Hollywood is not known for its accurate depictions of historical events. “Schindler’s List” is no exception. Only someone with a twisted worldview or some sort of mental disability would expect a Hollywood production to be faithful to events as they occurred. Thus, we do not expect Spielberg to deal with questions such as whether or not Schindler was working as a Zionist agent. Likewise, we do not expect Spielberg to introduce any ambiguities into his examination of Schindler’s character by dwelling on his postwar behavior, including the shabby way he treated his wife. Avoiding issues such as these make it easier to tell the story, but they do nothing to enhance the film’s historical accuracy.
“Schindler’s List” the movie is based on Thomas Keneally’s book of the same name, which is clearly presented as a work of fiction, and indexed by the Library of Congress as such. From this novel, writer Steven Zaillian created the screenplay from which Spielberg shot the movie — which we are now told is virtually a documentary of what actually happened. To its credit, Universal Pictures goes no farther than advertising the film as “based on a true story.”
This is correct, up to a point. There really was an Oskar Schindler who was married to a woman named Emilie. There was also an Amon Goeth, a factory by the name of Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik, and a camp by the name of Plaszow. Most everything else is made up, or altered to fit the needs of the story. One good example is that whereas the film’s Schindler is penniless at the end of the war, in reality, he had piles of money when he went into hiding.
Regardless of whether “Schindler’s List” is fact or fiction, there are a number of scenes that cannot be explained, and indeed, Spielberg makes little effort to do so. During the relocation of the Jews to the Krakow ghetto, for example, Spielberg introduces a bag of gold-inlaid teeth into the area where the luggage and belongings are being sorted. How and why this collection found its way to the heart of the city is a mystery unless we are to believe that one of the Jews had it in his luggage, but that is clearly not what Spielberg intended to imply. Later, at the Plaszow camp, Spielberg shows a pile of burning corpses so large that a conveyor belt is required to add new bodies to the top, the implication being that bodies burn like cordwood, which of course they do not. Also at Plaszow, a team of German doctors, their white coats accessorized with stethoscopes, conduct a “selection” to see who is healthy enough to live and who is to die, only they are so incompetent that they did not know to keep the healthy inmates and “select” the unhealthy. After such scenes, Spielberg demolishes any remaining pretensions he had to technical accuracy by depicting a crematory chimney at Auschwitz spewing smoke and flame, which crematories are specially constructed not to do.
Spielberg also blurs the line between fact and fiction by referring to factual matters in a fictional way. For example, he has Stern use the phrase “special treatment” as if it could only mean “death,” even though Schindler has previously used the word in a completely benign context. Lice and typhus are also mentioned as if they were minor inconveniences and not the life-threatening scourge they are.