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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

-- Ben Burrows

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is the story of the unlikely friendship between Bruno, the son of a Nazi concentration camp commandant, and an inmate child, Shmuel, whom he befriends in his loneliness.

Reactions to the movie have been varied. Manohla Dargis views it as a sympathetic view of Nazis caught up by patriotism and duty, only to see one of their own destroyed by his own willful blindness to mass murder. “See the Holocaust trivialized, glossed over, kitsched up, commercially exploited and hijacked for a tragedy about a Nazi family.” If we did not live in a time when such patriotism and duty had led to dire consequences in Britain, the United States, Iraq, and Afghanistan, I might be inclined to agree. The cries of Father and Mother (David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga) throughout our own country may not involve the death of our children; but there are many who have come to a sense of tragedy and remorse for supporting the false patriotism, the appeals to technological warfare, and the violations of human rights, which only some of us have protested.

The plot of the movie has the audience constantly questioning how the commandant Father, and housewife Mother, could be so caught up in their work, that they could not know their son was daily escaping his villa, to visit at the fence of the camp. We question as well how the prison guards could be so loose with their perimeter patrols, that the boys are never noticed at the fence, never interrupted except by distant calls for Shmuel (Jack Conlon) to return to the camp after work detail. Yet Bruno’s (Asa Butterfield) conflicted loves and loyalties are so sincere, that we are willing to believe in the parents’ blindness, and the camp’s indifference. Shmuel’s optimism and openness, in spite of his tragic condition, are so appealing, that we want this friendship to find a way through the war, despite our very real apprehensions of tragedy.

An additional conflict develops when the Mother observes the brutality of her husband’s treatment of those who work for her household. Mother first is grateful to Pavel, a camp inmate and prior physician, hired on as a kitchen servant to peel vegetables, for bandaging Bruno’s play injury, but Father cannot stand the fact that a Jew has touched his Aryan son.

Bruno’s friend Shmuel is “hired on” as a kitchen helper for a party at the Commandant’s house. When Bruno recognizes his friend, he invites Shmuel to join him in eating pastry, and when discovered, Bruno denies involvement. The family chauffer beats Shmuel and returns the boy to camp. Later, when this same chauffer is commanded at a family dinner to describe his politically involved father who left Germany as Hitler rose to power, the Commandant has his servant shipped to the Russian front. At the same time that Mother discovers what the camp is really about, Father is using subterfuge to his staff, with newsreels of happy inmates – singing, dancing, and playing together in orchestra performance. By the time of the film’s denouement, the Mother has resolved to move the children back to her parents in Berlin, but her efforts are too late for the movie’s tragic accidents.

It is worth contrasting this movie with the 2006 Pan’s Labyrinth, equally the story of a child in a controlled and controlling Franco fascist isolated setting, who in the absence of friends her own age first invents fantasy friends at a hidden cave on her new father’s estate.

As Ofelia floats virtually unnoticed through her home and its environs, she discovers that many of the servants – who show more care and attention to her than either of her parents are apparently capable - are caught up in anti-Franco resistance activities. When the inevitable conflict ensues, her father apparently kills Ofelia, driving her in her final vision into the fantasy world where she can finally exercise power and control over her environment. This final moment of fantasy lets the audience off the hook, perhaps allowing some to believe that Ofelia and her friends will survive, despite the heartlessness and persistence of Franco for the next forty years.

It is a mark of integrity for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas that the audience cannot exercise such ambiguity about its ultimate outcome – for by the time of its conclusion, both Bruno and Shmuel are wearing the same uniform: both are the boy in striped pajamas. Director Mark Herman does not hide the intent of the Nazis in Theresienstadt-like newsreels – showing happy camp inmates playing concerts, dancing and singing – to convince others of the Nazis’ good intentions toward their prison camp inmates. Instead, he uses those very newsreels to reinforce our horror in our own acquiescence to shared inhumanity.

As Jews, we are perhaps sensitive about softening German responsibility for the Holocaust. Yet, this movie does nothing to soften the horror of the gas chambers, by bringing home to Bruno’s father the full enormity that entails the consequences of his patriotism. If as critics or adults we find the illogical jumps of a child’s perception non-linear or unbelievable, that does not make our viewing of it kitsch, to understand those jumps in adult terms.

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