Oskar Schindler, war profiteer, womanizer, and Nazi Party member, becomes the unlikely hero and savior of about 1,100 Polish Jews during the Holocaust. He is essentially a con artist and moderately successful businessman who recognizes the potential for profit in wartime. He buys a formerly Jewish-owned enamelware factory and uses bribery and ingratiation to procure military contracts to make war supplies. At the beginning of his quest to become rich, he is indifferent to the Jewish situation, which he sees as merely an unfortunate result of war. A playboy with a large ego, Schindler routinely cheats on his wife and joins the Nazi Party not for ideological reasons but because it will help him make more money. Although he purchases the factory after it has been confiscated from Jewish owners and is given an apartment appropriated from wealthy Jews, Schindler feels no remorse and does not consider the origins of his good fortune.
Schindler, initially concerned only with himself and the success of his moneymaking scheme, undergoes a change that prompts him to spend his fortune to save the lives of those he once exploited. His motive is never completely clear—and indeed, the real Schindler never revealed his motivations. However, the film does suggest that at least one of his incentives was obvious: Schindler simply could not sit by and watch people he knew be sent to death. His metamorphosis from a man of indifference to one of compassion takes place gradually over a number of scenes. His respect for his Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern, probably has a great deal to do with his transformation, as does his witnessing of the Kraków ghetto evacuation, when he sees the little girl in the red coat. However, Schindler’s motivations may also be less altruistic: it is possible that his own ego and narcissism led him to be a savior. He initially reacts angrily to the idea that his factory is a haven, but perhaps became enamored of the idea of being a hero. The needs of his ego may, in some capacity, have surpassed his material needs. The film does not propagate such a harsh stance, but Schindler’s boorish behavior makes this speculation plausible. Nevertheless, whatever the results of an analysis of Schindler’s motivations, the good effects of his choices are undeniable.
Itzhak Stern, bright, proud, and determined, brings out the moral side of Schindler, and Stern’s attitude toward Schindler reflects Schindler’s change throughout the film. Stern recognizes immediately Schindler’s callousness and greed. Early on, he expresses disdain for Schindler and controlled outrage at his original offer to have Stern run the factory and secure Jewish investors. He refuses to drink with Schindler, making clear he does not approve of Schindler’s morals. But Stern’s attitude softens as Schindler becomes an active participant in saving the Schindlerjuden, and he eventually sees the good in his employer. He finally does have a drink with Schindler when the two say good-bye after they learn of the closing of the Plaszów labor camp and realize Stern will almost certainly be sent to his death. By accepting a drink, Stern demonstrates his respect for Schindler, and Schindler accepts the finality of Stern’s probable fate.
Stern, like Schindler, is an opportunist, and he is the brains behind the rescue of the Schindlerjuden. Stern is the one who discovers a way to channel his essentially forced labor for Schindler into a way to help his fellow Jews. Schindler does no work, leaving Stern to run the factory, and Stern immediately begins to give factory jobs to Jews who otherwise would be deemed “nonessential” and would most likely be killed. He forges documents to make teachers and intellectuals appear to be experienced machinists and factory workers. Stern’s motivation—to help his people—is abundantly clear. Ben Kingsley plays him as a proud man with a mission and a palpable desperation to help all those he can. These traits are absent from Schindler, the film’s protagonist and hero, until late in the film. Although Schindler ultimately makes the rescue possible by using his connections and monetary resources, Stern plays just as large a role by driving Schindler gently from behind the scenes. Stern sets the wheels in motion, making the factory a haven for the Kraków Jews before Schindler even notices what is occurring.
Sadistic and ruthless, Amon Goeth represents the evil of the Nazi Party. Goeth finds a sanctioned outlet for his cruelty in the Nazi military and is representative of the mindless evil of the Third Reich and its “final solution.” He views Jews as vermin, creatures unworthy of possessing basic human rights. He kills often and without hesitation or provocation. Unlike Schindler, Goeth never strays into goodness. However, the lack of change in his basic nature does not render him a one-dimensional character; Goeth is a complicated and conflicted man, as well. He lusts after his Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch, and actor Ralph Fiennes skillfully conveys both the strength and ambivalence of this passion. Goeth attempts to seduce Helen, and when she shows no reaction, he turns on her, blames her for trying to tempt him, calls her names, and beats her savagely. Later, when Schindler wants to buy Helen to put her on his list, Goeth refuses. He tells Schindler he will never let her go, that he wants to bring her back to Vienna and grow old with her. Schindler tells him it can never be, and Goeth, exhibiting his conflicting feelings, replies that he would never subject Helen to Auschwitz, but would shoot her in the head, “mercifully,” instead. Goeth’s twisted idea of a merciful end for Helen epitomizes both his inner conflict and essential cruelty.