Academic Writing

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

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On my way up to Boston to celebrate the first days of Passover with my family I finally got around to watching The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a movie I had received from Netflix a few months earlier. It had taken me a while to get around to watching it because I’m not often in the mood to curl up with a sad Holocaust movie. However, I thought as I traveled home to celebrate redemption from one of the darkest times in ancient Jewish History, a time which we are commanded to remember and relive to a certain extent each year, I thought it would be an appropriate time to remember a similar experience from modern times.

The film centers on Bruno (Asa Butterfield), the precocious young son of a German commandant whose family moves to the countryside so, as he is told, his father can be close to the front lines and continue to fight to keep their country safe. Bruno hates his new home. He’s bored and feels isolated from his friends and even alienated from his sister as she becomes more and more enthralled with the young Nazi soldier who guards her compound. The naturally curious Bruno sees what he calls a “farm” from his bedroom window and the budding explorer seeks out to meet the farmers who work there. He doesn’t understand why these farmers, whom he sees in person when they work in his house, are wearing pajamas. His confusion grows when he learns that one of them used to be a doctor – why would someone give up a career in medicine to be a farmer and peel potatoes, he asks his mother. His mother, played by Vera Farmiga, is also largely caught unawares of what was happening only a short distance from her new home.

One afternoon Bruno sneaks out of his home and ventures out to this farm to see what it’s all about. When he reaches his destination, at the barbed wired fence which borders the “farm” Bruno encounters Shmuel, a boy the same age as Bruno who sits alone, despondent. Bruno strikes up a conversation asking him about himself and why he wears pajamas all day and tells him how lucky he is to be able to play outside as long as he wants. As neither child truly understands what’s going on in their worlds, the naiveté shared between them is so genuine and honest and it shows how hatred is something learned by the older generation. They develop a close friendship and Bruno vows to help Shmuel find his father and Shmuel promises to help escape from his boring isolated new life.

Viewing the atrocities of The Holocaust through the eyes of a child is not a new narrative in this genre. What is interesting, however, is viewing it through the eyes of a non-Jewish child. Bruno asks his parents questions with utter bewilderment and innocence. The truth is, we ask the same questions 60 years later unable to comprehend how humans could do this to each other.

The film also takes a risk of having the viewer sympathize with a Nazi family. This is a risky endeavor – similar to the structure of The Reader – to describe the horrific plight of Jews in Eastern Europe during WWII through the lens of the perpetrator. Whereas The Reader took a defensive and almost apologetic stance against what the main character had done, this film, accomplishes just the opposite. The film does a good job keeping the suspenseful pace, leaving the audience unsure of how things well end. The one certainty is that something bad will happen and ultimately the tragedy that does occur at the end ofThe Boy in the Striped Pajamas uses the terror one family endures to highlight the utter nightmare that tens of millions of Jews endured as they watched their families being senselessly murdered at the hands of the Nazis. The twist, of course, is that the family through which the tragedy is experienced is led by a Nazi commander, the one who has committed so many crimes himself. This upheaval of the expected structure for sympathy is hard to reconcile yet makes a powerful comment as the viewer can hardly comprehend how unimaginable this one family’s pain must be, yet this was the reality for an entire nation. Even more so how much more horrific and long lasting those horrific events were.

I was deeply moved by this film, probably especially so given the context in which I watched it. Every year on Passover Jews around the world are instructed to remember, and never forget, the atrocities they suffered at the hands of the Egyptians and then the ultimate redemption at the hand of G-d. In modern times we realize that this is a pattern the Jewish people have faced time and again throughout history with the Holocaust being the latest iteration of that nightmare. In today’s world, Anti-Semitism has by no means disappeared despite the relative peace and freedom Jews enjoy today. It’s at times like these that we must remember both the ease in which the tides can turn and also how important it is to treat people of other religions and nationalities with the respect they deserve because we know how it feels to be on the other side of that spectrum. Furthermore, it’s important to remember, as we watch films about Nazi atrocities, about all the other atrocities that occur in the world and how people lose sight of the important things in life. The film is for the most part told through the eyes of a child, and in truth, we are all children struggling to understand how we can allow our world to devolve into senseless hatred of others just based on external and superficial differences.

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