Schindler, Goeth, and Stern: Individual vs. Community in Schindler’s List

So, I watched Schindler’s List again yesterday, and now I’ve got to talk about it. Wonderful. The first real question is, where do you even think about starting? It is, in my opinion, a very powerful movie. I’m glad I was able to see it twice, because I think I needed that second viewing before I could really start processing anything.

In spite of this, a comprehensive review is out. Now, when you read this, you’ll think that that is just exactly what I tried to do . . . Trust me, it isn’t. The movie is over three hours long . . . there’s a ton that I left out.

What I tried to pay particular attention to the second time through was the development of Oskar Schindler himself. Who is he made out to be from the beginning? How are we shown this, over and over, in the opening hour or so? What key events lead him to a change of heart, and how do we see that manifesting itself? What is the real difference in his personality, if any, by the end of the movie?

In trying to catalogue this while I watched, a few other things intrigued me. First, there were the many parallels between Schindler and Amon Goeth . . . I wondered what it was that made them so different. Second, I was struck particularly by the character of Itzhak Stern. What is the key contrast between him and the other two?

This is going to be long . . . just so you know.

Oskar Schindler is a great lover of life, particularly his own. He loves money. He loves wine. He loves women. He loves parties. He loves being at the center of attention. With no head for business and more charm than anyone ought to be allotted, he was born to be one of the social elite. He is almost totally self-absorbed. In one of the opening scenes he enters a restaurant alone and sits down at a small table by himself, but by the end of the evening everyone in the restaurant has joined his impromptu party. And everyone is enjoying themselves immensely. But this isn’t about them having a good time, it’s about him being noticed and loved by everyone. We see this time and time again as his selfish nature is repeatedly illustrated during the first hour or so of the movie.

When all of the Jews are hustled out of their homes and herded into the ghetto, Schindler doesn’t waste a second, moving into better lodgings immediately. There is the great contrast here of shots cutting back and forth between Schindler relaxing on a nice soft bed with lacy sheets, and the wealthy Jewish family that used to live there moving into a bare, cold, concrete room with a dozen other people they don’t know.

When setting up his business, he just can’t decide which gorgeous young lady should be his secretary (“They’re all so . . . qualified!” he exclaims to Stern), so he chooses them all and wanders the factory floor with a gaggle of young women in tow. I don’t know how many of them he then proceeds to sleep with, but there is clearly a steady flow of mistresses moving through his lodgings.

When his wife shows up on his doorstep and one of them answers the door, he is totally insensitive, not thinking about her feelings at all. “You know what? You’ll like her,” he tells his wife. When the two of them go out dancing, the doorman assumes that this woman is another of Schindler’s lovers, calling her “miss.” Schindler sheepishly corrects the man, shrugs, and moves on. As he dances, he trades significant glances with another woman while his wife isn’t paying attention.

One day as he tries to eat his lunch, Stern shows in a one-armed man who wishes to express his gratitude to Schindler for saving his life and allowing him to work. Schindler, of course, knows nothing about it, and he is furious with Stern for interrupting his lunch.

Soon after this he is forced to rescue Stern from the train because he has forgotten his papers. But lest anyone in the audience be uncertain as to how Schindler feels about Stern, we have this line: “What if I had gotten here five minutes later? Then where would I be?” It is perhaps the single most revealing statement of Schindler’s character during the first half of the movie. He is the epitome of absolute selfishness.

It isn’t possible to point to one event or scene in the movie where you can say, “That right there is where Schindler has a change of heart.” His transformation is a process with various steps. Among the first of these steps, as far as we can tell, is the random murder of his one-armed employee. Shortly after this, Schindler witnesses the brutal, senseless massacre which takes place during the liquidation of the ghetto, and is horrified from a distance.

We first notice that there is a chink in his armor when he meets with Stern, (who is now working for Goeth), and tries to get the important details of running the business from him. Some of us just don’t have a head for business, but Schindler shrugs off his inability to retain what he is being told. After all, he can come by and talk to Stern every week. As Stern returns to the prison camp, we see an affectionate half-smile flicker across Schindler’s face. Stern has become a human face among the mass of Jews and Schindler cannot help but open up now that this friendship has formed. As Schindler grows closer to Stern, he will be increasingly unable to distance himself from the horrors of the Holocaust as he was able to do when the ghetto was liquidated (merely turning his horse around and riding away).

It is here that he begins to supply bribes to get people out of the labor camp at the express request of Stern. He’s doing it for his friend. It gives him pleasure to do this, and that is all. It is apparent that we are still dealing with the same old Schindler in most respects when a woman comes to beg him to help her parents. Schindler flies into a rage and scares her out of his office before storming over to yell at Stern. (“People die! That’s life!”)

Stern quietly relates a story of Goeth’s barbaric homicidal tendencies. “What do you want me to do about it?!” asks Schindler. “Nothing, nothing. That’s just talking,” Stern calmly replies. Schindler, obviously affected by the story, silently hands his watch over as a bribe and leaves.

The following scene shows us a very different picture of Schindler than we have seen thus far. He descends into Goeth’s wine cellar and finds Helen Hirsch, Goeth’s maid. He is obviously attracted to her, and in typical Schindler fashion he begins to flirt with her. The next thing we know, she is sitting under a bright, swinging light bulb and he is pacing the floor in a circle around her as she talks. It looks suspiciously like an interrogation as she finally breaks down and allows herself to release some of the tension of living (literally) under Goeth’s gun. Schindler kneels before her. He speaks softly to her. He comforts her. He leans in to kiss her, and for a brief second, her expression changes. The viewer immediately recognizes what he is doing . . . It is completely in character.

Then: “Don’t worry,” he says. “It’s not that kind of kiss.” And he moves up and softly kisses her forehead. It seems wrong somehow. This is Oskar Schindler, the supreme womanizer, alone with a beautiful woman. He has her isolated and vulnerable, right where he wants her, and he doesn’t use his charm to take advantage of the situation? Something is different.

Lest there be any doubt in the viewer’s mind, Schindler has not just suddenly shifted 180 degrees, as we soon find out. During his birthday celebration he takes advantage of an “opportunity,” forcing a very long kiss on the pretty Jewish woman who brings him a cake “from the workers.” This is, of course, quite thoughtless of him and will lead to his arrest. Only some fast talking from his friends in high places will save him from prison.

Before all of that, however, we see him stick his neck out and look more than a little ridiculous in front of Goeth and his underlings. At his request, Goeth allows fire hoses to be brought to hose down the railway cars full of Jewish prisoners as they sit out in the blazing sun. It may seem like a small gesture, but it is simply one more indication of an increasing sensitivity for the needs of others.

And then the order comes down that all of the Jews must be sent to Auschwitz. Obviously Schindler’s first thought is something along the lines of, “Well, it’s all over then. I’ll try and see that they take care of my friend Stern, and then I’ll go home with all of my hard-earned money.” It is only as he paces his room late that night, (with yet another conquest lying in the bed), that he seems to be realizing that he might put that money to some other use. It’s like a completely new idea to him, and it is no wonder that it didn�t occur right away.

And now, of course, he throws himself completely into the work of saving “his people.” Schindler, it seems to me, is a man of extremes. He devotes his energies just as thoroughly to getting all of his money spent as he did in making the money in the first place. Clearly I don’t need to spend much time on all the details of how this plays out as he composes his list, barters for Helen’s life, journeys into the maw of death itself (Auschwitz) to get his people out, etc.

I will (finally) wrap up Schindler with a look at his two speeches at the end of the movie. First, his speech to the guards and factory workers at the end of the war:

<blockquote>After six long years of murder, victims are being mourned throughout the world. We’ve survived. Many of you have come up to me and thanked me. Thank yourselves. Thank your fearless Stern, and others among you who worried about you and faced death at every moment. I am a member of the Nazi Party. I’m a munitions manufacturer. I’m a profiteer of slave labor. I am . . . a criminal. At midnight, you’ll be free and I’ll be hunted. I shall remain with you until five minutes after midnight, after which time – and I hope you’ll forgive me – I have to flee.</blockquote>

He actually doesn’t sound completely selfish in this speech, a testament to his growth as a character. But naturally he is still a bit egocentric. Some things don’t change . . . Note how much time in this speech is given to others and how much is spent on his own situation. I don’t think he is consciously trying to win sympathy and pity, but . . . Anyway, he now turns to address the German guards.

<blockquote>I know you have received orders from our commandant, which he has received from his superiors, to dispose of the population of this camp. Now would be the time to do it. Here they are; they’re all here. This is your opportunity.

*short pause which feels very long*

Or you could leave, and return to your families as men instead of murderers.</blockquote>

And, of course, as every Jew in the building holds his or her breath, the guards turn and file out one by one. As Stern begins to relax a bit, Schindler catches his eye and tosses him a wink. Does Schindler still think this is all just a game?

Anyway, on to his final exchange with Stern, the last words we hear from him:

<blockquote>Schindler: I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know. If I’d just . . . I could have got more.

Stern: Oskar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.

Schindler: If I’d made more money . . . I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I’d just . . .

Stern: There will be generations because of what you did.

Schindler: I didn’t do enough!

Stern: You did so much.

Schindler: This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person . . . and I didn’t! And I . . . I didn’t!</blockquote>

It is rather a gutwrenching scene, and one of my favorites. It is very moving, well acted, etc. That’s not the point. The point is, does Schindler have a good reason to beat himself up over this? No, he doesn’t. Then why does he?

I suspect that, subconsciously, this is still the same old Schindler, swinging to extremes, pulling at everyone’s attention and sympathy, playing to the crowd, drawing people to himself. And it works . . . there is a surging forward for a large group hug. Schindler makes his exit . . .

He is a good man in spite of his moral failures. He is a great man in spite of his character flaws. But he is still a selfish man who can’t help thinking of himself first.

Amon Goeth is a lot like Schindler. Except that Schindler isn’t a psychotic . . . However, the similarities are definitely there. We first see Goeth being driven through the ghetto as he is briefed on various details of the living conditions of Jews and so forth. Asked if he has any questions, he has only one . . . Why the top of the convertible is down. He’s cold.

Note also his behavior surrounding the liquidation of the ghetto. He begins, early in the morning, with this speech to rally his troops:

<blockquote>Today is history. Today will be remembered. Years from now, the young will ask with wonder about this day. Today is history and you are part of it. Six hundred years ago, when elsewhere they were footing the blame for the Black Death, Kazimierz the Great, so called, told the Jews they could come to Krakow. They came. They trundled their belongings into the city. They settled, they took hold, they prospered. In business, science, education, the arts, they came here with nothing. Nothing. And they flourished. For six centuries, there has been a Jewish Krakow. Think about that. By this evening, those six centuries are a rumor. They never happened. Today is history.</blockquote>

He sounds like a good Nazi patriot, and he spends the day (from what we see) running enthusiastically through the streets with his dogs, hunting people. But then, once the day’s “fun” is over, we see him sitting outside in the dark, surrounded by officers, mopping sweat off of his face while the messy and tedious work of finding the hidden Jews in the buildings goes on. He seems to feel a bit differently about the historic nature of the event now, revealing his frustration with an emphatic “I wish this f–king night were over!”

Like Schindler, Goeth only appears to be a good loyal member of the Nazi party. Where Schindler is a Nazi for profit (and a bit of pleasure on the side), Goeth is a Nazi for pleasure (and a bit of profit on the side).

The next morning (or perhaps a few days later) Goeth is awake bright and early. He walks slowly out onto his balcony, overlooking the prison camp, and stretches luxuriously before picking up a high-powered rifle for some early morning target practice. Peering through the scope he selects a random Jew who isn’t working, pauses to carefully place his cigarette on the railing of the balcony, and fires, scoring a direct hit. He coolly picks up his cigarette and places it between his lips before finding another target and shooting it directly through the chest. This is his idea of a really great time. This is why he got into the business.

At the same point in the movie where we begin to see Schindler discovering that he has a more human side and that he cannot simply stand by and watch all of this go on around him, Goeth experiences his own major turning point. Schindler manages to convince him that true power (which is what appeals to Goeth) is not found in the ability to kill people arbitrarily, but rather in the ability to pardon them arbitrarily. The truly powerful are merciful, not murderous.

Goeth has a lot of respect for Schindler, and while appearing to be amused, he takes this advice to heart. The next day we see him struggling to rein in his temper for an entire morning as he pardons Jews for committing minor offenses rather than shooting them dead. In the end, the strain is too much. He stops for a moment to examine himself in the mirror after pardoning Lisiek’s failure to clean out his bathtub and he just can’t seem to make his new image fit. He appears to be undecided for a brief moment, firing upon Lisiek with his rifle and hitting on either side of the boy twice (we know from the earlier scene that he is a crack shot). Perhaps he is trying to calm his temper without murdering . . . But the third shot kills.

As I mentioned earlier, Stern became for Schindler the human face of the Jewish people and this was what allowed him to open up and later attempt to save as many Jews as he could. For Goeth, Helen Hirsch is that “human Jew.” His final shot at redemption is seen in the dialogue he has with Helen in the wine cellar. And he blows it big time.

I say dialogue, it’s actually a monologue with him answering for her in his mind. She is too frightened to say anything.

<blockquote>I came to tell you that you really are a wonderful cook and a well-trained servant. I mean it. If you need a reference after the war, I’d be happy to give you one.

It’s kind of lonely down here, it seems, with everyone upstairs having such a good time. Does it?

You can answer.

‘Ah, but what is the right answer?’ That’s-that’s what you’re thinking. ‘What does he want to hear?’

The truth, Helen, is always the right answer.

Yes, you’re right. Sometimes we’re both lonely. Yes, I mean, I would like, so much, to reach out and touch you in your loneliness. What would that be like, I wonder? I mean, what would be wrong with that? I realize that you’re not a person in the strictest sense of the word. Maybe you’re right about that too. You know, maybe what’s wrong isn’t – it’s not us – it’s this. I mean, when they compare you to vermin and to rodents and to lice, I just, uh . . . You make a good point, a very good point. Is this the face of a rat? Are these the eyes of a rat? Has not a Jew eyes? I feel for you, Helen.

No, I don’t think so. You Jewish b–ch! You nearly talked me into it, didn’t you?</blockquote>

Jews aren’t human, he believes . . . and he will go on believing that. His chance to change is past, any soft spot he may have had has hardened. And he can’t imagine that anyone else would feel any differently about it. That is why, when Schindler approaches him later to buy the Jews who would otherwise be shipped to Auschwitz, Goeth is absolutely certain that there must be a huge profit in it. He has completely missed Schindler’s transformation. “What’s a person worth to you?” Schindler asks. “No, no, no, no. What’s one worth to you?” Goeth laughingly replies. These aren’t people to Goeth. They are worthless. To Schindler they are priceless. I wonder how the negotiations played out . . .

Goeth’s (almost) final scene is when Schindler comes to him and offers to play a card game for Helen’s life. At first Goeth seems reluctant to do so, claiming that he should be doing the “merciful” thing and taking her out in the woods to shoot her. Then the massive amount of money that Schindler has offered appears to reach his brain . . . Helen gets on the list.

Amon Goeth winds up in a sanatorium before the war is even over, a sick man even by Nazi standards. He dies saluting Hitler, the man who made his two-year psychotic killing spree a patriotic duty. Earlier in the movie, Schindler rather naively attempts to explain Goeth like this:

<blockquote>You have to understand, Goeth is under enormous pressure. You have to think of it in his situation. He’s got this whole place to run, he’s responsible for everything that goes on here, all these people – he’s got a lot of things to worry about. And he’s got the war, which brings out the worst in people. Never the good, always the bad. Always the bad. But in normal circumstances, he wouldn’t be like this. He’d be all right. There’d just be the good aspects of him.</blockquote>

Goeth is a sick bastard, and I expect he’d have been a sick bastard even without the Nazi party to throw gasoline on the fire, but I wonder . . . How much did that actually contribute to the way Goeth turned out, in the end? There are indications that lead us to believe that Goeth might simply be a terribly misguided, immature young man. Without hearing Goeth’s story, which this movie doesn’t tell, there’s no way to know for sure what sort of man he might have become under different circumstances.

And finally we come to Itzhak Stern . . . He won’t take long, I just want to make a few general remarks about him. To me, Stern is the real hero of this movie. At least, he is my hero. From the beginning, he takes responsibility for saving his people.

At first he doesn’t seem interested in helping Schindler get his factory started, once the Jews are moved into the ghetto I think he realizes the potential he has to do good, and he finds Schindler men who can put up the money.

When the factory finally is getting started he spends days working through the long lines of people, not looking for the skilled workers, but finding people who will otherwise be considered useless and getting them forged papers, walking them past the officials, coaching them. He works tirelessly, snatching people from certain death as fast as he can.

Later on when he is in the prison camp and can’t attend to these things himself he pushes his luck even further and begins to exploit his friendship with Schindler, convincing him to bring certain select people over. It is through Stern’s actions that Schindler first begins to acquire his reputation among the Jews, and it is through Stern’s quiet reasoning that Schindler himself begins to accept the role of savior.

The character of Oskar Schindler, both within the movie and from history, is clearly the most complex of the three, and it is the most difficult to pin down. This is, I think, precisely what made him able to do what he did. He was, ultimately, the consummate conman and it is often difficult to tell precisely why he might be behaving a certain way. Is he sincere, or merely trying to throw you off? Even in the movie, where we are able to witness his behavior during some of his most vulnerable moments, the answer to this question remains unclear. As I said earlier, I believe that Schindler is a good man, but a selfish man. As a result of this, he is inherently conflicted and often cannot decide whether his virtue should take precedence over his self-seeking motives.

Schindler is very much an individual. As Goeth says to Stern, “He wants his independence.” You could almost say he is handicapped in that he has a hard time realizing that there are other people who have other needs and desires and that those people are just as important as he is, that their lives are as valuable as his. By the end of the movie, he has outwardly accepted the importance of human life and the community, but (as I explained above) I don’t see him quite growing past his selfish nature. He has simply learned to supress it.

Amon Goeth is also an individual type. And, like Schindler, he is an individual who pretends to be a member of the dominant community in order to serve his own interests. There is clearly something wrong with him, but as I said earlier, I wonder how much of his psychological development was twisted by his environment. I may be totally off in assuming that he is fairly young, but I get the impression that he was probably in the Hitler Youth and has been swallowing Nazi propaganda ever since his formative years. He is a lot more impressionable than Schindler is, and it simply seems that a bad influence got to him first.

Itzhak Stern, unlike the other two, almost is the Jewish community. He is almost totally selfless. He never does anything for himself, never has any thought for himself. In direct contrast to Schindler’s constant references to “me” and “I” and “myself” and “mine,” Stern almost never refers to himself in the first person at all. We don’t ever see him eating or drinking (except when he finally agrees to share a drink with Schindler, late in the movie). We see in the Epilogue that he was married, but we never see his wife (perhaps he married after the war?). The overall impression is that we have here a man who has no personal life. His life is living for his community.

For the entire first half of the movie (and even after this, to some extent), whenever we see him around Schindler he is very reserved, quiet. His movements seem almost robotic. Note the contrast between this and when we see him among his own people. He talks and gestures emphatically. He laughs and interacts with them.

The man who seems to be able to keep every detail regarding the running of the factory safe in his head . . . who is clever enough to crumple up and spill coffee on a newly forged document to age it . . . who is constantly struggling to exploit his position to save as many Jews as he can . . . This man forgets his own work permit one day and is nearly sent away to goodness knows where on one of the trains. He simply wasn’t thinking of himself at all.

This is the contrast that I see in the three main characters of Schindler’s List. Schindler is a strong individualist who learns to become sensitive to community needs through a slowly developed awareness of human worth. Goeth is a weak individualist who is unable to overcome his own twisted nature and the years of negative “programming” he has no doubt been subjected to, no matter how hard he may or may not be trying. Stern is a strong personality who is part of his community and his every action has the greater good of that community in mind, even when it places his own individual well-being in jeopardy.

In a movie which proposes to examine a time in history when one man�s strength of character meant the difference between life and death for over a thousand people, it is very fitting that a closer study of the movie�s main characters can yield such a rich look at the depth of human nature which is so often revealed in the midst of the most unimaginable adversity. I think that it is this element, even more than the incredible skill with which the movie was created on a technical level, which makes it truly worthwhile to spend 194 minutes watching it.


~ by Jared on May 22, 2004.

9 Responses to “Schindler, Goeth, and Stern: Individual vs. Community in Schindler’s List

  1. I have not seen Schindler’s List yet (I really want to). I do know that Ralph Fiennes plays one of the main “bad guys” in the movie, and he stars in one of my favorite movies: Spider. I think you’d like Spider, but I warn you that it is extremely strange and confusing (it’s about a mentally ill man, and most of the movie is from his perspective). It’s a brilliant film, however.


  2. Yeah, Fiennes plays Goeth . . . And I thought you’d seen the movie already! Gah! Go out and rent it this instant, fool.


  3. good paper, although I find it disconcerting that you can use profanity (albeit slang) in a formal paper for a class.


  4. *content edited*

    hahaah (<i>This portion of the comment was deleted</i>) Blame Jared u foolish traditionalist

    oh, my bad I mean (<i>This portion of the comment was deleted</i>) mom

    Editor’s Note: I happen to hate screwing with comments as a general rule of thumb, but . . . your bad indeed. The personage you insulted does in fact happen to be <i>my</i> mother, and I’m mildly surprised that your own didn’t teach you any better . . . However, even if you had insulted another of my guests, I’m afraid it is against policy to let anyone toss in that sort of mindlessly offensive and insulting commentary in response to what anyone says. If you don’t have anything worthwhile or constructive to contribute then I suggest you take your foolish antitraditionalism and . . . well, if this weren’t a family blog, I’d tell you what to do with it. Use your imagination.


  5. I just seen this film a couple of days ago and it refreshed my memory of a few of the small details that I had forgot. Im writing a paper on it so it’s a good thing. Thank You.


  6. About the scene where they are bargaining about Helen. You miss the important line, where Goeth says what he actually _wants_ to do, take her to Vienna. This shows his true good self, that he truely loves her. The line afterwards about shooting her in the back of her head is just stating what in reality is the best he can do, since he’s stuck in the nazi system more then anyone, being a high ranking SS officer. He then quickly surrenders her to Schindler after recognising his futility, not for the money.


  7. I am still not clear on one thing: were Amon and Helen Hirsch lovers? I would seem impossible, but I get the idea from some commentators that they were. The way he treated her, I doubt it. I only saw Schindler’s list on TV, five or six times already. I refused to see it in a movie house because I could not have taken it mentally. I’m a goyum, but the Holocaust really bothers me.


  8. Yes, although how much she cares for him is open to interpretation. I don’t know if the version you’ve seen was edited for TV, but as I recall their characters are introduced in bed together. He sleeps with her and in return she doesn’t have to work in the camp with the others.


  9. Wonderful interpretation of this movie! Thanks of your insight!


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