Schindler’s List: Holocaust in Film

(For more on Schindler’s List, also check out this additional post that summarizes common criticism’s of the movie.)

Schindler's List DVD Cover Image

Schindler’s List is a movie by Steven Spielberg that was released in 1993. The movie is based loosely on a book written by Thomas Keneally, which is also called Schindler’s List. The book, in turn, is based on the eyewitness testimony of Holocaust survivors who were saved by the actions of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and member of the Nazi Party who used his position and influence to turn his enamelware manufacturing labor camp into a refuge for Jews. The movie attempts to track the course of these events while also showing Schindler’s inner transformation from a cold, calculating businessman into a savior. The events depicted in the movie take place near the end of World War II in Kraków and later in the Płaszów labor/concentration camp, both of which are in Poland.

Various methods were used to turn this semi-historical information into an entertaining movie. Spielberg’s choice of coloring in the film was very intentional. Schindler’s List was designed in a way to make the audience feel as though they were viewing something historically accurate and making the film (mostly) black and white, rather than color, was a deliberate and effective means of making that connection. This was probably done to connect emotionally with the viewer and pull him or her along as the story progresses.  Spielberg also set up his characters in an oppositional way that is simple and easy to understand, probably to appeal to a wider audience, and reinforced this image of good vs. evil through the use of light and dark imagery.

Schindler’s List is almost entirely shot in black and white, but there are scenes that are in color for added effect. The opening scene of the movie is in full color and shows a Jewish family lighting the Shabbat candles on a Friday evening. As the candles burn down and the flame goes out, the film transitions to full black and white. The point of this switch to black and white is to give the movie a documentary-style feel, to impress upon the viewer the historical reality of what is being depicted and more easily elicit an emotional response. I won’t go into the problem of presenting fictionalized material in a way that makes it appear to be completely historically accurate here. Essentially, what Spielberg has done is make it easier for the audience to empathize with people they know are real. The climax of this effective use of color is in the final scenes, when the characters in black and white transition to the actual living survivors when the film was shot. They are shown moving across a field and then moving forward in a line to lay flowers on the grave of Oskar Schindler. That scene completes the emotional connection and reinforces the power of what the audience just saw in the rest of the film.

The most famous use of color in the film is the “girl in the red coat” in the Kraków ghetto liquidation scene. In this scene, everything is black and white except for the coat a little girl is wearing. The camera follows her as she walks down a street and adults are gunned down behind her and in front of her. This is meant to draw the audience’s attention and probably to emphasize the innocence of the children who suffered through this event. The next time the audience sees the red coat the little girl was wearing is when it is in a pile in a wheelbarrow. The audience is left to draw the conclusion that she no longer needs it anymore, because she is dead. Another instance of coloring in the film is during the Friday Shabbat candle lighting ceremony in Schindler’s factory. Schindler not only gives permission to, but insists that the rabbi in the factory welcome the Sabbath. During this scene, the flames of the candle are in color again, like they were in the opening scene of the movie. This may indicate a restoration of the Jewish people, through Schindler’s respect for them as human beings.

Color also plays an important role in the depiction of characters in the film, primarily in the use of shadows on their faces. This ties in with the essentially oppositional nature of the main characters in the film: Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth. To make this film more easily understood by a wider audience, Spielberg created a good vs. evil paradigm that posits Schindler as the hero and Goeth as the bad guy. Schindler is the troubled hero who starts out selfish and uninterested in others, much like Spiderman. Like Peter Parker, Schindler has to experience a traumatic event before he changes his mind about the Jewish people and uses his power for good. Like Parker’s uncle Ben, Schindler has the one-armed man and the girl in the red coat, among others. Schindler’s path to heroism is painted in a very easily understood way. Goeth is presented as an ultimate evil, a man that is beyond the bounds of sanity. He even has an evil sounding accent and an army of evil henchmen (the camp guards). To take the comic-book reference a bit further, we can think of Helen Hirsch as the damsel in distress that the hero, Schindler, rescues from the bad guy, Goeth.

This set-up of hero and villain is reinforced throughout the film by facial lighting effects. When Schindler is introduced, he is dark and mysterious and his face isn’t shown in full. When he is doing something negative, his face is in shadows. For example, when a Jewish woman shows up at his office to ask for his help, he is shown at the top of a staircase, in the distance and completely in shadows. Why? Because this scene shows him bowing to his dark impulses. In this case, he is acting on his lust for attractive women and because this woman is dressed conservatively, he sends her away. When she comes back dressed in a sexually appealing way, he agrees to meet her. When Schindler does something good, his face is shown fully lighted. An example is when he gives a chocolate bar to Helen Hirsch when questioning her in the basement, to reveal his good will toward her.

Fascism is not really addressed in this film, because it focuses more on Oskar Schindler and his transformation from Nazi party-man to Jewish savior. Oddly enough, the same can be said about the role of Jewish people in the film. There are many opportunities for character development, but the only Jew that really gets any serious screen-time is Yitzchak Stern. The Jewish people in Schindler’s List are essentially part of the backdrop of the Holocaust and act as supporting players to tell Schindler’s story. Not to belittle Schindler’s efforts, but it is odd that a film dedicated to the memory of six million dead Jews gives them so little time to tell their own stories, or act in any meaningful way.

Despite any flaws the movie has, Schindler’s List is an important part of the film industry’s portrayal of the Holocaust. It is the top rated Holocaust movie according to IMDB.com and has and will expose more people to the Jewish tragedy of World War II than any history book is likely to do, as sad as that may be. The use of color and the portrayal of the characters is very effective in drawing in and holding the attention of the viewer, allowing them to experience the film without having to think too hard about it.

The Pianist: The Holocaust in Film

Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist

Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist

The Pianist, released in the United States in 2003, is a biographical, historical drama about the struggle of a Polish Jew to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. The movie is based on the autobiographical book of the same name, written by Wladyslaw Szpilman about his own experiences surviving the Holocaust in Warsaw. The film also incorporates some of the childhood memories of the director, Roman Polanski, who also survived the Holocaust. In the film, Szpilman is a brilliant pianist living in Warsaw who, along with his family, suffers the increasing restrictions placed on Jews under Nazi occupation. Eventually, he is forced into the Warsaw ghetto along with his family and the rest of the Jewish community. Later, during the liquidation of the ghetto, he manages to evade deportation, but his family isn’t as lucky. He briefly survives as part of a work detail and then escapes and remains in hiding in various places in the city until the war is over.


Szpilman, near the end of The Pianist, caveman-like and dehumanized.

Szpilman, near the end of The Pianist, caveman-like and dehumanized.

One of the main themes in the film is the degradation and dehumanization of the Jewish people who suffered through the Holocaust. Szpilman, who begins the film as an accomplished pianist, epitomizes the gradual slide into a state of inhumanity as the film progresses. The first restriction of his status as a human being is the implementation of the racial laws that restrict Jewish people from entering or using public facilities, which sets Jews apart from and below the non-Jewish residents. The next step down occurs during the ghettoization of the Warsaw Jews, restricting their ability to interact with “normal” people. Jewish businesses are seized. Jews are placed in a situation where they have to fight over food and living space like animals competing for territory.

The closing scene of The Pianist, where Szpilman's return to humanity is shown through his performance.

The closing scene of The Pianist, where Szpilman’s return to humanity is shown through his performance.

When the Jewish population in the ghetto is rounded up to be exterminated, Szpilman is attached to a work crew that is, presumably, left alive to deconstruct the Warsaw ghetto. At this point, he has been completely devalued except insofar as he is able to labor, a long fall from where he began as a cultured and talented pianist. Ironically, after he escapes the ghetto, he becomes caged up in an apartment, first out of fear of leaving and then because he is literally locked in, like a caged animal. When that situation falls apart, the last vestiges of humanity slip away and he is depicted as an animal scavenging for food wherever he can find it, first in the abandoned hospital and then in the bombed out wrecks of houses. It is only after the war that the restoration of his humanity occurs, which is demonstrated by the closing scene of Szpilman playing in concert to a crowded room.

Szpilman, on a street in the Kraków Ghetto, after Nazi liquidation of the Jewish community.

Szpilman, on a street in the Kraków Ghetto, after Nazi liquidation of the Jewish community.

An interesting recurring theme in the film is the depiction of city streets. The streets in this film are definitely used as a visual tool to indicate status or mood. The increasing violence against Jewish people after the Nazi invasion is shown through the scene where the old man is struck by the Nazi patrolman and is made to walk in the gutter. In the Warsaw ghetto, the dehumanization of the Jews is shown through the crossing guards that make random Jews dance with each other in the street, while waiting to cross over the road for non-Jews. The worsening situation is shown through the constant appearance of bodies in the street in different stages of decay. After Szpilman escapes the deportation, a long shot is shown of him walking, alone, down a street littered with luggage, clothing and furniture, perhaps to emphasize the scale of the deportation and how alone he is.

When Szpilman is on the work detail, the plight of the Jews is emphasized by the abundance of food and vibrant life in the Warsaw street market. Even the colors seem brighter in that scene, as if to emphasize the vitality of local life compared to the gray drudgery of what Szpilman endures. This isn’t the only scene where color is important. As Szpilman’s situation worsens, the colors in the film get progressively darker, until the war ends and golden light floods the scene when Szpilman and his colleague go back to the farm to try to find the Nazi officer that helped Szpilman survive.

After escaping the work detail, in both apartments and when he is in the hospital, Szpilman’s view of the world is restricted to what he can see on the streets outside his window. The last dramatic view of the streets in the film is when Szpilman is escaping the hospital and the camera pans up to give us a top-down, long shot of bombed-out buildings. When compared to the long shot of the street full of luggage and empty buildings after the deportation, this scene of bombed out buildings is probably meant to indicate the difference of degree in Szpilman’s isolation. Now, there really is no one around, not other Jews and not even Poles.


One of the great ironies of the story is that Szpilman found his greatest security when he was literally sitting on top of the Nazi headquarters. As the film progresses, Szpilman receives help from various people. In the beginning, he is helped by his family. In the ghetto, he is helped by other Jews. When he escapes the deportation, he is helped by a Jewish collaborator. When he escapes the work detail, he is helped by ordinary Poles and then the Polish resistance. At the end of that road, he was given the food that kept him alive until the end of the war by a Nazi military officer. What does it mean? Being a true story, it probably doesn’t mean anything, but it’s an interesting coincidence and a window onto the complexity of the situation. Schindler wasn’t the only Nazi with a kind heart, though it may be argued, especially because of the scene where the Nazi captain is in the Russian POW camp, that he may have been kind to Szpilman specifically because he realized he was a man with influence that could possibly help him if he were captured.

In The Pianist, Jews are portrayed as victims of an outside ideology. In the beginning of the film, Szpilman seems to fit in quite well with non-Jewish members of his community and was in the process of developing a relationship with a non-Jewish woman. Though I’m unfamiliar with World War II history in Poland, the Poles in the film do not generally seem to be favorably disposed towards fascism and an underground resistance movement is shown as active and willing to help Jews escape into hiding. The Pianist is an outstanding film that helps explain the horrors and dehumanization of the Holocaust.