Will the real Oskar Schindler please stand up?


It is hugely important to know that the film by Steven Spielberg is a work of fiction.

After finally finishing the book, I’ve come to realize that Spielberg modified the fiction in a way that took it even further from historic fact.

In many ways, the Schindler we read about in the novel never really existed, but is a product of myth-making, the telling of tales that takes a life and reality of their own – and Spielberg modified Schindler that is more myth than reality, even though both the book and the film cover many actual historic events for which Schindler is credited.

Schindler, in fact, seems to have become more important as a historic figure after the movie was released. Indeed, even the book changed its name from Schindler’s Ark to Schindler’s List.

While among those recognized after World War II as among the righteous, Schindler’s name was often not included in several of the most prominent books about the Holocaust prior to the publication of Schindler’s Ark and the later release of the film.

Spielberg is not the first filmmaker to consider doing a film on Schindler. Two filmmakers in the early 1960s researched the movie, interviewing Schindler and many of the Holocaust survivors he saved, then dropped the project.

Keneally never actually interviewed Schindler so that much of what he put into his novel turned out to be conjecture, based primarily on research, which may explain why some of his book differs from a magazine article written after World War II but not published until after Keneally’s book was published.

Yet Keneally clearly tried to remain loyal to the historic facts, and attempted to make sense of the controversial Schindler based on facts at his disposal at the time of writing. While Spielberg allegedly based his movie on the film, he deviated sharply from the novel so that we can an even less historically accurate portrayal of Schindler.

Why did Spielberg do this – when it is clear from earlier adaptations such as Deep Purple and later works such as Munich that he is capable of staying loyal to the texts?

Part of the answer is Spielberg’s habit of inserting sentimental clap trap into many of his movies, even when the material doesn’t need it.

We get this in two particular areas of Schindler’s List – when Schindler attempts to get the sadist Nazi Goeth to show mercy, and later, more obviously in Schindler’s final speech when he claimed he could have saved more and regretted not doing so. Neither scene appears in the novel, and in the case of the second, Spielberg gives us exactly the opposite of what actually happened since Schindler left the factory at the end carrying away a car full of cash.

But Spielberg made much more odious changes to the subtext of the original story that suggests he may have had a deeper motive in mind.

While the book and the film largely cover the same historical landscape in which Schindler eventually saved nearly 1,200 Jewish lives, Spielberg paints a far less generous Schindler at the beginning than the novel – let alone history – actually presents.

Schindler was a failed business man who served as a Nazi spy, helping the Germans to invade Poland. After seeing what the Nazis had in mind for the Jews, he switched sides and became a spy for international Jewish organizations seeking to get work out to the world about the ongoing atrocities.

Unlike in the film, the novel and historic Schindler plotted almost from the beginning to rescue Jews, not only saving those 1,200 for which he is begrudgingly credited in the film, but many others who he helped to escape.

The novel suggests that Schindler joined the Nazi Party in order to get a foothold into the door of prominent Nazi business people in an effort to increase sales opportunities.

Although he clearly intended to make a love of money when he opened his factory, Schindler – after seeing the treatment of Jews and the slaughter in the Krakow Ghetto – became a courier and spy for the Jews, and was frequently labeled “a Jew lover” resulting in several arrests.

Spielberg paints Schindler as a more or less typical German businessman with a conscience, and through the secret manipulation of his Jewish workers, was brought around to see the error of his ways. The film’s true hero is played by Ben Kingsley – the Jewish accountant Schindler hires to run the business.

This character, of course, doesn’t exist either since he is really a combination of two or three historical figures, only one of whom in the book suggests that Schindler has the stuff to make him righteous.

Unlike the movie, the book Schindler actively seeks to protect Jews and is not manipulated into doing so by Kingsley’s character, Stern.

Spielberg has Stern getting Jews assigned to the factory through deception and that Schindler resists these efforts at first – nearly opposite the facts as presented in the book.

Spielberg’s film also presents Schindler as someone who enjoyed the company of the work camp commander, the Nazi sadist Goeth. When Stern tells Schindler with the history of Goeth’s murders, Schindler defends Goeth leading us to the inserted scene in which Schindler tries to each Goeth mercy.

The book’s Schindler hated Goeth from the start and only pretends to like him in order to save some of the Jews and to keep the factory in operation.

Another revealing discrepancy between book and film comes when in the movie Stern is loaded aboard a box car to be sent to a death camp.

Schindler rushes to the train yard to save Stern, then scolds Stern when he is released asking how Schindler could run his business without him.

In the book, is it not Stern that is in the box car, but one of the other characters Spielberg used to build the film Stern, and Schindler didn’t just rescue that character, but a total of 14 workers – all of whom he was already committed to protect.

These are only a few of the changes Spielberg made in shaping his Schindler. But all the changes paint Schindler who had to be convinced to do the right thing and in the end, did it.

Even the making of the legendary list got twisted in Spielberg’s film.

Schindler – in the film – has agreed to pay Goeth to save the Jews. So Schindler and Stern stay up all night trying to work out the list of names that ought to be on it.

Except in the book, Stern played no part in this. In fact, it was Schindler and another non-Jew who typed out the list, both of them getting drunk as they did it, struggling not only to remember the names, but also how to spell them.

We get this scene in the film as well, but you have to wonder why Stern – a Jew – would have a hard time spelling the names of people he previously manipulated into jobs in the factory with forged papers and other means.

What made Spielberg paint his Schindler is a somewhat diminished light from the historic Schindler, who actually went well beyond the deeds for which the film credits him?

Was it the belief that Schindler did too much or perhaps that the Jews did too little?

Is Spielberg rewriting history so as to give the Jews more of a role in their own survival, when so many went to their graves seemingly like sheep?

One of the great questions of the Holocaust asks: What could the Jews have done differently?

They did not know what the ultimate end was going to be until they reached the death camps, at which point survival itself was an act of resistance.

Prior to that, many believed that if they fought back (and there were Jewish rebellions in dozens of ghettos) family and others would suffer.

Spielberg’s film seems to be reshaping history at Schindler’s expense, trying to show the Jews did not simply walk like sheep into Nazi ovens.

Yet by doing so, we get a different and less significant Schindler that the historic one, whose dramatic actions helped save those Jews who could not otherwise save themselves.




Essays on Spielberg menu

blogs menu

Main Menu

email to Al Sullivan