Schindler's List opens with a close-up of hands lighting candles and the sound of a Hebrew prayer. One of the only color scenes in the film, it quickly fades to black and white and brings us to our setting for the majority of the film. It is 1939 at the outset of the German forced relocation of Polish Jews to the Krakow ghetto. During this period, an ethnic-German businessman from Moravia named Oskar Schindler arrives in Krakow with the intent to make money from the Jews' relocation. A member of the Nazi party, Schindler entertains and praises SS officials in charge of procurement in order to attain a factory of his own. He is given one that manufactures army mess kits.
Schindler is unsure of how to run such a business himself, and therefore approaches Itzhak Stern, an official at Krakow's Jewish Council who is familiar with business, the Jewish community, and the black market. Stern convinces several Jewish businessmen to loan Schindler the money to open the factory in return for a small share of the product. When the factory opens, Stern is responsible for finding workers. Workers are allowed out of the ghetto and are protected from being sent to concentration camps or being killed. Stern falsifies documents in order to ensure that as many Jews can be employed under Schindler as possible.
During the winter, construction on the new Plaszow concentration camp is completed. Amon Goeth, an SS officer in charge of Plaszow, arrives to see its completion. He orders the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, and families are rounded up and herded outside. Anyone who does not cooperate is shot immediately, as are those who are elderly or ill. The Jews are divided into groups based on who is able to work and who is not. Schindler watches the bloody liquidation with his mistress from the top of a hill and is deeply disturbed by what he sees. Despite his disgust, he makes sure to befriend Goeth in order to ask for the continuation of his factory and supply of workers. He bribes Goeth and is allowed to establish his own sub-camp. Goeth proves to be cruel and prone to random execution.
When Schindler receives word that Goeth must dismantle Plaszow and send the remaining Jews to Auschwitz, he at first intends to leave Poland with his money. However, when he finds himself unable to do so in good conscience, he convinces Goeth to let him purchase his workers back and establish a factory in his hometown in Moravia, away from the violence and mass extermination in Poland. Together, Schindler and Stern compose a long list of the workers that are to be sent to Schindler instead of to Auschwitz. The train with the men from the list arrives safely at Schindler's factory, but the one with the women is accidentally directed to Auschwitz. After receiving word of this, Schindler rushes into action to make sure the women are returned safely to Moravia. Meanwhile, the women's heads are shaved and they are sent to an enclosed chamber. Fearing it to be a gas chamber, they all scream in terror as the doors close. They are relieved to find, however, that it is simply a shower room. After bribing an SS officer, Schindler is able to reclaim his train of Jewish female workers and bring them to his factory.
At Schindler's factory, the workers are given hot soup and allowed to celebrate the Sabbath. The factory is meant to produce artillery shells, but Schindler ensures that they are all defective. He does not want his factory to ever produce a shell that can be fired. He asks his wife, who had left him for being unfaithful, to come live with him again. Schindler rapidly loses money and goes bankrupt just as Germany surrenders. He calls a meeting with his entire factory staff, as well as the Nazi soldiers assigned to him, and announces the surrender. He tells the soldiers to not shoot and instead return home as men, not murderers. They oblige. He then informs his Jewish workers that he must flee. As a member of the Nazi party and a "profiteer of slave labor," he is a war criminal. He tells his workers that they must now go and try to find their family members and friends.
That night, Schindler packs to leave with his wife. As he leaves the factory, he encounters his workers gathered outside. They present to him a gold ring made from a worker's gold dental bridge. It is engraved with the phrase, "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire." Schindler breaks down and cries that he could have saved many more lives had he only tried harder. Stern and the other workers surround him and hug him. After he leaves, the workers sleep outside of the factory gates. They are awoken in the morning by a Soviet officer who tells them that they are liberated, but does not provide any information about where they should go. They walk to a nearby town in search of food.
There are a few scenes that show post-war events, including one that features the execution of Amon Goeth. Titles run across the screen explaining the Schindlers' future. The film concludes in color and in the present. Actors escort their real-life counterparts in a procession past Schindler's grave. Each pair of people lays a stone on the grave to show their respect. At the end, Liam Neeson (whose face is not shown) lays a rose in the middle of the grave.