On ‘Schindler’s List,’ Human Value, and the Mysterious Power of Grace

In Classic Film Throwback Series, Featured, Reviews, Sam Hendrian by Sam Hendrian

This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series

– By Sam Hendrian –

“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” So goes a Jewish proverb that Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) uses to console a regret-haunted Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) at the end of Steven Spielberg’s life-affirming masterpiece Schindler’s List (1993). These simple yet poignant words capture the essence of the film’s timeless thematic statement that every single human life is of priceless value and worthy of the utmost protection. While its realistic depiction of the Holocaust obviously makes it a difficult cinematic experience to endure, Schindler’s List nevertheless merits repeated viewings due to the inspiring portrait it paints of human value and the mysterious power of grace.

Wine, women, and money. Such is the prime value of life in Oskar Schindler’s greedy and somewhat hedonistic mind circa 1939. A businessman through and through, he has come to Krakow with one mission in mind: to make lots and lots of money running an enamel factory that employs cheap-for-hire Jewish workers. At dinner one night with his estranged wife Emilie (Caroline Goodall), he fantasizes with an ambitious gleam in his eyes:

“They won’t soon forget the name Schindler here, I can tell you that. Oskar Schindler, they’ll say. Everybody remembers him. He did something extraordinary. He did something no one else did. He came here with nothing– a suitcase– and built a bankrupt company into a major manufactory. And left with a steamer trunk, two steamer trunks, full of money. All the riches of the world.”

Little does he realize that his fantasy will soon be proven partially prophetic– just not in the way he currently imagines.

Schindler is furious when his entire Jewish workforce is forced into the new Plaszow concentration camp after the Nazis’ liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto. “They’re mine!” he yells at the sadistic camp commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). While he is not yet concerned for the Jews as human beings whose lives are in grave danger, he is concerned for them as profitable laborers whose departure has put him in grave danger of losing lots of money.

That being said, there have been a few subtle signs of a gradual transformation occurring in Schindler’s self-centered heart. During a horseback-riding outing with one of his extramarital lovers, he witnesses the Nazis forcing the Jews out of the Krakow Ghetto and killing all those who do not cooperate. He does not say a word, but there is a profoundly disturbed look in his eyes that conveys great compassion lying beneath his exterior selfishness.

For intentions that still seem primarily monetary, Schindler bribes Goeth to win back his Jewish workers and have them continue working for him in a sort of sub-camp of Plaszow. Many of these Jews immediately shower him with gratitude and beg for him to send other family members to the “haven” of his factory camp so that they can also escape Goeth’s vicious sadism. He finds this quite vexing, ranting to his brilliant and quietly sage Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern:

“People die, it’s a fact of life. He wants to kill everybody? Great, what am I supposed to do about it? Bring everybody over? Is that what you think? Send them over to Schindler, send them all. His place is a ‘haven,’ didn’t you know? It’s not a factory, it’s not an enterprise of any kind, it’s a haven for rabbis and orphans and people with no skills whatsoever!”

A subtly perceptive man, Stern takes Schindler’s diatribe in stride, knowing that it does not accurately represent him as a whole. Schindler is the sort of man who says one thing and does another, and Stern knows this. In subsequent scenes, Schindler is seen doing exactly what he proclaims to be against: using his monetary resources and Nazi connections to usher more endangered lives into his factory.

When Schindler hears that all the prisoners of Plaszow, including his factory workers, have been ordered to be shipped to Auschwitz and other infamous death camps, he takes a prolonged shore leave from his self-centeredness and dedicates the next year of his life to saving as many Jews as he can from nearly certain death. Using all the money he has received from his business ventures, he establishes a munitions factory in the Czech city of Brinnlitz as his own labor “camp” and then bribes Goeth and other Nazi officials to send a number of Jews there that ends up totaling about 1,200.

Schindler’s shift from narcissism to heroism is undeniably an enigmatic one. There is no dramatic moment when he looks himself in the mirror and starts singing “Who Am I?” like in Les Miserables. He does not have the equivalent of Hamlet’s soliloquy or Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Rather, he simply becomes sickened by the inhumanity around him and decides that if he is a halfway decent human being, he needs to do something about it.  

It can also be surmised that there is a strong element of divine grace responsible for Schindler’s profound conversion of heart. A nominal Catholic, he follows his faith loosely but clearly believes in God as is depicted in a touching scene when he makes the Sign of the Cross before a moment of silence to pray for all the Holocaust victims. One of his chief vices of loosely spending all the money he makes becomes a chief virtue when he willfully spends it all to save lives; God is famous throughout history for releasing such vice-reversing storms in souls. Finally, he contritely approaches his estranged wife and promises that he will never be unfaithful to her again, which perhaps shows that after Grace touched his soul, it gradually compelled him to be a man of complete integrity and not just a “pick-and-choose” hero.

When the war ends, Schindler is tortured with guilt rather than comforted with pride at having saved so many innocent lives. “I could have got more out,” he tells Stern while surrounded by all the women and men he rescued from nearly certain death. Staring at his car and at the Nazi pin that he still wears on his breast, he begins to shed many tears of regret for having not sold them to make more money with which he could save lives. “One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t! And I… I didn’t!” Stern firmly reminds him that there will be whole generations of people because of what he did, but he remains deeply haunted by the thought that parting with just a small material attachment could have preserved the life of at least one more human being. In a world that increasingly devalues the sacredness of the individual person, Schindler’s earnest guilt is a heartbreakingly beautiful reminder that every person is significant and worthy of the utmost protection. As Stern so profoundly and paradoxically quotes from the Jewish text of The Talmud: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”

Schindler’s List is a movie that needs to be watched and re-watched for generations to come. Yes, it is not lighthearted fare, but it is an ultimately uplifting film that leaves a deeper appreciation for life and love for humanity in the hearts of all those who choose to experience it. Divine grace can mysteriously alter even the most self-centered of people, and every single human life is of immeasurable value; such is the luminous hope and inspiration we can take away from Steven Spielberg’s timeless historical masterpiece.


About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.