The film opens with a close-up shot of a pair of hands lighting a candle for the Sabbath. The sound of a Hebrew prayer can be heard in the background. The scene is in color, but it is short, and fades out with the smoke from the candles. The candle smoke becomes steam from a steam engine, and the film is now black and white. A single Jewish family registers at a folding table. As the scene continues, it shows the vast number of Jews arriving in Krakow, Poland to register.
We cut to a shot of Oskar Schindler pouring himself a drink and deciding upon a suit jacket and cufflinks. He attaches a Nazi Party pin to his lapel and grabs several large wads of bills. We do not see his face. The camera focuses on the back of his head as he enters a nightclub, and a handheld camera follows him as he approaches a server, bribes him, and is seated at a good table. We finally see the face of Oskar Schindler after he is seated. He appraises the scene and notices several Nazi officials. Schindler buys the men drinks in an attempt to ingratiate himself with them. By the end of the evening, Schindler is seated with an entire table of officials and dancers. He buys them food and drinks and takes photographs with every man of note seated at the table.
The scene then cuts to daytime. Schindler is approaching the Judenrat, the Jewish Council that carries out Nazi orders. He pushes through the lines to the top floor where he asks for Itzhak Stern, an accountant. He explains to Stern that he needs Jews to invest in his new enamelware factory. Because Jews by law cannot own a business, Schindler explains that he will pay them in product instead of money. He also asks Stern to run the business. The men sit in silence for several moments and the shot/counter shot technique is used to emphasize the tense quiet between the two men. Stern refuses the offer, explaining that Jewish businessmen will not want to invest. Schindler, however, refuses to give up. He enters a church where Jewish smugglers conduct business and meets Poldek Pfefferberg, whom he convinces to provide luxury items for the upcoming months.
The scene then cuts to a shot of a bridge packed with Jews carrying their items to the ghetto, where they will now be forced to live. It is March 20, 1941, the last day for Jews to enter the ghetto. A little girl stands on the side of the street yelling "Goodbye Jews!" The scene cuts to Schindler settling into his new luxurious apartment, one just evacuated by the wealthy Nussbaum family. Pfefferberg enters the ghetto and is greeted by his friend Marcel Goldberg, who is working as a Jewish policeman in the ghetto. After the Jews have been given their housing assignments, Stern brings several businessmen to Schindler's car. Schindler is able to convince them to invest and the factory opens.
The camera cuts to a shot of Stern standing in the center of a circle. He explains to the Jews encircling him that employment at Schindler's factory would mean a way of getting out of the ghetto to procure necessary items. Pfefferberg explains that one must be deemed an essential worker before he or she is allowed employment at the factory. Stern tells a woman that her card is no good, and that he will get her one that will allow her to work under Schindler. The camera pans the long lines. Stern realizes he can use Schindler's factory to help some of the people he knows. He begins forging documents to allow more Jews to qualify as essential workers. Stern then accompanies the people for whom he has forged documents to the registration desk and explains that they are skilled metalworkers.
Meanwhile, Schindler's wife, Emilie Schindler, arrives in Krakow while Schindler is with his mistress. She does not say anything, however. The scene cuts to the couple leaving Schindler's apartment. Mrs. Schindler is taken aback when the doorman seems unaware of her existence. She accompanies Schindler to a nightclub and he explains the incredible number of workers he has on his staff. The couple dances, but Schindler eyes another woman. The next morning, the couple is in bed together and Mrs. Schindler asks Schindler if he would like her to stay. When he does not respond, she leaves.
Back in Schindler's office, Stern brings a Jewish worker to him who has been begging to speak with Schindler. The man is old and has only one arm. He thanks Schindler repeatedly for saving him and making him an essential worker. Afterward, as Stern escorts Schindler to his car, Schindler angrily asks Stern what the man's use is.
The scene cuts to lines of Jews exiting Schindler's factory. The camera focuses on the one-armed man who is singing gaily with a young girl. As the group trudges through high snow banks, the officers decide to make them stop and shovel snow. The camera cuts to the man with one arm struggling to shovel. The SS pull him aside, despite his protests at being a worker for Oskar Schindler. Chaja Dresner tells her daughter Danka to look at the snow as the SS carry the man to the side and shoot him in the head. The camera cuts to Schindler in an office, fuming about losing a day of work and losing a worker.
The first part of the film aims to establish Schindler as a greedy, self-centered character who is out of touch and unaware of the true horror of the Jews' position. It uses the movement to the ghetto and the murder of the one-armed man as a contrast to Schindler's luxurious lifestyle.
The opening scene of the film is one of the few instances of color in Schindler's List. The color in this scene draws a stark contrast with the cold black and white of the following one. The prayer and candlelight are ominous, setting a dark tone from the outset of the film. The black and white of the following scene is used to increase the documentary feel of the film. It separates the film from the color scene at the opening and pushes it back in time.
The smoke from the candles fades to steam from a train, directly linking Jewish tradition to train travel. This is significant because, throughout World War II, the Nazi's primary mode for transporting Jews to concentration camps was via train. By the numbers of Jews arriving in Krakow to register, Spielberg indicates the vastness of the Holocaust. This vastness is not explored throughout the rest of the film. Instead, by showing it at the opening, Spielberg tells his viewers that the story they are about to view is only one small part of something much larger.
As Schindler dresses himself before the nightclub to the tune of popular music, the camera's intent focus on the act of dressing indicates the vanity of the character to whom the clothes belong. When Schindler arrives in the nightclub, a handheld camera follows him to his table. In 1993, a scene like this one would have normally required the use of a steadicam. However, Spielberg wished to create an intimate, realistic feel and thus eschewed a steadicam in favor of handheld cameras.
Schindler's actions in the nightclub indicate his desire to network with powerful Nazi officials as well as his charm and charisma. He immediately comes across as a man who gets what he wants. His interactions with the dancers belie his womanizing tendencies. He appears as a fun but morally unsound character.
Stern's dislike for Schindler is clear in their conversation. He appears unhappy to be pulled away from his work and skeptical of Schindler's proposition. Stern is intellectual and composed; he refuses to take a drink from Schindler (a routine that will continue throughout the entirety of the film). Schindler comes across as tacky and out of touch. His leather jacket squeaks. He assigns only the job of providing "panache" to himself, and fails to understand what other problems Jews may be concerned with at the present moment. Schindler's interaction with Pfefferberg in the church follows suit. Instead of explaining to Pferfferberg the benefits of working for him, he smiles charmingly and asks to purchase nice shirts. To Schindler, it is still about the panache and the product.
Schindler's happy settlement into the apartment out of which the Nussbaums have been evicted again indicates his greed and self-centered nature. While the Nussbaums move into a small room with another family, Schindler sprawls across their bed. The shouts of "Goodbye Jews!" ring through Schindler's office, but he deliberately ignores them and goes on with his work. The cut to Marcel Goldberg as a Jewish policeman serves to compare him to Schindler. Like Schindler, he is greedy and self-centered. Unlike Schindler, he is Jewish and thus cannot patrol a factory or office, but instead must remain in the ghetto.
Schindler's evening with his wife serves to further highlight his moral depravities. His wife arrives while a mistress is with him; he eyes another woman while dancing with his wife. Ultimately, his wife leaves Poland because he is too self-centered to act as a good husband to her.
Meanwhile, the story of the one-armed man serves to elucidate Schindler's initial lack of awareness of Stern's actions. Schindler is shocked and angered after the man comes to thank him for saving his life. He yells at Stern, questioning the man's use. He begins to realize the manner in which Stern is taking advantage of his position. The viewer first sees the moral side of Schindler's personality after the man is shot. Despite his initial anger with Stern for employing a one-armed man, he feels bad that the man is shot. He yells at the commander for killing one of his essential employees, not because he knew the man to actually do good work, but because he met him personally.