for himself and the workers, Stern tells Schindler of Goeth’s mistreatment. Schindler is able to convince Goeth to build him a small camp at the factory. This only is one of the many times that Goeth does things in order to help Schindler. Goeth also gets Schindler out of jail after he kisses a young Jewish girl on his birthday. As the Nazi’s are pushed back in the war the camp and factory are shut down and there is talk of moving all the Jews to Auschwitz. Schindler is able to convince the Nazi’s to allow him and the workers to move to another factory. Two trains leave from Krakòw, however only one arrives at the new factory in Zwittau-Brinnlitz. The train carrying all the woman and young girls is accidentally rerouted to Auschwitz. The woman are extremely frightened when they arrive at Auschwitz because of the stories they have been told about the gas chambers there. Schindler is able to save the woman and children before they are harmed. The factory only looks like is it producing munitions but Schindler is making sure that no munitions that leave the factory will fire. Schindler has become less concerned with the money and more with the lives of the workers that he is saving. When the war ends Schindler tells the Jews that he will stay with them until he can no longer because he will be hunted as a war criminal. At the end of the film Schindler leaves the now free Jews and flees for his life. 

In David Brenner’s “Working Through the Holocaust Blockbuster: Schindler’s List and Hitler’s Willing Executioners Globally and Locally,” the widespread acceptance and praise for the film Schindler’s List is looked at in a critical way. The film has been adapted into many different languages including German. When it was translated to German many parts had to be changed so that the German audience would be able understand the film in its entirety. In a particular point of the film, it was necessary to edit the soundtrack played over the ending sequence. The song used in the original American version was “Jerusalem the Golden” which was written to celebrate a war in Jerusalem and now carries the implication of victims rising up into conquerors. This implication is lost on most Americans so only the European version of the film was changed. When the film came out originally in Europe it was widely known that children should be quiet during the film out of respect for those who died during the Holocaust. This idea of respect for the deceased is not as well known in the United States where a notable incident of disrespect was well reported. A “high school in Oakland whose students were predominantly disadvantaged African-Americans and Latino youths” (299). These students who had taken a fieldtrip to honor Martin Luther King Day were reported to have laughed at the scene in which the Jewish engineer (Diana Reiter) is shot on Goeth’s order. This disrespect was never seen in Europe. The film Schindler’s List was written for a very specific audience, the American people. Therefore, American society has also influenced the writing of the film and the integration of facts into the story being told. 

In the article written by Geoff Eley and Atina Grossman “Watching Schindler’s List Not the Last Word” the authors describe their first encounter with the film Schindler’s List in the year that it came out. The authors ask in this paper whether or not the film has hurt the actual history which upon which it is based. The use of black and white filming is used to make it seem as if it is a documentary. (48) This feeling of the film being fully made up of real life events not a recreation distorts history in the minds of the viewer. Typewriter scenes, in which the camera zoomed in upon the names being typed out as they are said, is also very distancing. The use of the names of non-influential characters keep the viewer from feeling that this is really happening. The characters that are meet during the film and have any important role in the film are spared. With the one notable exception of the one armed machinist who is shot while shoveling snow. Also the fact that Schindler himself never sees any of the killing and only has it relayed to him. This is the case until the burning of bodies when Schindler also decides to keep the Jewish factory workers as he moves to a different factory. This is meant to be the point of change in his life. The too convenient ignorance of Schindler further distorts history and allows the reader to feel that Schindler had no idea how bad it was for the Jews. With a slightly deeper read into the film it can easily be seen that Schindler was very self-serving and self-centered. “His appetites for drink and sex are voracious, and this capacity for excess becomes part of saving ‘his’ Jews” (52). Schindler uses the drinking and parties to get what he needs from the German Government but the sex and drinking can be seen as him using his money for the luxuries in life. He is also so self-centered that he believes that the Jews he is saving are his property. Oskar Schindler on the surface is a kind savior that saves many lives, but he can also be seen as a bad person. 

In Miriam Bratu Hansen “‘Schindler's List’ is Not Shoah” the idea of the film Schindler’s List has made the holocaust like a theme park in that it is thought of in a way to invoke viewing pleasure and the necessity to continue watching. This viewing pleasure is what the film’s creators intended to invoke in the viewer as they wrote the screenplay based on the original book. The rich main character, that has everything, is used to invoke the viewer to wish to be like Schindler himself. He also has his demons which cause him to be more relatable. Finally he is moved to become a better person and help others like most humans aspire to do. The writers used this story because it had all the parts to keep the audience interested in the plot. The film is also very good at making the audience feel that not everyone that was part of Nazi party during the Holocaust was bad and makes the Holocaust seem less terrifying. The film does not speak for Holocaust survivors as a whole or the treatment of Jews during this time. The film attempts to tell the story of “the victims in whose name [the film] pretends to speak” (294). The author shows that the film does not show what it was like for the Jews but what it was like to be Schindler. The story of what the Jews went through is only used as a background for putting Schindler on a pedestal. I concur with Hansen's previously stated claim that Schindler is given more credit with this film that is a one sided account of a multiple faceted group of events. 

Interpretations of these scholars show the small inconsistencies between the film and the historical events upon which it was based. I intend to show the entirety of the separation between the film and history. The previous authors brought to light small parts of the film that were inaccurate or misleading. Schindler himself in the movie becoming a good person from a money hungry businessman, lack of major brutality toward the main character, and the way the film is presented, take away from the actual events that took place during the Second World War. The film was created to be watched and, on a morbid level, enjoyed by the American population. Because of this, when it was translated parts had to be changed. But when watched by an American audience the film invokes a response in the viewer to root for Stern but to want to be Schindler. Also the film's design allows the viewer to distance themselves from the Jews that are to be killed. The film shows the events of the Holocaust in a way that is much easier for the viewer to swallow, but this should not be the case. The previous arguments will be elaborated and built upon to show the full extent of the injustice done to history by the film Schindler’s List. 

The film credits Oskar Schindler for having the idea to use Jewish workers in his factory which helps to protect the workers from the brutality of the camp, however, Schindler intended not to employ any Jews. In the film, Schindler has the idea to use Jewish money to purchase an enamelware factory and Jewish workers to produce pots for the German military. Schindler initially approaches Itzhak Stern to find former Jewish elites that still had large sums of money. These Jewish elites would put up the money to buy the factory and Schindler would run the company. Once Schindler buys the factory, he and Stern are setting up the office and talking about the wages for Polish workers versus Jewish workers. The Jewish workers are not paid. The wages they would receive go to the German military. Polish workers, even unskilled ones are paid more than what is paid for the Jewish workers that are skilled. Schindler, being the businessman that he is, makes the decision that it would be foolish to hire Polish workers at all. However Stern does not understand this at first. Only after Schindler explains it again, does Stern get to work. In the next scene, he is seen talking to a group of Jews and attempting to convince them to work for Schindler. In the bibliography written about Schindler's life, upon which the film is based, the author Thomas Keneally recants the events differently than the film. According to Keneally, Polish workers were hired at first and only after Stern saw the opportunity to protect and help his people did Jews start at the factory. Therefore, Schindler's actions did not lead to the initial protection of the Jewish workers. Miriam Bratu Hansen in “‘Schindler's List’ is Not Shoah” argues that the screenplay writers changed important parts of the film to make it a better more interesting story. This event only adds to Hansen's argument because of the fact that Schindler making the conscious decision makes him seem more like a hero. Descendants of the Jewish workers would argue that Schindler did in the end do many things to help the Jewish workers to safety. To this I would respond that he did but if Stern had never hired the Jews than Schindler would have never even met them and made the connection to them that saved them in the end. Schindler heroic decisions  are meant to show the potential power a person has within themselves. This adds to the attempt to show Schindler as a man with power. 

In the film Schindler is falsely portrayed as an extremely powerful man. However, this is grossly overstated compared to his true self. When Schindler is arrested in the film, his friends in the government help to free him from jail, showing he has made very powerful friends. However this is far from the truth and was portrayed this way in order to make Schindler look more powerful. In the film, Schindler celebrates his birthday with many of his friends of high rank in the German Military including Amon Goeth in his office at the factory. The non-Jewish workers are shown at the party as well. When two workers, a Jewish woman and a young Jewish girl, bring Schindler a handmade cake, Schindler kisses them both. Kissing a Jew was against the Nuremberg Laws set by the German government. For this reason the Jewish woman attempts to back away from the kiss because she knows that it is illegal. At any rate Schindler persists. Amon can be seen behind Schindler with a look of disgust and amazement on his face. The party then goes on with the music and dancing. Later, two men come to the factory and arrest Schindler. The next scene shows Amon talking with another officer about this kiss saying that it was innocent. Amon is requesting that Schindler be set free. Schindler is set free, on what appears to be the same day on which he was arrested. In truth, all of Schindler did not kiss the Jewish worker fearlessly in front of the German officers, and his friends did not help him get out of jail. Also Schindler spent four days in jail and on the fifth day he spoke to Rolf Czurda, the head of the prison, convincing him that he should be set free. Schindler is met with continued disgust when Czurda said “we give you those Jewish girls at five marks a day. You should kiss us, not them” (Keneally 114). Schindler is finally able to convince Czurda to release him due to the fact that it was his birthday, and he was drunk. This is not to say that the film lied, but rather it has distorted the truth in this instance to show Schindler is not afraid of the German officers and he will do what he wants in front of them. However the truth is that the German officers including Amon fail to stop Schindler’s arrest and do nothing to help him free himself. To put it another way the film makes Schindler out to be more powerful than he really had become, and more willing to break the rules openly. In sum this causes the viewer to see Schindler as a hero. Although fans of the film might say that it does not matter how Schindler was freed from jail and that either way shows that he is a good talker, I would answer that the truth shows that his friends in the government  in no way care about Schindler. 

The film “Schindler's List” ending scene has Schindler giving a tear wrenching speech and telling the Jews what he knows of what will happen to them now. This scene in the film is shown to be very peaceful even to the point of convincing the guards to leave men instead on monsters. “I know you’ve received orders from our Commandant - which he’s received from his superiors - to dispose of the population of this camp. Now would be the time to do it. They’re all here. This is your opportunity. Or...you could leave. And return to your families as men instead of murders.” This is Schindler giving the old and tired guards a way out without having to kill innocent people. By this time in the war, the young and able men were already fighting and were not available to guard prisoners, so the remaining men were called up for this job. According to David M. Crowe in “Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities and the True Story Behind the List” Schindler did not leave the Jews to their peace. In fact it has been said that the Jews were “‘armed to the teeth, ready to fight till the death.’ Hours after Schindler left, they hung a Jew who worked for the Nazis.”(Crowe 556) This story does not instill a feeling of peacefulness that the viewer would hope to follow the war. I agree with Hansen in “Schindler's List’ is Not Shoah” that Schindler is given too much credit. In this instance he is given credit as a peace bringer or a peace keeper. However, in reality he allowed for revenge. This is not what the screenplay writers want the final image of Schindler to be, so they bent history to fit what they wanted it to be. Oskar Schindler is often credited as a life saver but this shows that he was not afraid of causing harm to people physically or in the case of his wife emotional pain. 

In watching the film Schindler’s List, Schindler is seen as the hero of the film but upon closer inspection he is also seen as a philanderer, having sexual relations with many woman.  At the beginning of the film, it is unknown whether Schindler is married or not. When Schindler is about to open the factory he needs to hire an assistant, demonstrating his opinion that looks mean everything as a female.  During this scene, Schindler flirts with the pretty secretaries and still wants them for the job even if they cannot type. Schindler pays no attention to the best typist out of all the candidates because she is not good looking. Finally Stern tells him “You need a secretary. Pick one” to which Schindler responds “They’re all very gifted.” By gifted it is implied that Schindler is talking about the beauty, not their actual skills. Just as important when a young woman comes to the factory to get her parents work and safety, Schindler does not even talk to her until she makes herself better looking. The next scene in the film is her parents being moved to the factory. Schindler would not even talk to this woman when she looked normal but when she dressed up he was happy and even eager to talk to her. Lastly, Emilie Schindler herself is ignored and even disgraced by Schindler in the film. When Emilie comes to visit Schindler in his new home she is met by one of Schindler’s mistresses. As Eley and Grossman stated in “Watching Schindler’s List Not the Last Word” “Schindler’s world is defined by money hedonism and sex”(49). Schindler’s motivation for everything that he does during the film is to benefit himself. However, after the movement of the factory, which Schindler greatly funds, changes can be seen in Schindler. Although descendants of Schindler's Jews may object that Schindler was a great man, I would answer that his good deeds should not overshadow his shortcomings.  In conclusion, before this dramatic change Schindler only intended to help himself, but after, Schindler does everything to save the workers. 

In conclusion, this essay argued that while writing and filming of the film ​Schindler's List ​the image of Oskar Schindler was greatly changed to encourage the viewing audience to see him as a great hero. Schindler’s greed and womaniser characteristics were down played while his friendships with German military officials was extremely over exaggerated. Schindler was a good man, but not the great almost super human man that the film makes him out to be. The truth is very important and without it history can be distorted or forgotten altogether. The film came out twenty-two years ago, and changing it now would be impossible, but it is important that viewers understand that it is not a documentary. This is only a representation of Schindler life. Several generations have based their understanding of the Holocaust on films like ​Schindler’s List ​that are not completely true. This false idea could do irreparable damage to the historical record.

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