Screenwriter Steven Zaillian’s script for Schindler’s List tracks very deliberately and skillfully the transformation of its protagonist from amoral war profiteer to determined rescuer of the Polish Jews he has used in his factories, and director Steven Spielberg did an admirable job at adapting the underlying text and screenplay for the screen.
The real-life Oskar Schindler was an industrialist who sought to profit from Germany’s formidable war machine and did, in fact, successfully use his position with the occupying German authorities in Poland and Bohemia/Moravia to save over one thousand Jews from extermination camps.
In the film, adapted from author Thomas Keneally’s fictionalized biography of Schindler, the title character is introduced to viewers as a businessman of questionable success and repute going through the motions of adapting himself to appear more successful and important than he actually was. It is clear in the film’s opening sequences that Oskar Schindler is motivated primarily and overwhelmingly by visions of financial riches. Zaillian’s directions suggest just such an individual:
It's September, 1939. General Sigmund List's armored divisions, driving north from the Sudetenland, have taken Cracow, and now, in this club, drinking, socializing, conducting business, is a strange clientele: SS officers and Polish cops, gangsters and girls and entrepreneurs, thrown together by the circumstance of war. Oskar Schindler, drinking alone, slowly scans the room, the faces, stripping away all that's unimportant to him, settling only on details that are: the rank of this man, the higher rank of that one, money being slipped into a hand.
This emphasis in the early scenes in the film on Schindler's financial motivations are provided so that the contrast with the individual who will later become motivated solely by humanitarian concerns can be clearly illuminated. An early conversation with Emilie, his wife, provides one example into Schindler’s initial motivations:
In every business I tried, I can see now, it wasn't me that failed. Something was missing. Even if I'd known what it was, there's nothing I could have done about it because you can't create this thing. And it makes all the difference in the world between success and failure.
As the film progresses, Schindler’s interest in attaining wealth continues to be emphasized as he meticulously cultivates relationships with German officials who, he believes, can assist in attaining his goal. Given the use of Jewish laborers by the Germans, Schindler develops a close working relationship with Itzhak Stern, a bookish accountant who will figure prominently in the businessman’s evolution. In one discussion about business with Stern, Schindler states, “My father was fond of saying you need three things in life - a good doctor, a forgiving priest, and a clever accountant. The first two, I've never had much use for.”
Stern, of course, is a clever accountant. More than that, however, he is a humanitarian who will successfully manipulate his new boss in the direction of righteousness—a task greatly aided by the scale of barbarity practiced by the Germans against their Jewish victims. Schindler’s observations of the moral depravity of those for whom he has worked also contributes to his transformation from simple war profiteer to what the survivors of the Holocaust would call a “Righteous Gentile.”
Nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly than in the film’s final scenes in which Schindler begins to question his efforts at saving Jews from death, a scene sometimes mocked by critics for its mawkishness but that nevertheless exposes the full extent of this individual’s transformation:
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!
Schindler’s List is the story of one individual’s moral transformation—a transformation that enabled the eventual birth of thousands of descendants of those he spared certain death. It was a transformation, the film shows, that came at considerable risk, given the nature of the beast with whom he was trying to manipulate for both financial and humanitarian gain.