The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

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?”

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