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Schindler's List screenplay

The complete screenplay of Schindler's List with script notes.

The Script

Schindler's List Screenplay (PDF).

Script notes

Schindler's List is an exceptional film and a memorable, emotional journey. It manages this despite there being some real weaknesses in both the script and in Spielberg's interpretation of it. In many ways it is an example of a story so strong that it overcomes these difficulties.

Oskar Schindler is a man who wants wealth, in fact he defines himself by his business acumen, his contacts. He lives beyond his means, buying his way to influential friendships, but real success has always eluded him. With the outbreak of war, and especially the implementation of the early elements of the Holocaust he sees a way to make his fortune. As Jewish businesses are shut down, he can pick up a factory in Krakow in Poland for a modest investment and staff it with Jewish workers who have no choice but to labour for free. He must pay a fee to the SS for their services but the amount is pitiful. Even the low capital investment is beyond his means so he arranges to have Jews invest their money as silent partners, taking their profits in trade goods from the factory.

He undertakes a transformative journey, first exploiting his workers, then protecting them, finally buying them outright from a corrupt SS officer and brutal Nazi called Amon Goeth. Finally, at war's end, having saved many Jewish lives by spending his entire accumulated wealth as well as all the political favours he'd accrued, he flees the advancing Soviet army to evade prosecution as a war-profiteer.

Throughout the story we are confronted with two representative characters. Goeth represents the violent, abusive, corrupt, dogmatic evil of the holocaust. He is loudly proclaiming the anti-semitic propaganda of the NSDAP and Hitler, though their ruthless efficiency would not encourage his exploitation of the situation for personal financial gain. Itzhak Stern, Schindler's Jewish accountant and factory manager, is the representative of the Jewish people in the story, retaining a discordantly gentle humanity amid the horror. Schindler races between them, making deals, manipulating the relationship between Nazi and Jew, military and civilian.

When Schindler, Stern and Goeth are the focus of a scene the story is tight, powerful, emotional. There is much to admire in these scenes. Goeth is not a caricature, he's a deep and disturbing sociopath. Stern is not helpless, not a victim, but he knows he can only survive with help, navigating the tense relationship with Schindler carefully, always knowing death is just minutes away. These are impressive characters, deeply felt and superbly told.

The script, however, has failings as well. Against this taut, impressive, carefully rendered story the Holocaust has to form the compelling backdrop, it is the reason for this journey. Unfortunately, in a worthy attempt to explore a deeper analysis, the film often allows the slaughter to overcome the narrative. In trying to tell the story of the Holocaust itself, the script jumps alarmingly from mass scale scenes of carnage, often poorly explained, to small personal tales, often of characters whose names we never know, whose fates we never see. The Holocaust is an important subject but it is far too large to tell in a single film. Rapidly we cut from location to location. Even people who are already familiar with the history of the time may find themselves baffled by which event happens at Plaszow, which at Lipowa Street, which Ghetto is currently being destroyed. The opening moments make it clear that a Blauschein is important, but not why.

In the film, the threat posed by Auschwitz is ever present, but when is it explored that the most infamous of the death-camps is so close, geographically, to Krakow? Is it clear what Goeth's rank is? His position in the hierarchy? Where is Plaszow? Is it explained that it is just a few miles from the Lipowa Street factory?

Trying to tell the story of the Holocaust is too big a task. The script ends up at around 150 pages, the finished film runs to three hours and, even in such a stretched form, has to fit in no fewer than 264 scenes, leaving little more than thirty seconds for each, on average. The screenplay does have some differences from the finished film. Some moments are changed, extended, cut. In particular the final part of the film, set in present-day Israel, is entirely absent from the script. As that's the weakest component of the film, this is no bad thing.

The finished film, and the screenplay, both seem weighed down with duty and responsibility. It is as if removing any element from the tale would be a disservice to the original story. While this is a weakness and a writer should understand this, there is another message to take from this film.

No project of similar ambition has ever set out to recount one of the greatest human tragedies, one of the most monstrous crimes ever perpetrated. If it stumbles, hesitates, loses its way sometimes, we forgive it. It fails only through the best of intent, never treating the audience or the subject with contempt, never exploiting us. The horror unfolds unadorned. We are not manipulated into feeling the emotions we feel, those come not from camera tricks, not from editing, not from the director's craft. Those emotions are real because the horror is real. We could all have been there. Most of us would not have done as Schindler did. He is flawed, weak, human. He is magnificent.

"A lot of people who are in the movie business don't really know much about movies, and they certainly don't know movie history. You have to even find a code when you're talking to these people - you can't use the references that you would use when talking to somebody who knows movie history. When you go in to pitch something, it depends what you invoke. You can't invoke anything really before 1980 with these people because they don't know what you're talking about. It's limiting. They get annoyed. They get offended that you are somehow trying to expose the fact that they don't know things, and make them feel inadequate. Which is of course not the point, or why you do it. "

Joe Dante