Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Lists dominate the lives of the Kraków Jews in Schindler’s List. Early in the film, close-ups of name upon name being typed into the list of Jews registering in Kraków demonstrate the vast number of Jews forced into the city. But this first list only scratches the surface of danger and destruction. The lists become increasingly ominous during sorting exercises to determine who is fit to work or who is “essential” and who is not. Those deemed “unessential” are placed on the list to be evacuated to extermination camps. Stern’s name appears on a list sending him to Auschwitz. When Schindler saves him, an SS officer mentions that it doesn’t matter which Jew gets on the train, and that keeping track of names just means more paperwork. This disregard for names and particularity symbolizes the extent to which the Nazis dehumanized Jews. Schindler’s list is one that saves lives. The Nazis’ lists represent evil and death, but Schindler’s list represents pure good and life. In an ironic twist, the final list in the film is a list that Schindler’s workers give to him—a list of their signatures vouching for Schindler as a good man, to help him if Allied soldiers catch him. The saved in turn become saviors.
Trains were an integral logistical component of the Holocaust. Jews were loaded into actual cattle cars of freight trains, which carried them to death camps. In Schindler’s List, the first Jews arrive in Kraków by train and register as Jews on the platform. When Stern is rescued from a crowded train bound for Auschwitz, thousands of other Jews are visible on the train, packed into the cars like sardines. In one scene, Schindler implores Goeth to spray water into the cars on a hot day to help the dehydrated Jews inside. Goeth tells him that to do so would give false hope—a clear implication that the trains deliver Jews to their deaths. When the Schindlerjuden are transported to Schindler’s new factory in Czechoslovakia, the men travel in one train, the women in another. In this case, the trains signify hope and life, since they are taking their occupants to a safe haven. But the women’s train becomes a death train when it is diverted to Auschwitz, where Schindler’s intervention saves the women from extermination. The women board a train to safety, but as they depart, more trains arrive at the camp. The cycle of death seems never-ending.
Death and fear of death govern the lives of the Jews in Schindler’s List. Images of death pervade the film, usually in the form of executions, as people are shot in the head, often indiscriminately. This method of execution is used again and again. The one-armed man who thanks Schindler for employing him and making him “essential” is shot in the head by an SS officer as he shovels snow the next day. Blood flows from his head, staining the surrounding snow. In a later scene, Goeth orders the execution of a Jewish woman engineer who tells Goeth of a fatal construction error. Her blood, too, pours from her head and darkens the snow around her. The blood pouring from the victims’ heads is both literally and metaphorically the lifeblood being bled out of the Jewish race. In yet another scene, Goeth attempts to execute a rabbi working at the Plaszów labor camp. The rabbi stays kneeling as Goeth again and again attempts to shoot him in the head. But the gun jams, and the rabbi is spared, symbolizing the tenuous protection the Schindlerjuden had and the fine line between life and death.