Teaching Schindler's List

Phyllis Goldstein

The movie Schindler's List, which is based on Thomas Keneally's novel, tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a war profiteer and member of the Nazi party who saved over 1,100 Jews during World War II. The movie explores the human capacity for monumental evil as well as the capacity for extraordinary courage, caring, and compassion. Director Steven Spielberg says the following about the film:
There are far too many places where hate, intolerance, and genocide still exist. Thus, Schindler's List is no less a "Jewish story" or a "German story" than it is a human story. And its subject matter applies to every nation. Schindler's List is simply about racial hatred-which is the state of mind that attacks not what makes us people but what makes us different from each other. It is my hope that Schindler's List will awaken and sustain an awareness of such evil and inspire this generation and future generations to seek an end to racial hatred.
At Spielberg's request, Facing History and Ourselves (a national education organization whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and anti-Semitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry) prepared a study guide to stimulate and inform that process. Now that the film is no longer in theaters, Steven Spielberg and Sid Sheinberg, on behalf of Amblin and MCA/Universal Pictures, have made a videocassette available to every high school in the United States. Along with the film, schools receive a copy of the study guide that Facing History prepared.

Facing History and Ourselves: A Guide to Schindler's List provides an interdisciplinary framework for examining the film and exploring this particular time in history. It is designed to help students of diverse backgrounds discover that the film is not just their story but also our story. The 64-page guide is divided into three parts. Each contains several selections accompanied by "Connections"-a set of questions and other activities that help students look, listen, read, and think critically.

The first part of the guide provides an historical context for understanding the choices that Oskar Schindler and others made in Nazi-occupied Poland. Many of the readings focus on the decisions individuals make. For example, why do some people like Oskar Schindler choose to help strangers, while others stand by, and still others participate willingly in doing evil? The readings also explore the ways ideas about race and "racial differences" influenced people and nations in the years just before World War II.

The second part of the guide is designed for use immediately before and just after viewing the film. It encourages reflection and discussion of the film itself. In this section, Thomas Keneally tells of how he came to write a book about Schindler and Spielberg explains why he made the film. Students also encounter a 1949 interview with Oskar Schindler. Each helps students see how the experiences, memories, and thinking of the storyteller shapes a story. The following activity is drawn from this part of the guide. It encourages students to consider how their own identity affects not only the way they tell a story but also the way they understand that story.

The Master Image
Director Martin Scorsese once told film critic Gene Siskel about the concept of a master image-a single frame from a movie that can summarize the entire film. When asked in 1990 which master image would summarize all of his films, Spielberg chose "the little boy in Close Encounters [of the Third Kind] opening the door and standing in that beautiful yet awful light, just like fire coming through the doorway. And he is very small, and it's a very large door, and there's a lot of promise or danger outside that door."
When Siskel asked if that image suggests that "we're all boys or girls standing in front of a door at all times," Spielberg expanded on that idea. "That we don't know what's out there. We should be afraid of not knowing. And we should take a step forward toward what we don't understand and what we don't know about and what scares us. And we should embrace what scares us. We shouldn't be self-destructive about it, but we should go toward that kind of proverbial light and see what's out there for us."

What "master image" summarizes Schindler's List? Write a paragraph explaining your choice. How is it like the one Spielberg chose in 1990? What differences seem most striking? Share your ideas with your classmates. How similar are the choices each of you made? How do you account for differences?

Questions of Power
The last part of the guide adds new voices and new perspectives to discussions sparked by the film. It also investigates the moral and ethical questions Schindler's List raises by focusing on particular scenes. This section of the guide also returns to themes and ideas introduced in earlier readings. The selection that follows is an example of the way students can be encouraged to explore universal themes within the film. Like each of the selections in this part of the guide, this one begins with a synopsis of a scene from the film.

A scene in Schindler's List: As the radio plays a "moody" song, a camera pans a hotel room in Krakow to reveal a glass of cognac, several expensive-looking business suits, an assortment of neckties, a pile of cuff links, a silk handkerchief, a stack of money, cigarettes, a watch, and finally, a swastika pin-a sign of membership in the Nazi party.

Later the camera reveals the owner of these items-Oskar Schindler. By then, an impression has been formed. It is an impression that is deepened as Schindler makes friends with the German officers he encounters in a Krakow night club.

Amon Goeth, the commandant at Plaszow [a forced labor camp near Krakow], is introduced in a similar way. He, too, is not visible at first. Instead the camera shows a large open car moving slowly through the Krakow ghetto. The car is accompanied by an SS officer on a motorcycle. As the entourage passes, a Jewish policeman holds back a crowd of residents. In the back seat of the car sits a man in an officer's uniform. His name and title appear briefly on the screen as a Nazi official seated in front explains the organization of the ghetto. Amon Goeth speaks but once during the entire scene. It is a complaint. He's freezing and demands to know why the top is down.

As the story unfolds, those images are refined and expanded. In one scene, the two men discuss power. Goeth, who clearly has had too much to drink, tells Schindler, "The more I look at you-I watch you-you're never drunk." As Schindler stares, the commandant continues, "Oh, that's, that's real control. Control is power. That's power."

Schindler is not so sure. He wonders, "Is that why they fear us?"

To Goeth, the answer is easy. He argues that "they fear us" because "we have the power to kill."

Schindler disagrees. "They fear us because we have the power to kill arbitrarily. A man commits a crime, he should know better. We have him killed, and we feel pretty good about it. Or we kill him ourselves, and we feel even better. That's not power, though. That's justice. That's different than power. Power. . . is when we have every justification to kill. . . and we don't."

When Goeth says he does not understand, Schindler expands on the idea, "That's what the emperors had. A man stole something, he's brought in before the emperor, he throws himself down on the ground, he begs for mercy. He knows he's going to die. Then the emperor. . . pardons him. This worthless man. He lets him go. That's power, Amon. That. . . is power."

Goeth roars. He mockingly gestures like a Roman emperor and laughingly says "I pardon you." Yet the next day, Goeth seems taken by the notion and even practices "pardoning" prisoners, particularly Lisiek, the young Jew responsible for cleaning his bathtub. But in the end, he returns to his old ways and the shootings begin again. His first target is young Lisiek.

Why do you think Steven Spielberg chose to introduce the two men through the use of symbols? What is he trying to tell the audience about each man? How does your opinion of each man change or deepen as the film progresses? How was the Oskar Schindler you encountered at the start of the film like the man you saw in the final scenes? How was he different? Did Goeth change in similar ways?
In the 1980s, a British television crew interviewed Amon Goeth's mistress. She told them, "We were all good Nazis. What else could we be?" Did she have other choices? Did Goeth? It has been said that "the system" doesn't force one to act out of character. It simply reveals one's character. What did the "system" reveal about the woman? About Goeth? Schindler?

How important are symbols of power? Does an individual become powerful because he or she has the "right" symbols? Or do the symbols come with power? Or are the symbols irrelevant if an individual has real power?

Write a working definition of the word power. What does the word seem to mean to Goeth? To Schindler? To you? Why did Schindler distinguish between the power to kill and the power to kill arbitrarily? How important is the difference?

What is the relationship between power and evil? Between power and goodness? For example, how does Schindler's own love of power affect his ability to save his Jewish workers? His willingness to do so?

What was Schindler trying to accomplish in his conversation with Goeth? Was he trying to teach him? Influence his thinking? Clearly if Schindler hoped to change Goeth, he failed. What approach would you take to influence a man like Goeth?

It has been said that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Do you agree? How does the film support that view? Below are other views of power. Which would Schindler support? With which would Goeth agree? Which is closest to your own views?

Other readings in the last sections explore the choices of the perpetrators, the victims, and the bystanders. They also consider such questions as: Was Oskar Schindler a moral person? A hero? Can one person make a difference? By analyzing and discussing such questions, students begin to understand why historians insist that "life is always more complicated than we think. Behind the gleaming ranks of those who seem totalitarian robots stand men and women, various and diverse, complex and complicated, some brave, some cowardly, some brainwashed, some violently idiosyncratic, and all of them very human." Students also come to realize that each of those men and women could have made a difference. Few events in history are inevitable. Although the choices we make do not seem important at the time, together they shape an age and have consequences that may affect generations to come.

Phyllis Goldstein is an associate of Facing History and Ourselves (16 Hurd Rd., Brookline, MA 02146-6919), a national educational organization which provides educators with key publications and staff development on racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism, as revealed in the history of the events that led to the Holocaust. This article appears by permission of Facing History and Ourselves. Copyright Facing History and Ourselves. All rights reserved.