The film opens in 1939. Germany has overtaken Poland and all Polish Jews are being herded to Krakow for registration. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrives in Krakow as well. He's a German-born businessman who's looking to cash in at this new German-owned area of the world. Oskar is a member of the Nazi Party, and enjoys bribing and charming all the German officers to make headway. He is the life of every party, even when there's isn't an actual party already going on. The scene just turns into one.
Schindler learns of Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), a local Jew with ties to many legitimate and illegitimate business bigwigs. Schindler meets with Stern and convinces him to handle obtaining loans to finance the factory's startup. Schindler seems to treat Stern with respect, but Stern simply goes along with the request out of fear and resignation.
The Judenrat (Jewish council of elected officials) is overwhelmed with complaints by Polish Jews, with many saying they're being kicked out of their houses and the like. The officials simply tell them to deal with it and roll with it, as their hands are tied due to the German regime now in power. Things go from bad to worse as a March 20, 1941 deadline arrives for all Jews to relocate to a walled ghetto that is only sixteen square blocks in area. As the Jews are all forcefully marched to the ghetto, they're often harassed in the streets by the non-Jewish populace.
Stern recruits Jewish workers for Schindler's factory. Schindler is hiring the Jews because they're cheaper labor than Germans, but Stern--who runs administrative duties--sees this as an opportunity to save whoever possible from being sent to worse fates. Working for Schindler is the better option. When Schindler's wife Emilie (Caroline Goodall) visits the factory, we learn that Schindler has employed 350 Jews at this point, and they are very profitable thanks to the war. Stern tells Schindler that one worker wishes to say thank you to him personally. Schindler accepts the thanks but afterwards questions to Stern why that man works here since he only has one arm. Stern insists that he's essential and him working here adds to success.
A snowstorm hits the area and the Jews are all ordered to shovel the streets so soldiers can traverse them. The one-armed Jew is pulled from shoveling duty by soldiers and despite pleading that he's essential and works in Schindler's factory, the soldiers shoot him dead, feeling he's unproductive. Schindler later goes to officials and feels he should be compensated for having lost a piece of his workforce.
There is a rounding-up of Jews to be sent to concentration camps. Schindler learns of this just as the train is leaving, and he finds that Stern is among them. Thanks to some veiled threats to German soldiers due to his status, Stern is salvaged from the trip just before the train leaves. The Jews are told that their luggage will follow them there separately. In reality, the luggage is all confiscated and things put into piles. Clothing is burned, jewelry is stolen, etc.
We meet Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). He is overseeing construction of a concentration camp in Plaszow. Jews from the ghetto are building it. One woman argues with German soldiers that the foundation needs to be rebuilt or else it will collapse. Goeth hears her out, orders her shot and then tells the soldiers to rebuild the foundation. In time, the camp is completed, and the ghetto is liquidated on March 13, 1943. This liquidation is nothing short of a massacre. Countless Jews are shot and killed as many others are herded out and towards the camp. Many Jews try to hide unsuccessfully and are murdered for their cause. Schindler witnesses the massacre from afar and it seems to trouble him, especially seeing one young girl in a red coat. [We see the red coat in color.]
At the Plaszow camp, Goeth sometimes randomly shoots Jews from his villa balcony just for the sport of it. The Jews try to live their daily lives as best as they can, but realize every day they are living in fear as well. Schindler visits the villa, continuing to schmooze with Goeth and other SS members, but he is angered that many of his workers are now either dead or living in this camp, which has caused his factory to shut down. He bribes Goeth into allowing Schindler to build a subcamp, where his workers can live when not working in his factory. Many of the Jews recruited are on Stern's recommendation, and oftentimes it's someone who has been threatened by the SS. In time, a woman visits Schindler's office. She is pretending not to be Jewish but once inside his office, she tells him she has fake papers and is here to try to get her parents hired by him since there is talk within the camp of Schindler's factory being a safe haven where no one is killed. Schindler is angered to hear this information and orders her to leave, threatening to expose her. He then confronts Stern, saying he is putting both of them at risk by having this "safe haven" talk start up within the camp. Stern tells him of how Goeth and others kill for sport, including the story of one man in a camp work detail who stole something, and the sentence was having that man watch as the SS killed 25 other innocent parties around him. Schindler digests this and orders for Stern to recruit some more Jews, including the parents of that woman who visited him with the fake papers.
Schindler pays another visit to Goeth's villa, including talking to his Jewish servant Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz). He asks her of Goeth's treatment of herself and other Jews in the camp. She tells him of horrible mistreatment and also says that she knows one day, Goeth will kill her as well. Schindler assures her Goeth will not kill her because he admires her too much, giving the fact that Goeth does not make her wear the Jewish star emblem as everyone else is forced to as an example. Schindler then chats with Goeth on the balcony. Goeth is drunk and they discuss power. Schindler tells Goeth that true power is not killing the Jews even when he feels he has every reason to. The next day, Goeth follows this advice, showing some leeway when Jews make mistakes or break the rules. This lasts not long, however. After saying he pardons one boy for a misdeed, Goeth looks at himself in the mirror for a moment, then decides to shoot the boy from the balcony.
Later that day, Goeth ponders his feelings towards Helen and goes down into the basement where she resides when not serving. He awkwardly hits on her, and she just stands silently in fear as he seems to express his feelings. However, just as it seems he's about to kiss her, he changes his mind and blames her for almost talking him into it, even though she said nothing. He then savagely beats her.
At a huge birthday party for Schindler at his factory, many eyebrows are raised when after being presented with a cake from a young Jewish girl, Schindler gives the girl a long kiss on the lips to thank her. Meanwhile, Goeth goes on a rampage at the camp, rounding up all the Jews to run around in a circle fully unclothed so the sick can be separated from the healthy as far as workers go. Those deemed unhealthy are all crammed into trains to be brought to an unknown fate. Meanwhile, all the children are rounded up separately and placed onto trucks. Many kids hide during this. Schindler arrives at the camp during this ordeal and half-jokingly asks Goeth why he wasn't told of this. Goeth plays it off. Schindler hears the Jews crammed into the train cars wail and requests that the train cars are hosed down so they can cool off. The soldiers laugh at this but indulge him. Goeth does so while staring at Schindler suspiciously.
Schindler is jailed for kissing the Jewish girl. Goeth learns of this and actually goes to bat for him, saying he simply got caught up in the moment and the girl was, admittedly, quite striking. Schindler is released with a warning from the German official. As Schindler walks outside, he notices ashes falling from the sky like snow. He checks on the source and finds that Goeth and others are leading a workforce of Jews, who are exhuming thousands of dead Jewish bodies that have been buried and incinerating them as ordered by superiors. Neither Goeth nor Schindler is thrilled with this order, and Goeth is also ordered to close down the Plaszow camp and ship its inhabitants to Auschwitz. Schindler notices the girl in the red coat is among the dead being brought to the incineration pile, and he asks Goeth to allow for him to build a new factory in his hometown of Brinnitz and bring the Jews with him to work there, making military supplies. Goeth initially balks at the offer but Schindler gives him a large bribe for it.
Given the OK for the new factory, Schindler and Stern put together the list. Schindler pretty much has Stern type up the names of every man, woman and child he can think of. When the list gets to over 400, Schindler still asks for more. 600. Still more. Finally, the list tops 1,000 and Schindler decides that will suffice. He has seen enough of what the Jews have suffered through, with that red-coated girl being the final straw. Stern is amazed to learn that Schindler actually is paying Goeth for this, and he realizes what Schindler's true motive is. It isn't profit anymore, it's saving lives.
Schindler brings the list to Goeth. One space is numbered but has no name. That is because Schindler wanted to personally ask Goeth for that one. He wants to hire Helen. Goeth refuses but in time decides to allow for it. Two trains send the Jews to Brinnlitz. The first one containing the men arrives, and Schindler is there to meet them at the station. The second train contains the women and children, but unfortunately due to a clerical error, that train arrives at Auschwitz. The women are forced to cut their hair short and then enter a large shower room for "decontamination". The women cower in fear as they enter the room, believing this is actually a gas chamber for mass murder. When the lights are turned off briefly, they all scream, but the lights then turn back on and indeed, water emerges from the overhead spouts. They all are relieved greatly, laughing and crying together.
Schindler visits Auschwitz to reclaim his workers and he is offered the next arriving trainload of workers instead. Schindler wants those he's already paid for. Aided by a bribe of a bag full of diamonds, he is allowed to get them back. The women and children arrive at Brinnlitz. At the new factory, Schindler forbids the SS guards to enter the production rooms and encourages the Jews to observe the Jewish Sabbath. Stern alerts Schindler that the factory will likely fail inspection as equipment is not working. Schindler subtly hints that he's rigged the machinery NOT to work, and this factory will never produce a working war part if he can help it. Schindler is actually spending much of his fortune bribing Nazi officials and buying shell casings from other companies to pass off as their own. This goes on for seven months until two things happen concurrently: Germany surrenders, ending the war. Also, Schindler's fortune is depleted.
Schindler allows the SS guards into the factory for the first time. The workers are also all gathered there. Schindler says the war is over, and since he himself is a member of the Nazi Party and he willfully profited from the war, he is now a wanted man and must flee. He tells the soldiers he understands that the final German command before the Russians come to liberate the country was for SS soldiers to exterminate all Jews. Schindler says here they are, and here you are, so go ahead if you want...or instead, the soldiers can return to their families as men and not murderers. The soldiers slowly all leave, killing no one.
He bids farewell to his workers and prepares to head west, planning to surrender to the Americans. Led by Stern, the workers give Schindler a signed statement attesting to his role in saving so many Jews from death. He is also given a ring engraved with a quote from the Talmud that says, "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire." Schindler is deeply moved but also deeply ashamed, saying he didn't do enough. He could have sold his car and saved 10 more Jews. He could have done this and that and this and that...finally, Schindler collapses weeping. Stern and others rush to embrace him.
The next morning, a Russian soldier arrives at the factory and tells the Jews they have all been liberated. He advises them to walk the short distance to the nearby town, so they do so. We learn that Goeth is later executed for his war crimes, and we also learn of events in Schindler's later life, including honors bestowed on him by Hebrew officials. A shot of the factory workers walking to the next town dissolves into a color shot of the actual remaining survivors of Schindler's List. The film closes with each actual survivor and the actor/actress who portrayed them in the movie visiting Schindler's grave and laying a stone on it in memorium. The line is very, very long for this. The film closes with Neeson laying two roses on the grave.
Liam Neeson was a relative unknown at the time, which is why Spielberg cast him as Schindler over others who had expressed interest in the role, such as Kevin Costner. Spielberg didn't want the star name to overshadow Schindler's name.....Ralph Fiennes was also a relative unknown, but wound up bearing quite a resemblance to the actual Goeth. When one actual survivor of the events saw Fiennes in costume for the first time, she nearly fainted.....The film contains a great deal of nudity and violence, and this created problems in the Philippines, where censors wanted several portions of the film removed. Spielberg objected and threatened to not allow the film to screen in the country, so Philippine President Fidel Ramos intervened and overrode the censors, allowing for the film to be shown in its intended form.....The subject matter caused Spielberg to get depressed by the end of each shooting day, so he would watch episodes of Seinfeld while editing another film he had been working on, a little thing called Jurassic Park. He would also speak frequently on the phone to Robin Williams.....A character called Leopold Pfefferberg places a stone on the grave at the film's end. The credits thank Leopold Page for his work as a contributing editor. These are both the same person. Poldek Pfefferberg changed his name to Page when moving to the United States. He was the survivor who inspired Keneally's book.....The liquidation scene only took up one page of the screenplay but Spielberg felt it was necessary to expand the actual events into 15 minutes of screen time to convey the magnitude of it.....Shooting the film primarily in black-and-white was to add a documentary-style feel to the film, but also to convey a sense of grim hopelessness in relation to the Holocaust.....Score composer John Williams felt Spielberg needed a "better composer" than he to deliver a score worth of this movie. Spielberg replied, "I know, but they're all dead!".....The final sequence with the actual survivors laying stones on the real Schindler's grave was conceived by Spielberg midway through filming. Producers scrambled to round up as many actual survivors as possible to take part.
I probably can't tell you much about the film's release and reception that you don't already know. The film was incredibly well-received everywhere, including in Germany. Box office was huge. Reviews raved. The film actually aired commercial-free when it made its network television debut in 1997. Legendary director Billy Wilder, who had lost relatives in the Holocaust, called the film absolute perfection. What little (VERY little) criticism exists of the film is really moot and not worth calling attention to. The film scored a massive 12 nominations from the AMPAS, and there was zero doubt that Schindler's List was taking home Best Picture and Best Director, which it did. It also won for Adapted Screenplay (Zaillian), Original Score (Williams), Film Editing (Michael Kahn), Cinematography (Janusz Kaminski) and Art/Set Direction (Ewa Braun, Allan Starski), a total of 7 Oscars. And yes, it's quite an eerie coincidence that the Polish-born art director's name is almost the same as Adolf Hitler's wife's name was. Its Best Picture win came over The Fugitive, In the Name of the Father, The Piano and The Remains of the Day. The film did not win Oscars for Lead Actor (Neeson), Supporting Actor (Fiennes), Costume Design (Anna B. Sheppard), Sound or Makeup. Be that as it may, Schindler's List is quite simply one of the most magnificent, amazing, emotional, poignant and important movies ever. Period. There are 87 films that have won Best Picture. Whether or not this is the "best" of them all is subjective, but simply put, if you only ever need to see one Best Picture, it needs to be this one.