Monday, February 1, 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a 2008 British film based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Irish author John Boyne. It is in the genre of historical fiction and stars David Thewlis (of Harry Potter fame), Vera Farmiga (most recently seen in Up in the Air), and Asa Butterfield, the young British actor hired to portray the youthful innocence of the lead 8 year-old-character Bruno.
In some ways The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is similar to Rosenstrasse, the 2003 film, which also portrays elements of the Holocaust from a German perspective. However where these two films differ is that in Rosenstrasse, the main character Lena was a German woman married to a Jewish man who was taken into custody by the Nazi authorities. Also it was based on historical events.
Where Boy in the Striped Pajamas differs is that the only historical element to it, other than the holocaust, was the possibility that a German Commander might have housed his family near a concentration camp.
The problem with the movie is that it is incredibly unlikely any German youth especially of Bruno's age would not have been involved in the Hitler youth, especially if his father was a high ranking official in the German military. We just need to look at the history of Pope Benedict XVI to understand how many German youths fell under its sway. It is equally as unlikely that Bruno would not have known about the vicious, hateful propaganda used against the Jews, especially for a child of Berlin. And it is equally unlikely a child of 8 would be alive in a concentration camp or that Bruno would have been able to do what he did towards the end of the movie.
Thus, in many ways, it is an unfortunate and unrealistic portrayal. Yet I feel there is redeeming value to the movie because it is told through the eyes of a child. It is a movie today’s children can relate to in ways they might not otherwise be able to. With the daily passing of survivors, the next best way to keep their stories alive is through cinematic portrayals. Thankfully the movie industry is getting more involved with telling these stories from a multitude of perspectives. There has been a mass of movies coming out especially during the past twenty years, especially since the critical and commercial success of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List.
Just over the past couple of years movies have included not just the Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but also Defiance, the Reader, and the excellent PBS movie God on Trial. Not every movie about the Holocaust is great or even good. Not every movie is realistic. Yet what they do is keep the dialogue going when the voices of the eye witnesses are sadly leaving our very midst. So in this sense, it is very much worth it to keep watching. And every now and then, a great movie about such a difficult and troubling subject comes out in ways that helps us understand not just this tragedy, but also our own humanity.