Moral Diegesis in Schindler’s List (1993)

In this three-part series of articles, Dr. Huether explores the use, concepts, and meanings behind the use of musical and sonic underscoring in Holocaust film. The first part of this series explores the music composed by John Williams for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), which redefined Holocaust cinema for the mainstream and in cultural memory discourse.


As a match strikes its book and a flame ignites, a black screen is illuminated, and a male voice begins reciting the traditional Sabbath blessing. Aside from the match and the candle that it lights, the opening scene of Schindler’s List (1993) is primarily dominated by the sonic, that is, sound components are foregrounded, which arguably provides the foundation for the film’s moral agenda of depicting the story of Oskar Schindler. Steven Spielberg’s filmic adaptation of the real-life Oskar Schindler- a German businessman affiliated with the Nazi Party during WWII- was revolutionary in the way the Holocaust was depicted in popular culture and set a new precedent for what, and how, the Holocaust could be shown on screen. While much has been written on the moviethere has been little consideration of the musical score specifically. Upon extensive analysis, the sonic elements - the language use, diegetic and non-diegetic sound and music - curate a distinctive moral duality within the film. While this article is dedicated to an analysis of sound and music solely within Schindler’s List, the following articles in this series will examine the sonic components of more contemporary films such as Son of Saul (2015) and Jojo Rabbit (2019).

Scholar Joshua Hirsch has argued that Schindler’s List’s success was found, in part, to its use of “Reactionary Postmodernism.” or what Hirsch understands as Frederic Jameson’s notion of postmodernism “as a late capitalist phase in which the production of images and their attendant apparatus increasingly supplants the production of hard goods,” with the primary feature of ‘pastiche,’ or “the nostalgic and ahistorical quotation of dead styles, devoid of the critical energies of parody and satire.” The pastiche found within Schindler’s List was not limited to past Holocaust documentary forms - such as Night and Fog (1955/56) and Shoah (1985) - and included cinematographic techniques from notable Hollywood works such as Citizen Kane (1941) and The Godfather (1972). Specifically, Spielberg draws on film history and cites Night and Fog with Schindler’s List’s application of color and black/white scenes. Additionally, Spielberg has acknowledged that his conceptualization of the Schindler character was influenced in a general way by the character of Charles Foster Kane, “both larger than life figures who become rich, who contain both good and evil, and whose motivation is ambiguous.”

While the real Oskar Schindler is still considered to be a hero, Spielberg’s dramatics received both tremendous praise and stark criticism - particularly as Schindler’s List was one of the first theatrical depictions of the Holocaust and Nazi crimes. Viewed by more than 25 million Americans to date, it was applauded for its humanitarian aims, awarded seven academy awards - including ‘Best Music, Original Score’ by John Williams. Its success in American popular culture was mixed, receiving strong critique from the scholarly community, specifically for the overarching ethical concerns regarding any dramatization of the Holocaust. A central concern stemmed from the Holocaust’s ‘non-representation’, or image prohibition aesthetics. Yosefa Loshitzky described Spielberg’s work as a “penetration” of the gas chambers that violated “the ancient Jewish biblical prohibition against creating images as it had been unconsciously resurrected in the moral taboo on representing the Holocaust.” While the Hebrew Bible does not explicitly reference a ‘Holocaust,’ the “moral taboo” that Loshitzky refers to is common theme of non-representation in Jewish tradition that is often applied to the Holocaust. Schindler’s List was the first theatrical portrayal of the Holocaust to physically depict and venture inside the showers that were also used as gas chambers.

In turn, Schindler’s List has been a point of interest regarding the question of Holocaust memory and representation, particularly through the medium of film. Scholars from a wide range of disciplines have become concerned with how memory is constituted individually, in groups, and in national imaginaries. Schindler’s List was a central subject within memory studies, particularly for its themes of morality as a blatant either/or binary, a depiction that has been contested by some with a concern for the degree of historicity depicted. Along these themes, Michael Bernstein wrote that Schindler’s List confronts its viewers “not with the historical fact of Nazi genocide...but rather, the extent to which our own self-interests, not the mere spectacle of atrocity, dictate the limits of seeing.” Along these same lines, Ilan Avisar noted that “Spielberg does not display any of the restraints, hesitations, or stammers that have become characteristic of authentic artistic responses to the Holocaust...the film conveys no sense that the events were much worse, indeed unrepresentable, unimaginable, incomprehensible.” Spielberg’s lack of restrain is apparent, and further, his cinematic approach reinforces a stark perpetrator/victim moral binary. There is minimal possibility for an ‘in-between’ space or, as Bernstein refers to it, the ‘grey zone’:

So intent is Schindler’s List on its didactic simplifications that it can only show morality as always absolute and homogeneous. In the rarefied universe of the movie, there is no hint of the “grey zone” about which Primo Levi wrote with such lucidity, no awareness of the agonizing choices and ethically intolerable alternatives that Jews were compelled by their tormentors to confront moment by moment as part of staying alive in the camps. Desperate with hunger and fear or not, the Jews in Spielberg’s account have to continue to help one another at every turn and without exception, because, in a film whose representation of good and evil is so simplistic, only by being completely pure can they function as appropriate objects of our sympathy.

While the binary that Bernstein highlights is visually explicit, there are other aesthetic mediums employed in a congruent fashion that further establish the moral/immoral juxtaposition. John Williams’s score produces a stark contrast. There are two distinct sonic realms employed in film: the diegetic and non-diegetic. Diegetic defines any sound or musical component that takes place within the film world, while non-diegetic refers to anything “extra,” i.e. the musical score. Within Schindler’s List, the diegetic and non-diegetic operate as a sonic binary that reifies the good vs. evil dichotomy. The moralizing claims and the distinctive either/or, good/evil binary that Bernstein and other scholars criticize Schindler’s List for is drastically apparent when analyzing the scores function in tandem with the film’s other aesthetic mediums. The music provides little to no elucidation of character depth, no “second level of perception,” as it could be described. Klezmer lines and traditional Jewish and Yiddish folk songs define the non- diegetic which are associated with the good, the Jewish victims. The obvious diegetic sound predominantly accompanies any presentation of Nazism and evil - led by Obersturmführer Amon Goeth - manifested as WWII German propaganda music, self-indulgent tangos, and harsh German language that remains untranslated. Further, diegetic music is only coupled with the Nazis when it contributes further to the presentation of their immoral nature (such as the associated tango and drunkenly sung German lieder that will be discussed shortly). The actions of the Nazis are never with the non-diegetic – but are accompanied only with silence when their actions are enough to demonstrate their immorality.

There is one exception to the diegetic obviousness of the Nazi’s immorality and the non-diegetic used to conveys the victims’ suffering: that of Oskar Schindler. Schindler’s character is aligned with both the self-indulgent, diegetic music of the Nazi perpetrators, as well as the non-diegetic melodies of the Jewish victims. This coupling can be understood as an ethical statement, one suggesting that, while there is both good and evil in the world, the distinctions are not always so defined, and boundaries malleable.

Film Analysis

i. Diegetic—Introducing Oskar Schindler [0:4:25]

As scene 1 goes black, a solo violin enters, shortly joined by an accordion and clarinet. The melody sounds “klezmerish” from its instrumental make up - that of a violin, clarinet, and accordion - is actually the tango, “Por Una Cabeza” by Carlos Gardel. The sound and music of scene II is initially heard as non-diegetic; however, as soon as the scene comes into focus and presents a man preparing for a night out, the music is coming from a radio and is thus diegetic. While we do not yet know who the man is, we are informed of his affiliation with the Nazi party, as he pins his Nazi emblem to his shirt collar before the scene transitions once again to a fancy club, and “Por Una Cabeza” continues to be diegetic as the club’s performing musical group is depicted and heard playing it. The viewers now see the man’s full features, but we remain unaware of his identity. The scene proceeds to show the man socializing and making business deals with who appear to be SS officials, sending fine wine and placing himself at the center of attention. While this is the first usage of a tango in the film, tangos are used throughout in association with the frivolous and over-indulgent Nazi parties. This frivolity is one of two negative depictions of the Nazi immorality, the other their subconscious ability to murder. Oskar Schindler’s introduction has two other diegetic pieces that further support the Nazi agenda and immorality. The first takes place at [0:8:38] with women dancing to “Im Grunewald ist Holzauktion,” as the men at the party drunkenly sing along and cat calling. “Im Grunewald ist Holzauktion” (Im Grunewald, Im Grunewald ist Holzauktion) was written in 1892 by Franz Meißner and was commonly played on the radio during period of the Nazi Party’s activity.

There is nothing implicitly immoral about the song itself, yet the way in which it is employed is via the action that it accompanies it, and what provides an immoral element: the drunken nature of the men and the dancing women catering to their tendencies. Following “Im Grunewald ist Holzauktion,” the diegetic music transitions back to a tango as the viewers are again given insight into the unidentified man’s socializing and business deals. There is some conversation alluding to the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’, such as one man’s comment that the Jews will not be able to “weather the storm this time, this storm is different, it’s not the Romans, it’s the SS,” [0:9:54]. The unidentified man from before becomes  the center of attention, ordering wine for the table, posing in every couple and group’s photos in the middle. Finally, an onlooker asks his server, [0:10:32] “Martin, who is that man?” “That? That’s Oskar Schindler!” With the introduction of Schindler, the partiers begin to drunkenly sing another German Lied, or rather Lieds. While the musical line is that of “Mein Vater war ein Wandersmann,” the text is that of “Wem Gott will rechte gunst erweisen.” This combination nods towards duplicitous, un-caring attitude, but also a potential for change.

With the employment of the text from “Wem Gott” and music from “Mein Vater,” concurrently with Schindler’s introduction, Spielberg and Williams set up Schindler as “God’s presenter of miracles,” as the lyrics suggest. The application of “Wem Gott” cannot be a mere coincidence, perhaps an indication towards what is to come: Schindler’s moral transformation and his saving of 1,200 Jewish lives.

Every instance of music within Schindler’s introduction is diegetic, positioning Schindler as just one more of the immoral Nazi perpetrators.

ii. Non-Diegetic: The Red Coat, “Oyfn pripetshik” [1:08:10]

Following the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, the scene depicts a young boy—Adam—leading a young girl and her mother - Danka and Mrs. Dresner - to the ‘good line’ - in contrast to the line that lead to death - the scene returns to Schindler and his girlfriend as they look down on the horrific liquidation. Schindler watches as the SS loot the Jewish homes and their belongings, accompanied by sporadic gunshots. His attention is drawn toward a young girl who, amid the chaos, wanders the streets wearing a bright red coat. The obviousness of the red coat is impossible to miss, as the rest of the scene remains in black and white. In tandem with the sighting of the young girl, [1:09:15] a non-diegetic children’s choir begins to sing the Yiddish “Oyfn pripetshik,” which was written by Markovich Warshawsky (1848 – 1907) and traditionally taught to Jewish children as they learn the alphabet.

Original Yiddish

Oyfn pripetshik brent a fayerl,
Un in shtub iz heys,
Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh,
Dem alef-beys.

Zet zhe kinderlekh, gedenkt zhe, tayere,
Vos ir lernt do;
Zogt zhe nokh a mol un take nokh a mol:
Komets-alef: o!

Lernt, kinder, mit groys kheyshek,
Azoy zog ikh aykh on;
Ver s’vet gikher fun aykh kenen ivre –
Der bakumt a fon.

Lernt, kinder, hot nit moyre,
Yeder onheyb iz shver;
Gliklekh der vos hot gelernt toyre,
Tsi darf der mentsh nokh mer?

Ir vet, kinder, elter vern,
Vet ir aleyn farshteyn,
Vifl in di oysyes lign trern,
Un vi fil geveyn

Az ir vet, kinder, dem goles shlepn,
Oysgemutshet zayn,
Zolt ir fun di oysyes koyekh shepn,
Kukt in zey arayn!

English Translation by Translation by Professor David Shneer, University of Colorado—Boulder, December 5, 2019

On the stove, a fire burns,
And in the house it is warm.
And the rabbi is teaching little children,
The alphabet.

See, children, remember, dear ones,
What you learn here;
Repeat and repeat yet again,
“Komets-alef: o!”

Learn, children, with great enthusiasm.
So I instruct you;
He among you who learns Hebrew pronunciation faster
He will receive a flag.

Learn children, don’t be afraid,
Every beginning is hard;
Lucky is the one has learned Torah,
What more does a person need?

When you grow older, children,
You will understand by yourselves,
How many tears lie in these letters,
And how much lament

When you, children, will bear the Exile,
And will be exhausted,
May you derive strength from these letters,
Look in at them!

The non-diegetic incorporation of “Oyfn pripetshik” accompanies Mrs. Dresner’s earlier blessing for Adam, “you are no longer a boy,” but also holds larger implications. The lines “when you, children, will bear the Exile, and will be exhausted, may you have strength from these letters,” serve as commentary of the contemporaneous circumstances and the suffering they have and will continue to endure, and, in turn, an association to all the previous exiles in Jewish and Israelite history. As a song that already serves as a form of remembrance for prior Jewish suffering, the non-diegetic employment of “Oyfn pripetshik” in the film supports the good/evil, victim/perpetrator binary. “Oyfn pripetshik” emphasizes the portrayal of the Jewish victims and the suffering of the Holocaust and throughout their history. Further, its non-diegetic nature stands for the lack of control that the Jewish people had over their situations, as diegetic sound requires some form of character action (whether it be the turning on of a radio or the actual singing or playing of a piece of music). Non-diegetic sound is entirely separate from any action, implying that the Jews had no control and that the Nazis and their diegetic accompaniment had all the control.

iii. Diegetic—Final Search of the Ghetto [1:10:00]

As both the echo of “Oyfn pripetshik” and the day’s light fades, a non-diegetic accompaniment aids in the transition from the ghetto’s initial liquidation to the SS Officer’s return, to the final search of the Jews who had hidden which occurs during the night. A solo clarinet emanating a klezmer line accompanies the scene as we see SS officers using a stethoscope to detect those in hiding. Moments later, we are provided with a series of shots depicting Jews as they emerge from their hiding places, beginning with a man crawling out of an upright piano. SS officers overturn a bed to find a hiding Jewish man strapped underneath, only to turn around and find multiple Jews standing behind them. At [1:11:56] the man crawling out from the piano slams on the keys, abruptly ending the clarinet line and triggering the SS officers’ search. Immediately following the man’s fall onto the piano, SS officers run up the stairs and rapid machine gun firing begins. The scene shifts, and a frantic piano piece begins concurrently with the SS officer’s open fire on the remaining Jews of the ghetto in hiding. What initially seems an ill-fitting and nauseating non-diegetic piano accompaniment to the rapid gun fire immediately becomes established as diegetic as the scene moves to depict an SS officer playing the piece on one of the ghetto’s abandoned pianos.

The scene transitions from the piano to depict two observing officers in the doorway. One states, with laughter, to the other, “was ist das, ist das Bach?” He is answered by his partner, who responds, “Nein, das ist Mozart.” However, it was not Mozart but J.S. Bach’s English Suite No. 2 in A minor, BWV 807: III. Courante. One could be forgiven for the confusion of the two composers, yet, the context of the piece’s performance coupled with the SS officers’ conversation about it indicates a different reading, one indicative of the Nazi party’s nationalistic agenda. Both Mozart and Bach were considered among the composers who reflected the essential “Germanness” of arts and music and reflected a nature of purity in the form of “high art.” Further, the usage of the Bach’s Courante in tandem with the Nazi’s rapid gunfire and murder of the remaining Jews suggests that the German nationalistic expression held no differentiation between the beautiful, subliminal quality of Bach and Mozart’s music. This implies that to be German was as much about holding an appreciation for the great German composers (Wagner, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, etc.) as it was to murder millions of Jews. The diegetic employment of Bach’s Courante serves as another example in demonstrating immoral Nazi evil that Spielberg and Williams intended to portray.

iv. Non-Diegetic—“Whoever Saves One Life, Saves the World Entire” [2:52:45]

Preceding Schindler’s departure is the announcement of the war’s end, followed by Schindler addressing his workers, informing them that they were about to be liberated and that he must leave them, stating, “I am a member of the Nazi Party. I am a criminal” [2:52:45]. Schindler states that he must flee and go into hiding, in turn informing the SS Officers at his factory that if they left now, they would not be harmed. The scene proceeds with the SS officers leaving, transitioning to several Jewish workers making what seems to be a gift for Schindler. As Schindler and his wife are preparing to flee the factory, Itzhak Stern—Schindler’s Jewish accountant—presents him with a letter signed by all of the workers explaining what Schindler had done for the 1,200 Jews he had saved. In addition to the letter, Stern presents Schindler with a ring engraved in Hebrew with a quote from the Talmud, “whoever saves one life, saves the world entire” [2:57:55]. Upon receiving his gift, Schindler breaks down and the non-diegetic theme once again returns, this time as a solo violin. Schindler is seen grappling with the reality of how many lives he was unable to save, stating over and over, “I could have gotten more.”

Again, the non-diegetic employment of the theme signifies the survival of those Jews that Schindler saved, as well as the culmination of Schindler’s moral transformation. This is the first time in the film that Schindler visually grapples with the immorality of the Nazi party, represented in his assessment of his Nazi pin and its value, thinking he could have sold the gold and saved one more life. Schindler is ashamed of the Nazi party and his affiliation, and does not see those he saved – only those he could not.


Schindler’s List’s depiction of a moral binary as reified through its use of non-diegetic and diegetic music functions as a statement of action and agency. Like the action required to evoke a diegetic sound, action and agency was required of the Nazi party to enact their inhumane deeds as part of the ‘Final Solution’. In turn, non-diegetic music/sound requires no action, it holds no agency, just as the Jewish victims of the Holocaust lost control of their lives. Further, regarding the association of both methods to Schindler’s character, it implies that the agency required of the diegetic must be accompanied with a degree of empathy for the two to merge.

The musical and sonic accompaniment of Schindler’s List impact our contemporary understanding of the Holocaust and its memory far more expansively than just viewing the film. The iconic solo violin theme has taken on a life of its own—finding its way into the standard of violin solo music, professional figure skating competitions, top 50 film score playlists, and more. Such penetration into contemporary culture reflects a sort of “normalization” of the Holocaust. As scholar Gavriel Rosenfeld refers to it, the “normalization” is the replacement of difference with similarity. This process is key when approaching each film within this 3-part article series, ultimately asking us to question our consumption of Holocaust memory as popular media.

Dr. Kathryn Agnes Huether


Ilan Avisar, “Holocaust Movies and the Politics of Collective Memory,” in Thinking about the Holocaust After a Half Century, ed. Alvin Rosenfeld (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997), 50-51.

Michael André Bernstein, “The Schindler’s List Effect,” American Scholar 63, no. 3 (Summer 1994): 430.

Joshua Hirsch, After Image: Film, Trauma, and the Holocaust (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2004), 144-145.

Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983), 125.

Yosefa Loshitzky, Spielberg’s Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler’s List (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000), 111.

See Lynn Rapaport, “Hollywood’s Holocaust: Schindler’s List and the Construction of Memory,” Film and History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 32, no. 1 (2002): 55.

Gavriel Rosenfeld, Hi Hietler!: How the Nazi Past is Becoming Normalized in Popular Culture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 7.

Ruth Rubin, Voices of the Peple: The Story of Yiddish Folk Song (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000).


Notes on Aniconism orBilderverbot, the concept of a second level of perception, Klezmer, exile, and "whoever saves a life".

Aniconism or Bilderverbot—positions the Holocaust’s non-representation alongside longstanding Jewish tradition. See Karyn Ball, “For and Against the Bilderverbot: The Rhetoric of “Unrepresentability,” and Remediated “Authenticity” in the German reception of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List,” in Visualizing the Holocaust: Documents, Aesthetics, Memory, ed. David Bathrick, Brad Prager, and Michael David (Rochester, NY: Camden House Publishing, 2008): 162-194. Ball’s understanding of Bilderverbot is grounded in Theodor Adorno’s conceptualization of the term. Additionally, the Tanakh presents many instances in which forms of idolatry are condemned, particularly in relation to the third commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below.” While the commandment was initially only in reference to graven images of G-D, this practice has been adapted as a way of grappling with the unimaginability of the Holocaust. For the specific biblical reference, see “Exodus 20: 1-10,” in The Jewish Studies Bible, ed. Adeler Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014).

I understand the concept of “second level of perception” as described by Alain Resnais in relation to his work with Hanns Eisler on Night and Fog (1955/56), stating: “I learned a great deal from Eisler about my own profession and about music in film, particularly on how to work on a scene with a musician. Above all, he showed me how to avoid redundant music. Even though it is something you are fundamentally aware of, he nevertheless, taught me how to apply it to the music in order to create something like a ‘second level of perception,’ something additional with an opposite meaning. For instance, you can completely simplify the music during a very dramatic scene and, vice versa, greatly elaborate it when the eyes are no longer completely engaged. This way you can create a harmony by which the viewer can find a balance between seeing and hearing. I believe my preference for this comes from Eisler. He pushed me in the right direction, so to speak, and elucidated these concepts.” See Alain Resnais, “Entretient Clarté 33,” reprinted in L’avant-scéne du Cinéma 61/62, no. 50 (1966): 60.

While Klezmer is typically associated with musical practices of eastern European Jews, the concept of ‘klezmer’ is distinctly American, described by Mark Slobin as “a generic term for secular instrumental entertainment music o the Jewish-Americans (from the Yiddish word klezmorim, professional folk instrumental musicians.” Slobin’s characterization of klezmer as a Jewish-American phenomenon highlights the importance of the klezmer renewal movement after World War II, a development that primarily involved Jewish immigrants within the United States. The musical motifs understood as “klezmer” today are actually the product of a multi-cultural amalgamation stemming from the music associated with groups such as eastern European Jews and Romani, Turks, and Poles. See Mark Slobin, “Klezmer Music: An American Ethnic Genre,” Yearbook for Traditional Music 16 (1984): 34-35 and Moshe Beregovski, “Yiddishe instrumentale folkmuzik,” in Mark Slobin, ed., Old Jewish Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 34-35.

There are a series of stories in the Hebrew Bible that could be taken as Exiles for the Israelites and Jewish people. For example, there is the exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23-24), the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their followed years of wandering (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile (Jeremiah), and the destruction of the Second Temple (occurred after the canonization of the Hebrew Bible in 70 CE). See The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Berlin and Brettler.

From the Talmud, Book of Jewish Law, “Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9,” “whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” See Rabbi Nosson Scherman, Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud (Jerusalem, Israel: Mesorah, 1997).

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