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
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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