Nazi Germany and World War II history has become a point historical interest for me in the past couple of years. I took the opportunity to visit the site of the Dachau concentration camp during a trip to Germany one year; it was a good experience, though not a particularly happy one. Such as been my reaction about movies set during the holocaust; good, but not happy. I actually heard about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) at the Dachau concentration camp, and wanted to see it after my harrowing and humbling experience there.
Eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) lives in prewar Germany with his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), his mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga), and his high ranking SS officer father Ralf (David Thewlis). They move from their affluent lifestyle and home to a spot out in the country where Bruno’s father is to take command of an adjacent prison camp. Bruno Is curious about what he believes to be a farm, where the farmers wear striped pajamas; his parents try to keep him away from what is actually the prison camp. But being the ever curious and bright-eyed child that he is, Bruno ventures out in the trees behind his house until he comes upon a barbed wire fence with a boy on the other side wearing the same striped pajamas he saw the “farmers” wearing. This Jewish boy in the striped pajamas is named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). Despite warnings to Bruno from his family other SS soldiers that frequent his house, Bruno and Shmuel become friends; neither one understanding that this is a prison camp for Jews awaiting extermination.
There are a lot of holocaust movies that have been made; it’s universally agreed that the Nazi’s inhumanity to man was a bad thing. It has almost become a cliché that Nazis are unquestionable villains; kind of the go-to organization when you need a pre-established group of reprobates that everyone already hates. They were used this way in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and in the upcoming movie Iron Sky (2012). In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the Nazi’s are certainly depicted in an unflattering light, but also shown that they are still human. They had families, they had hopes and dreams, and they wanted to live comfortably and safely. I think this was shown best through Bruno’s mother; while she was anti-Semitic, her primary concerns were her family and how the war might affect them. Even she was horror-stricken when she learned what her husband was doing to the Jews at the camp, and it put a serious strain on their marriage.
While this is a holocaust movie of sorts, it’s fairly unique. This is because it was Nazi Germany and the Holocaust seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy. Most young children do not understand political alignments, religious affiliations, or the idea of war. Bruno simply saw his father go to the office every morning and return in the evening; just like most children do. There were great political movements that Bruno witnessed, but couldn’t grasp how they might affect him personally. Shmuel told Bruno that he was in the camp because he was different, but even Shmuel didn’t understand why being Jewish was grounds for imprisonment. We, the viewers, know what certain events mean and their repercussions; but since everything is seen through a child’s eyes, the movie doesn’t always develop these events to be meaningful to Bruno. We see Bruno’s sister posting pictures of The Führer and newspaper clippings of Nazi victories on her wall. We see black smoke billowing from the dreaded crematorium. We see Nazi soldiers dragging Jews off screen to yell at them (or worse). Bruno sees all this, too, but has no concept of what it all means. It’s not as though the movie is trying to hide these things, but rather to look at them through the eyes of an innocent child.
Interestingly, all the actors in this movie speak with crisp British accents, not with German accents or subtitles. I think that overall it strongly represents the formality and business-like attitudes of the Nazis, which is the aspect of the war that Bruno sees. It’s all charts, plans, organization, numbers, promotions, and uniforms. It seemed odd at first, but I think it was more effective to present the Nazis this way, given the context and perspective of the film.
As you may suspect, as a holocaust film it has a tragic ending. It’s very sad and powerful, but the movie itself is good. It is not a watered down holocaust movie, but it is a less graphically intense one. I think this is a very important part of history that we should not allow to slip into obscurity. I worry these horrific events may not be communicated well enough to the younger generation. While dramatic and tragic, I think The Boy in the Striped Pajamas would be a good, safe movie to introduce the ideas of the holocaust and genocide to a younger audience (maybe 10-years and up), and be followed up with a discussion about the evils that transpired during World War II.