The Depiction of Power in “Schindler’s List”
How the idea of, and struggle for, power brings out the worst and best of mankind
This past week, I spent my Friday night at the movies and had an experience unlike any other previous movie-going experiences. When the credits began to roll at the end of the film — the names involved slowly passed by as music softly echoed throughout the theater — nobody moved. Nobody whispered, clapped or began packing up their things. We all just sat, stared and sniffled — fighting back tears before the lights inevitably turned on. The two or three minutes of nothingness from the audience was eerie, yet fitting. It seemed as if we as collective sat as one, reflecting on a movie we just sat through and about the real life stories the movie depicted.
That moment was nothing short of powerful.
That night’s showing was Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List — currently out in theaters for its 25th anniversary. Heralded as Spielberg’s best (I agree with those who believe this), Schindler’s List is a modern classic. The movie’s brutally honest depiction of the Holocaust is eye-opening at the time of its release in 1993, ushering in new conversations and projects to help remember such a horrific event, and now. There are moments in Schindler’s List that make many flinch, uncomfortable and shocked in 2018.
Spielberg, in a recent interview, said Schindler’s List is a “tool to combat ignorance” — acting as a reminder of the worst of mankind. But how this reminder is obvious, Schindler’s List is also a film with hope — a look at when the best of humanity can shine through the darkness.
Ultimately, the root of the movie stems from the meaning and struggles of power — as personal goals but also what power can make us do. In Schindler’s List, power corrupts and is the driving force for Nazi leadership to commit unspeakable horrors. Yet, power also propels Oskar Schindler to maintain his factories and help save 1,200 Polish Jews from death. There are more concrete reasons these actions happen (some Nazi soldiers commit these crimes in fear of their own lives; Schindler wants to make money), but these factors all wind up back to one feeling: power.
Schindler’s List tells the story of Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson), a German businessman and a member of the Nazi party, and his role during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto and, what would later be known as, the Holocaust. Schindler is smart, savvy and weighs toward the narcissistic side; he loves the finer things in life. During World War II, Schindler sees a way to make money by employing Jewish workers in his factory. He, sort of, has a sixth sense about where the war is headed: money is worthless and the only real valuables are each other and the items people need to survive (pots, pans).
When the Jewish population in Poland is sent to concentration camps, under the supervision of Nazi commander Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes), Schindler’s effort to keep his factory in operation becomes a way of survival. With the help of Itzhak Stern (played by Ben Kingsley), Schindler is able to work out deals and bribe Nazi officials — whatever it takes — to get as many Polish Jews out of the concentration camps as he can.
The movie’s thesis is a crucial scene between Goeth and Schindler. They both sit atop Goeth’s villa in the concentration camp; Goeth is drunk, as Schindler slowly sips his drink. The two men discuss the definition of power.
“Control is power,” Goeth mutters. He argues that because the Nazi’s can and do kill Jews at any time they please, Nazi leadership have all the power. Schindler rebukes that claim: “Power is when we have every justification to kill and we don’t.” Goeth scoffs. Schindler delivers his monologue:
That’s power. That’s what the emperors had. A man stole something, he’s brought in before the emperor, he throws himself down on the floor, he begs for mercy, he knows he’s going to die… and the emperor pardons him. This worthless man. He lets him go. That’s power.
The scene has much to unpack. The conversation can be taken literally, where power is defined by these cut and dry explanations. Goeth believes (and acts) as if power derives from fear. The Jewish population fears the Nazis because they control everything and kill without remorse — “I have power over them” is Goeth’s notion of existing. This fear tactic is nothing new to world history, and the Nazis used it with horrifying success. In the scene, Schindler play’s devil’s advocate, opening Goeth’s mind to an idea of power blind to the Nazi military leader.
However, Schindler is digging deeper than simple conversation. His comments try to steer the immoral Nazi to end his senseless killing. Schindler, throughout the movie shows empathy, and he hopes to make Goeth empathize with the Jewish population. How? By relating an end to this nightmare in terms of a concept Goeth seems to know well: power. Schindler is attacking the problem at its core, instead of painting it over. For this evil to end, there is no real quick fix. If Goeth dies or is replaced, another ruthless Nazi will take his place.
However, if Goeth’s mindset changes, and he begins to empathize, change for the better could occur. Schindler, being the one to influence Goeth towards this line of thinking, slyly knows his influential standing within the Nazi party (and as a businessman). He understands his words hold weight and can create positive change; Schindler craves that attention and power.
Does Schindler’s words work? Ultimately no. Goeth tries this “pardon” method, though he resorts back to the senseless killing that make him such a hateful, despicable man. The power of control is too ingrained in Goeth’s mind — tragically. But the argument to Goeth was made; the effort, from Schindler, was there.
Schindler’s motives begin to shift, too. He is moved to help save as many people as he can. When he begins to realize the soullessness of his fellow Germans, he puts plans into action to get as many people out of the concentration camps as possible. (More on that, in a second). Schindler is aware of the evil happening all around him, but it takes being moved by the powerfully strong will of the Polish Jews Schindler has grown to know to act decisively.
The third act of Schindler’s List depicts a third way of how power is utilized as a theme. There is the good vs. evil power struggle, but then there exists seeing something so powerful that it compels to change, empathize and regret — as if they should have done more to help.
When Schindler leaves his factory for good, as the war is over and he is sure to be hunted as a member of the Nazi party, Schindler says his goodbyes to those he helped. Schindler is moved to tears that he should have done more to help. He cries over not selling his car or his pen, so that could earn more money to bribe more officials to save more lives — even if it would have been one or two people. Seeing the mass of people standing around is a powerful image for Schindler. It compels him to wish he could have done more. Schindler knew he had the power to do good, yet he wishes to even have more power and wealth — so he could save more lives.
This third sense of power is something the audience experiences, as Spielberg’s direction is masterful. He insisted the film be shot and released in black and white, as his only reference to the Holocaust were black and white documentaries. That decision adds to the movie’s power. The brutality is starker; the despair is evident; the hope (brought on by Schindler) is clear.
The most memorable image is that of a small girl in a red coat during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. Her coat is red among the sea of black and white. As Nazi soldiers raid, kill and round up Polish Jews, a girl with a red coat walks the streets — unnoticed by those around her. The audience notices, as Spielberg intends, and so does Oskar Schindler.
The girl with the red coat is a symbol: the horrors of the Holocaust went ignored by mostly everyone (most notably world leaders) at the time. Yet, there were people like Oskar Schindler who saw and understood what the Nazis were doing and planning. He used his power — his influence — to save as many as he could. Witnessing those powerful images — like that of the young girl, the horrifying killing and the resolve of survivors — pushes people like Schindler to do as much good as humanly possible.
Now, that’s powerful.