This is a Holocaust movie of a different approach. It tells the story of the loss of innocence through the eyes of a young German boy, the son of an SS officer. The family moves into the woods just barely out of sight of the concentration camp that the father is in charge of. But father avoids telling his family what he is really doing, presumably from shame. The little boy, Bruno spies the work camp from his bedroom window and assumes it is a farm where everyone wears striped pajamas. He sneaks his way over there and befriends a young Jewish boy in the camp and spends time with him talking and playing games through the electrified fence. Bruno never quite figures out what is going on, but his grandma knows, and his mother soon finds out, and summarily falls into depression and angry resentment of her husband. But the film does not fall into stereotypes of females being against the Nazi vision and males being warmongers, as the boy Bruno never comprehends the darkness – his innocence protecting him – yet his older sister embraces it and becomes a Hitler Youth in her affections. We see Bruno’s confusion over the treatment of Jewish servants as subhuman, and in that comparison lies the film’s critique of cultures of death that always need to redefine those they wish to dispose of as less than human in order to salve the conscience. The power of this story lies in its ending, because the little boy becomes so united in soul with his little Jewish friend, that he sneaks into the camp and dresses in the “striped pajamas” in order to help the Jewish boy find his “lost” father, who we know has been burned in the ovens that fill the skies with smoke from their stacks. This movie is the serious version of It’s a Beautiful Life. In the latter, innocence was maintained through a humorous deception of the father, but in this story, innocence is required to be a victim of evil in order to show the willingness of self-deception in a society that justifies atrocities. As Bruno is in the camp, the story ends with him being corralled with other prisoners and being gassed in the showers with his little friend as his father seeks him too late. What makes this deeply disturbing and sad ending so uniquely powerful is that Bruno’s innocent friendship becomes the ultimate unity in death with the innocent Jewish boy in a way that could not even be captured with a deliberately chosen sacrifice. At the moment when the father realizes his son has been killed, one is convinced that he will abandon the ideology completely because he can no longer avoid the inhumanity of what he is doing. It is a backdoor portrayal of the golden rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is an embodiment of the classic informal argument “What if it was YOUR family member who received the consequences of your beliefs?”
Joaquin Phoenix plays Leonard, a Jewish guy who, on the verge of suicide by rejection of his fiancé, simultaneously falls for two women at once: One, a carefree existential live-for-the-moment Gentile girl upstairs and a nice plain jane no make-up good Jewish girl. This seems to be a blatant parable about the universal ubiquitous inner struggle in all men, that fantasy temptation that is ever present to “give it all up” or “throw it all away” for the exciting, the romantic, the dangerous, instead of choosing the safe, security of a woman of good character. The Gentile, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, is a drug addled mindless partying adulteress who, like most adulteresses foolishly pines for her adulterer to leave his family, believing that he will then be faithful to her. But none of this matters to Leonard, because she incites his passion with her existential living for the moment. There’s just something about the power of passion when you “follow your heart.” Meanwhile, the plain Sandra, played by Vinessa Shaw, is kind, gentle, devoted and stable and has the proper family connections for tradition. Leonard fornicates with both women, making it that much harder for him to see clearly. At the last moment, Leonard chooses to throw it all away and run away with the Gentile, but is stopped at the last moment when she throws it all away to return to her faithless adulterer after he leaves his wife. This is what you get when you choose a life of throwing it all away for a passionate feeling, you lose it all. The movie leaves one with a strong sense of disatisfaction as Leonard is able to return then to the “woman of character” without her even knowing his failed choice, as he then gives her the wedding ring he had bought for the adulterer. It’s like a consolation prize of passionless yet stable life. I think it would be a truer reality if Leonard had lost both of the women. Of course, one could argue, that he was entering into his own punishment of inauthenticity. When we make bad choices of character we reap the consequences of an inability to know real love. This story seems to indicate that when you follow your heart and seek for passion instead of character, you miss out on real life.
When I saw the title my first thought was, “Why is it plural? A movie about John Dillinger starring the illustrious talented Johnny Depp should clearly be called, ‘Public Enemy.’ Unless of course, Michael Mann is going to make a moral equivalency argument that the government that hunted down Dillinger was just as “criminal” or immoral as Dillinger. Therefore, the real public enemies are Hoover and his FBI gang.” And this is what I believe Mann has tried to do. Dillinger is depicted as a man without a country in that he is a Romantic, a “criminal with a heart of gold”: he doesn’t take individuals’ money at the bank, only bank money; He is a devoted and gentle lover of one woman in a world of sleaze; and he lives for the moment, being fiercely loyal to his friends. He doesn’t look beyond tomorrow, so eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. This existential worldview is depicted in the movie as being anachronistic in a modernizing era as crime syndicates learn to build a regular established illegal income through gambling rather than dangerous one-off bank robbing. Crime has lost its romance of the individual and become big business. Dillinger cannot continue to exist in this world with his fun loving devil may care Robin Hood romanticism. If you don’t change with the times, you will die, survival of the fittest. J. Edgar Hoover is depicted as a fool without any experience, therefore unworthy of his position. And the “good guy” tracking down Dillinger, Melvin Pervis, is depicted as cold and emotionless, a man of science who represents the future of the FBI, as he relies on new scientific techniques of forensics to track down bad guys, thus taking out all the glory of the human intuition. Pervis’ henchmen beat Dillinger’s woman, making them look more cruel than Dillinger. The Untouchables, this is NOT, as the good guys are portrayed as villainous and traitorous as the bad guys, in fact, quite often, simply stupid or neanderthal. So this is also a movie about the death of the romantic notion of Robin Hood redistributive justice in favor of the modern scientific method (forensics) and the big business of criminal syndicates. The real public enemies in this movie, as embodied in the FBI characters as well as crime syndicates are Enlightenment science and “corporatism” that has crushed the individual zest for life.