Schindler's List Trailer Analysis

The Schindler’s List trailer, in just over two minutes, tells a story; it tells the story of a man who witnesses people suffering and takes it upon himself to relieve as much of that suffering as possible. How does it do this?

It opens with white text upon a black screen, which brings us into the aesthetic of the film and indicates that this will likely be a period piece. Mournful music tells us that this will be a sober story. Less than one second in, this trailer has already established a style and tone clearly communicates exactly what kind of movie we will be getting with Schindler’s List.

The first image is of smoke drifting across the screen as two figures look on from a distance—watching, witnessing, but not helping. Then an agitated crowd; one woman desperately flourishes a slip of paper. A soldier pushes someone back. Clothes are dumped over balconies. We’re fifteen seconds in at this point, and the audience has likely figured out that this is a story about the Holocaust. The black-and-white aesthetic, the imagery of people being (for lack of a better word) herded by soldiers, the indignation of the woman and the paper, the animalistic anonymity of possessions being dumped like so much’s all too familiar.

In case it wasn’t clear, though, a woman shrills: “Goodbye, Jews! Goodbye, Jews!” Her voice is so loud and so cutting, it pierces through the music like a wake-up call. There’s almost a sense that we have been lulled into a textbook-documentary complacency by the colorless footage and dreary music, and this moment shocks us back to reality by reminding us, like Schindler himself, that holy shit these are real people who are really suffering.

We then transition to a man standing silhouetted in a window, facing away from us, while another man sits at a desk beside him. This is shot that communicates power, wealth, and we can only assume that these men are somehow involved in orchestrating the suffering we have already seen. A Nazi officer gestures, appearing to give a command. Two soldiers haul a bedraggled person down a street. And then here, twenty-seven seconds in, we get our first shot of Oskar Schindler.

It’s a perfect piece of editing: the two soldiers move from right to left across the frame and forward towards the camera, and Schindler’s gaze mirrors this movement in the next shot, as if he were watching that moment happen and is appropriately horrified. This is essentially the end of the trailer’s first act—we have established the setting and the stakes, and our protagonist has become invested in the conflict at hand.

Soldiers search with flashlights. A young boy shakes in terror. Soldiers ascend a set of stairs and approach a doorway, weapons drawn, and we cut to people frantically hiding under the floorboards. Amidst a crowd of people shoveling snow, a man looks up, and we cut back to the stairway, where gunfire flashes. “If you choose to hide instead of letting yourself be put to work,” this sequence says, “you will be found and killed.” We see Schindler again, horrified.

People are forced onto trains. A door is latched. Schindler’s face is reflected in a pane of glass as he looks down on people who are working below him—he is clearly wealthy and powerful. But wait, haven’t we already seen wealthy and powerful men? Aren’t they the ones causing all this to happen? The dots begin to connect in the mind of the audience. Yes, this man is wealthy and powerful, but he is witnessing the events taking place and finds them disturbing. We see here the early movements of the character arc which he will undergo over the course of this trailer.

A handshake. “What am I doing?” a man’s expression seems to say. “Is this really the right decision?” We can surmise from this that an agreement or deal has taken place, and at least one party is less than confident in its wisdom. A young boy slides a finger across his neck as a train rolls past. A woman pulls a coat more tightly around herself. Cases are opened in an almost assembly-line fashion—these events are happening on an enormous scale—and belongings are dumped out.

Schindler speaks with a Nazi officer. People are put to work. Then the longest shot in the trailer a full six seconds): a man gently opens a woman’s jacket to reveal her hands, which are shaking violently, and she smiles desperately. His gaze lazily drifts down to her, as if he couldn’t be bothered to care. And boom, we’ve established our villain. Schindler lowers a cloth from in front of his mouth, more horrified than ever. The footage portrayed in the trailer has become more and more disturbing, ratcheting the tension, and Oskar’s reaction mirrors our own.

The trailer’s second act concludes with Jews being herded into a gas chamber while Schindler kisses a woman on the forehead. A young boy, up to his chest in waste, looks skyward. “Whoever saves one life…saves the world entire,” on-screen text reads. Letters are pounded out by a typewriter. Schindler bangs on the side of a train. A lightbulb is folded in a cloth and smashed underfoot, and two people kiss. We get our first title card. Schindler and another man walk together through a factory. Then, the trailer’s second bit of dialogue: “The list is life.”

A candle is lit. Images of Jews fade in, out, and Schindler appears to be lost in thought.

With almost no dialogue, we have already seen Oskar Schindler go through an arc in this trailer as he wakes up to the suffering of the Jewish people and commits himself to helping them. But why take this route? Why so much emotional movement for a piece of marketing? Not only does it communicate the basic premise of the film, but it invests us emotionally—we know what happened during the Holocaust, but we may not know the story of this specific person.

The trailer tells us that he becomes involved in this struggle and why he becomes involved, but what we don’t know is how he becomes involved, how successful he is (we know there is a conflict of magnitude, given that one person could not and did not save everyone during the Holocaust; what, then, is the value of a few lives in the midst of genocide?), and how he may suffer as a result. These questions drive us to see the movie. It’s an elegant piece of marketing.