8 year old Bruno doesn’t have a care in the world as he pretends to be a plane flying through the streets of Berlin, on his way back from school. He is blissfully ignorant of the terror happening around him – Jewish families being rounded up and transported out of the city. When he returns home however, his family are preparing for a celebration. His father, Ralf, has received a promotion that means they must all leave the capital; a move that will change Bruno’s life forever.
At his new stately home Bruno is sullen until, looking out of the slates that cover his window he notices, what he believes to be a farm beyond the trees. Seeing other children among the ‘farmers’ makes Bruno hopeful it will not be long until he makes new friends. When one of the ‘farmers’ (Pavel) brings vegetables to the kitchen, and Bruno asks if he can play with the ‘farm children’, his father has to explain that they are not what they seem and he cannot play with them. As
Kommandant, his father has been stationed to supervise a concentration cam;, the children that Bruno sees are not (in his father’s eyes) worthy humans – they are prisoners – they are Jews.
Lieutenant Kotler, one of the Kommandant’s soldiers, commands Pavel to build Bruno a tire swing. When he falls, Pavel bandages his leg. Bruno doesn’t understand why Pavel swapped being a doctor to peel potatoes. His loneliness grows while his elder sister Gretel becomes interested in Lieutenant Kotler. Both children are visited by a school tutor who teaches them the Nazi curriculum, while Bruno is a reluctant student – still interested in exploring and fantasy worlds – his sister becomes more committed to the Reich, ditching her dolls and covering her walls in propaganda posters.
One day, while on his swing, Bruno notices the back garden gate is open (an area his mother has forbidden him to go). With his curiosity and sense of adventure Bruno cannot help himself – he goes through the gate and climbs through a window in the shed to reach the forest. Once here, he feels free running through the woodland until he reaches a high, electrified fence. On the other side of the fence is another young boy, Shumel. Bruno thinks it is unfair that Shumel is surrounded by others and clearly playing a game (because he wears a number). Bruno continues to visit Shumel and their friendship grows, while Bruno just wants to play, Shumel knows the real danger of their relationships and tries to educate him.
Black smoke fills the skies about the forest. As it does, Lieutenant Kotler turns to Bruno’s mother stating, ‘They smell even worse when they burn don’t they?’ Previously unaware of the actions beyond the fence, she is devastated that her children are here. She questions her husband who demands to know who told her. At dinner, the Kommander integrates Lieutenant Kotler about his father’s dubious actions during the rise of the Reich. His father left for Switzerland, yet Lieutenant Kotler failed to report this (a treasonable crime at the time). Pavel serves wine and spills it across the table causing the agitated Lieutenant Kotler to beat him – we assume – to death.
Bruno visits Shumel, who tries to educate him about the ‘farm’, while later at home his father conflicts Shumel’s story by reminding Bruno that ‘they’ are the enemy. He is also privy to a propaganda film of Therenidstadt (which appears to be an idyllic holiday camp). Shumel is brought into the house to clean glasses and Bruno offers him some cake. Caught eating it by Lieutenant Kotler, Shumel declares that it was given to him by Bruno. Scared and conflicted Bruno denies the claim; Shumel is removed from the home and beaten.
Lieutenant Kotler is soon removed from the home and sent to the front. Bruno’s parents argue; his mother explains the irony of her husband’s cruel actions (his mother protests against the Reich) when he announces that she has died. His parents continue to argue after the funeral and decide that Bruno, his sister and mother are to return to Berlin. Bruno keeps looking for Shumel – with no luck. Eventually he appears explaining that his father has vanished.
Bruno and Shumel devise a plan to find his father. Shumel gets Bruno a pair of ‘striped pyjamas’, Bruno gets a spade and digs his way to the other side. They go in search of Shumel’s father, but are caught in a round-up. Meanwhile Bruno’s mother notices he is missing from the house and orders a search party to look for him – by the time they reach the concentration camp it is too late. Bruno and Shumel have been taken to the gas chamber.
- Released: 2008
- Director: Mark Herman
- Writers: Mark Herman (screenplay) / John Boyne (novel)
- Production Companies: Presented by Miramax Films, in association with BBC Films, Heyday Films.
Bruno is a young naive boy. In Berlin, he is content to escape into a fantasy world with his friends as they pretend to be planes flying through the streets.
However, once he gets to his new home he feels lonely. While his sister and father are dedicated to the Nazi state, Bruno is completely ignorant of it preferring the idea of adventure and magical kingdoms to current affairs.
For him the camp at the end of the forest is his ‘rabbit hole’, a place he can escape from the detachment that he feels at home. Unlike most fantasy protagonists the ‘rabbit hole’ is not a release for Bruno. While he believes that his life is horrible, when he crosses the fence he discovers the reality of the world around him.
The fantasy world was not the place he longed for it to be; rather it is the propaganda ‘bubble’ the Third Reich has created for its citizens – the world he has been living in, that is the illusion – the dream world. Bruno is different to those on his side of the fence – even in appearance, contrasting his sister’s perfect Aryan features. Once, when he visits Shumel he wears a gown and striped pyjamas expressing how he feels closer to him. Despite Shumel’s warnings about ‘life over the fence’, he does not hesitate to don the uniform and escape to the camp.
Kotler is but a pawn in the Kommandant’s game.
A committed young boy, the actions taken against him are illustrative of the incomprehensibility of the period – how Nazi rules were often changeable and that however committed a person was to the Reich there were still ways of testing their loyalty.
When the Kommandant sends him to the front it symbolises the paranoia and irrationality of the state – the Kommandant representing a microcosm of Nazi leaders such as Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler. The action also expresses that the Nazis knew their procedures were inhuman (therefore must have conceived of the Jews as human) because of the desperate attempts to hide evidence of the mass killings – Kotler’s spoken words mark his grave.
Elsa is a caring mother.
She is a stereotypical nurturing Nazi wife as often seen in propaganda of the time; house bound, putting her children first.
Her femininity is seen as fragile when she is shocked by the gassing – while she still believes the Jews to be enemies she is far more compassionate than her husband.
Ralf is a stern Kommandant, ever-faithful to the state.
His love for the Reich means that he neglects his responsibility as a father. Revealing the weakness of the father image and ‘fatherland’.
When he speaks to his son, Ralf is unable to stop being the Kommandant.
Gretel, Bruno’s elder sister looks and acts like the perfect Aryan girl.
Even at the young age of 12, she understands that she sees herself as a cog in the Reich machine. She is stern and somewhat emotionless often scolding her brother for his naivety.
However, as she entwines her golden blonde hair into pig tails and flirts with Lieutenant Kotler, her childhood innocence is emphasised to the audience. In the end, who is more naive, her or Bruno? The girl sacrificing her childhood to dedicate her life to the Reich? Or the young boy sacrificing his life in discovering the truth?
Shumel’s life in the concentration camp has forced him to become more mature than Bruno.
However, while his words are wiser than his foolish friend’s, his posture is hunched, his head hung low and his voice quiet expressing words often spoken with a tone of urgency. Though Shumel does not appear as the stereotypical Holocaust prisoner – he is feistier and believes in integrity over survival.
He, like Bruno has not fully realised the irrationality of this world – where everything he was taught about right/ wrong no longer applies. Which is why he is adamant to persist that Bruno gave him the cake in the house, rather than sheepishly saying he had stolen it. This sense of innocent risk-taking expresses the purity of the child; the child as victim therefore emphasising the innocence of all that were unfortunate enough to be on the wrong side of this fence like Shumel.
Context: Representation of the Holocaust
How, or whether, the Holocaust should be represented is often contested.
Many believe that Claude Lanzmann’s 9 ½ hour documentary, Shoah is the only suitable representation to be captured on film because, as Lanzmann himself aimed to achieve, it refuses to represent the unrepresentable. The documentary features only location shots of concentration camp sites in the present day and interviews with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators. It never tries to recreate the camp.
Adorno’s oft-mis-referenced quote ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ (Adorno, 34:1967) has fuelled much of the argument against representing the Holocaust. While survivor Primo Levi believed strongly in the necessity to tell the story (perhaps in whatever means possible), because, as he states, for the Nazis ‘it did not matter that they might die along the way, what really mattered was that they should not tell their story’ (Levi, 3:1983). While today, it is generally accepted that representing the Holocaust is a positive action (many trusts and charities have been set up specifically with the aim of preserving and re-telling stories), there is still much debate about ‘how’ to respectfully represent this dark period of history.
La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful) – another film about childhood set in Nazi-occupied Italy – was heavily criticised for bringing a fantasy element to the concentration camp universe. Combining the horrors of the past within a fairy tale structure has been criticised as ‘dumbing down’ or disrespecting the memory and creating a calm, safe diegesis giving the audience the pleasure of escapism while the prisoners had no escape. For them, reality was turned inside out and they entered a world of purgatory most people today would find difficult, if not impossible, to imagine. The Holocaust is often considered ‘incomprehensible’ because of the horrors that occurred and the irrationality of the Nazi regime which, while efficient on the surface, was chaotic due to a lack of direct orders from the top.
The film is not dissimilar to Pan’s Labyrinth in its use of fairytale / fantasy conventions. In both films a child protagonist, surrounded by a ‘dictator’ father figure and his soldiers chooses to negate reality for a fantasy world beyond the forest. However, the world that Bruno discovers is not a fairytale – it is the harsh reality of the world he has, until now been blind to. John Boyne, the author of the original novel says:
‘For me… it seemed, the only respectful way to approach the subject was through innocence. Through a fable told from the point of view of a rather naive child who couldn’t possibly understand the horrors of the thing he was caught up in. I believe that this naivety is as close as someone of my generation can get to the dreadfulness of that period’.
In his eyes, therefore, the naivety and incomprehensibility Bruno feels is shared and experienced by the audience – because we, like him, struggle to understand the horrors that happened in the past. The fence that divides him and Shumel thus divides the audience from the horrors of the period. Even when we attempt to cross the fence with Bruno, we are never privy to the extent of trauma that lies beyond it. We see bodies huddled together, forced to undress and then the door is closed. Herman’s interpretation is faithful to the ideology that we cannot bear witness to the gas chamber because while there may have been survivors and bystanders of the Holocaust, there were no witnesses to the final solution.
The fantasy structure is therefore used to represent how the world of the time was turned inside out, reality for the citizens of the Third Reich was a fantasy built on propaganda (illustrated in the film by the video of Theresienstadt created for the Red Cross). In contrast, the harsh reality of the realm is as incomprehensible as the dreams and nightmares experienced by other fantasy protagonists in their fantasy worlds.
Themes | Childhood and Innocence
The main theme of the film is childhood and innocence. The film opens with a quote:
“Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.” -John Betjemen
This infers that childhood is the blissful period of life, a time to be cherished when we are unaware of the holistic picture – we are not concerned with politics, war or social difference. We are curious creatures led by our primal senses – perfectly illustrated by Bruno’s fearless sense of adventure. He does not want to stay caged-up like an animal in his room, he wants to touch, see, smell and experience. The film is full of tactile and sensual moments which emphasis this – the eating of the cake; the electrifying contact of the football as it hits the camp’s perimeter fence; Lieutenant Kotler’s mention of the smell rising from the gas chambers. Bruno wants to be free and be human – the very experiences denied to those on the other side of the fence who he naively envies.
The sense that childhood, and therefore innocence, is being threatened is expressed when Bruno goes into the dark cellar where he discovers a pile of naked dolls. The mountain of doll-bodies is reminiscent of the piles of bodies found in concentration camps. After this, he runs upstairs to see his sister, dropping his football which plummets down the stairs… childhood innocence is fading.
It is also interesting to consider how the film represents history. We often judge historical representations by ‘accuracy’ which makes the film problematic. If it is indeed a story for a modern generation, to help them learn from the past about the future then the accuracy of the film needs to be questioned. Generally boys under 14 years of age were killed upon arrival at a concentration camp, though some as young as 10/11 did manage to lie, it is unlikely that a boy of 8 would have managed this. Another questionable element of the film is the pure ‘Englishness’ of it – the cast (full of well known English performers) and the dialect (Queen’s English). Does this help an English audience relate to the film? Does it help to emphasis their position as the one who cannot comprehend the Holocaust (like Bruno)? Or is it purely a profit-making function to avoid distancing audiences with subtitles? Many Holocaust films have chosen to have Nazi officials speak only in German with (or sometimes without) subtitles in order to prevent empathy befalling them. However, Herman encourages the audience to empathise with Bruno and his family opting instead to distance them from the prisoners – physically and emotionally as we experience them as the ‘strange farmers’ through Bruno’s eyes. An interesting debate, if handled carefully would explore whether this helps modern audiences reflect on the Holocaust or whether it is offensive to the memory.
Key Scene Analysis | Opening
The quote that opens the film is displayed in a simple white text on black background emphasising a clean slate, encouraging the audience to forget their perception of the world and to look, once more, from a child’s perspective. This is emphasised by the fade to black that follows. A wide shot establishes Bruno’s home city- Berlin. The colours are pastel and browns expressing that we have been transported into the past. Cars, blood-red banners adorned with Swastikas and army trucks are cultural symbols, helping the audience identify that the film is set during the Third Reich, which comes with several preconceptions for most audience members.
As Bruno and his friends zoom quickly through the streets, arms spread out as pretend to be aeroplanes, their image of freedom is quickly contrasted by its binary opposite – the oppressed. In the foreground to Bruno, a young adult women wears a scarf over her head and rags (compared to Bruno’s smart jumper and shorts) and is forced into a truck by a male soldier. She is weak and fragile, falling to the ground as he drags her up – there is no compassion on his part. His helmet and gun seemed to protect him against nothing – there is no threat? She is clearly a victim of his brutality. The scene then cuts to an apartment block where the audience are privy to the panic of women and children scattered throughout, running chaotically as soldiers herd them. The scene is one of disorder contrasted dramatically by the approaching scene in Bruno’s house – where the rushed movements are only to prepare for a celebration.
Truth at dinner 48:00
Upon discovering the gas chambers, Elsa challenges her husband. The framing is tight and the audience view the confrontation, in the low-key, emotionless office from Bruno’sPOV as he peers into the room through the ajar door. When Ralf asks her who told her about the gas chambers, the scene abruptly ends cutting to a MCU of Lieutanant Kotler creating continuity between the two scenes. The audience are in an omnipotent position, aware that the Kommandant clearly knows of Kotler’s guilt. Kotler’s head is positionedlooking down expressing his nervousness. A series of MCUs portray the adults around the table – all look uncomfortable establishing the rising tensions. When Bruno is shown he is in shallow focus, representing his detachment from the adult world – the Nazi regime – around him. The tense atmosphere is further emphasised by the near-silence, only broken by the occasionally touching of cutlery. The conversation between the Kommandant and Kotler starts as general chit-chat, but the Kommandant’s tone and repetitive questioning builds tension as he hardly draws breath before demanding ‘more wine’. During the conversation, Kotler appears, as Bruno in shallow focus expressing a growing divide between him and his peers. Pavel’s fragility and innocent is portrayed through his whitecostume and awkward movements. As tension grows Kotler swallows back and chews slowly until Pavel hits his glass spilling the wine. The red wine shown in CU is dramatic irony symbolising the blood that will pour as Kotler immediately drags him out of the dining room and beats him.
Beyond the fence
Bruno asks to play on the swings – symbolising ‘play’ – a return to the place of childhood imagination. However, he lies – running instead through the forest once more. This time he is no longer a plane or an explorer living out a fantasy. He is a real adventurer ready for his mission and thus his speed hastens. The hole he digs is symbolic of his rabbit hole – his escape from the world he dislikes. The hole also has connotations of going down – to the underworld; to hell or purgatory – a nightmarish world that will lead to his death. The sense of fantasy is reinforced as he puts on the pyjamas – which for him is ‘dressing up’. The lighting is still high-key, natural sunlight radiating off his flesh. However once he has changed, high pitched string notes enter the musical score which shifts to a minor keyand thunder rumbles as the skies turn black – creating both a sense of urgency andforeboding.
His mother’s POV of the swing is framed through a small glass pane in the window, symbolising his imprisonment, as the scene cuts to him crawling under the fence. Agraphic match of the boys running through the camp and the maid through the house reveals that the actions are happening at the same time – building suspense and tension, and raising enigmas – will they discover where Bruno is? Once in the camp, Bruno begins to become scared, his costume makes him blend into the surroundings – he is no different to the others now. He hangs his head down low and in WS tries to walk over rocks and play at being a plane, but loses his balance. For Bruno this is not a game anymore. A sudden raucous makes Bruno shudder as the barrack door opens abruptly and the sound of dogs barking creates a chaotic atmosphere. The framing is claustrophobic as Bruno, Shumel are herded out with the other prisoners. The camera is hand-held as it moves with the boys further emphasising the state of panic.
Pathetic fallacy symbolises their coming fate: rain begins to fall and the terrain becomes more treacherous as they slop through mud. CUs of feet accompanied by the groans and panting of the men builds tension further. The camera moves between different men in the changing room as they undress. One man keeps reassuring them all that it is ‘just a shower’ – his voice echoing over the soundtrack. While another man, whose rib bones protrude, stares at the boys in MS with a longing look – all hope is gone. The door closes behind them as his father is seen, framed through the fence – trapped by the prison he has created. A birds-eye view of the men makes them look weak, a CU of the boys grasping each other’s hands reveals their innocence and fear. A high angle CU shows a man in a gas mask pouring pellets through a hole in the roof, the fact the audience cannot see his face dehumanizes him, in turn expressing the Nazis as killing machines – inhumane.
A MS is sustained on the gas chamber door, banging is heard from the inside as the music rises to a crescendo of a long, discordant high pitch sound. Then there is nothing but silence.
Questions for discussion
- What did you think of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas? What did you particularly appreciate? How did your emotions change during the course of the story?
- Do you think the book’s author was right to look at this subject from the perspective of a naïve young boy? How effective do you think this was in helping you to approach the subject?
- How did you feel about Bruno and his family when we first meet them in Berlin? To what extent did you struggle to identify with them because they are a Nazi family?
- What did you think of Bruno’s character? What did you like about him? What didn’t you like?
- To what extent could you understand Bruno’s adoration of his father, and his struggle to come to terms with what he was discovering?
- How did your feelings about Ralph (Bruno’s father) change during the film? Was there a turning point in your feelings? If so, when?
- Why do you think Ralph did what he did? How would he have justified it to himself and to others?
- What do you think drove Obersturmführer Kotler to be so cruel?
- Why does Gretel change? What impact does this have on Bruno?
- How would you describe Elsa? Were you surprised that Elsa (Bruno’s mother) was unaware of the true nature of the camp? How would you have responded to this situation if you had been in her position?
- ‘Elsa doesn’t think. She doesn’t think for herself, she doesn’t think deeply. She chooses to be oblivious, concerning herself only with the safety of her family and her position in society – everything else is beyond her periphery. She’s a sort of accomplice and assistant to her husband’s ideals, his desires, his morals and his ambitions.’ (Vera Farmiga)
To what extent do you think she is morally responsible for what happens?
- How would you describe the friendship between Bruno and Schmuel? What makes it a good friendship?
- Why did Bruno betray Schmuel? Why was their friendship able to survive this?
- How do you think the family, and Ralph in particular, would be impacted by the final scenes of the film?
- How do the characters in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas exemplify Hannah Arendt’s notion of ‘the banality of evil’, that evil arises out of the tendency of ordinary people to follow orders, to accept what they’re told by authorities, to conform to the prevailing opinion? How easily could such evil arise in our own society? What might lead to it? What could prevent it?
- In what sense is this a redemptive story?
- Does The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas fill you with despair or hope? Why?
- What would you identify as the most important messages from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?
This article by TONY WATKINS helps to answer many of those questions:
Looking beyond the fences
Author: Tony Watkins
Keywords: Equality, prejudice, racism, evil, good, innocence, morality, conscience, action, Holocaust
Film title: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Tagline(s): A timeless story of innocence lost and humanity found / Lines may divide us but hope will unite us
Director: Mark Herman
Screenplay: Mark Herman, based on the novel by John Boyne
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Rupert Friend, Sheila Hancock, Richard Johnson, David Heyman, Amber Beattie
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures (UK); Miramax Films (USA)
Cinema Release Date: 12 September 2008 (UK); 7 November 2008 (USA)
Certificate: 12 (UK); PG-13 (USA)
Book title: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Author: John Boyne
Publisher (h/b): 2006, David Fickling Books (UK)
Publisher (p/b): Black Swan (UK); David Fickling Books (USA)
Pub. date (p/b): 1 February 2007 (UK); 23 October 2007 (USA)
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamasis a powerful, haunting story about the horrors of the Holocaust. Unlike the vast majority of such stories, however, it doesn’t allow the audience to view events through the eyes of a Jewish character. Instead, we see things from a German perspective. But this is not a revisionist telling of the story, let alone a justification of the Final Solution, but a fresh look at it through the innocent eyes of eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield). I asked John Boyne, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, why he had taken this route since it ran the risk of making us feel more sorry for the oppressors than the oppressed. He replied that he felt compelled to write about this subject, keeping the memory of it alive for a new generation, yet could not presume to tell the story through the eyes of a Jewish inmate. Instead, by looking in through the fence from outside, he could ask the important questions. He says:
For me, a 34-year-old Irish writer, it seemed that the only respectful way to approach the subject was through innocence, with a fable told from the point of view of a rather naive child who couldn’t possibly understand the horrors of what he was caught up in. I believe that this naiveté is as close as someone of my generation can get to the dreadfulness of that period.
The film opens in Berlin with Bruno and his friends pretending to be fighter planes as they run home to his house. This is a simple, but effective device for drawing us into Bruno’s world. He is a young boy playing as all young boys do, when they have the chance, during wartime: they imagine themselves as heroes fighting the enemy. At the same time as British boys were imitating Spitfires during the Second World War, German boys were pretending to be Messerschmitt 109s – and both were possessed of the simple, unwavering conviction common to all children that their side was right. It’s entirely natural that Bruno worships his officer father Ralph (David Thewlis). As viewers we immediately see him within the framework of what we know of World War II. But to his son, he is a hero and a good man, and certainly the film suggests that he has been a loving husband and father as well as a good soldier. He is portrayed as someone who does what he thinks is right for his country and a party is being held to celebrate his promotion. We don’t know what this entails for some time, though we see from his uniform that he is an Obersturmbannführer (equivalent to a Lieutenant-Colonel) in the SS, the part of the German forces that were unswervingly loyal to Hitler, earning him the disapproval of his mother.
Ralph’s new posting is in Poland – as commandant of a death camp. From his bedroom window in their new, and imposingly severe, house, Bruno sees what he assumes is a farm. At first he thinks there will be new friends for him there, but he’s puzzled by how strange they look, all wearing striped pyjamas. As the days pass, he becomes increasingly bored, but he is banned from exploring the garden at the back of the house. One day, he asks his father’s driver, Obersturmführer Kotler (Rupert Friend), for a tyre to make a swing. Kotler shouts at Pavel (David Hayman), a prisoner who works at the house, to take the boy to find one. When Pavel takes him to the shed in the back garden, Bruno spots a route through the window into the woods beyond the house. It’s not long before he grabs a chance to sneak through and he goes exploring.
Inevitably he reaches the camp fence where he first meets Schmuel (Jack Scanlon), a Jewish boy of the same age. It is in their encounters that we see Bruno’s naiveté most clearly, because we know all too well what is going on inside. He’s envious at first – an emotion that is touchingly amusing as well as startling to the viewer because it is so inappropriate:
Bruno: It’s not fair, me being stuck over here all on my own while you’re in there playing with friends all day.
Bruno: Well, isn’t it part of a game – with your number?
Schmuel: It’s just my number
On another occasion, Bruno suggests that Schmuel could come for supper. He’s surprised that the wire prevents this; surely farm fences are to stop animals getting out. And he’s troubled when Schmuel tells him that it’s to stop the people getting out. ‘Why, what have you done?’ he asks. ‘I’m a Jew,’ is the simple answer. Bruno has been brought up to believe Jews are evil, but now he begins to struggle with the disparity between what he has learnt and what he is now experiencing first hand. He asks his tutor, ‘There is such a thing as a nice Jew, isn’t there?’ ‘If you ever found such a thing as a nice Jew,’ he’s told, ‘you would be the greatest explorer in the world.’
This is the problem at the heart of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. How could such an enormous evil take place in a supposedly civilised society? How could ordinary people become swept up in it, to the extent of hating Jews (and Gypsies along with other ‘deviant’ groups), condoning their extermination and even participating in it? And how are we to think about such people?
Part of the answer, as this film makes clear, is that most people were ignorant of the full extent of what was happening. Young Bruno is naturally protected from knowing much of what the war entails. But it’s not only Bruno who is ignorant. Some time after the family has moved, we discover that Bruno’s mother, Elsa (Vera Farmiga), does not know what happens in her husband’s camp. One day she returns from a trip into town and comments to Kotler about the foul smell from the camp chimney. When he replies that ‘they smell even worse when they burn,’ the realisation finally dawns. She confronts Ralph who insists that he was sworn to secrecy, but he is clearly not going to be dissuaded from his task. From that moment, Elsa’s trust, respect and love for her husband evaporate. This is entirely true to history. Officers were banned from telling even their immediate family about the gas chambers; they were to be seen as ‘normal’ concentration camps, where the primary objective was forced labour, not extermination. Even Hedwig Höss, the wife of Rudolf Höss the commandant of Auschwitz, didn’t realise for around two years what was happening, and she lived close to the crematorium with her four children. She only discovered after overhearing a conversation at a party.
Another part of the answer to how such a thing could happen was famously expressed by Hannah Arendt as ‘the banality of evil’. By this she meant that evil is not something radical, but arises out of the tendency of ordinary people to follow orders, to accept what they’re told by authorities, to conform to the prevailing opinion. Just how easily this happens, even in a liberal democracy like America, was demonstrated in an infamous experiment carried out in a Californian high school by a teacher there. When his class were thoroughly apathetic about fascism, he persuaded the students to order themselves in a fascist way and was shocked by how quickly they conformed and how fast it spread through the school. It forms the basis for the German film The Wave (Dennis Gansel, 2008). The worrying reality – and one reason why it’s vital to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive – is that people easily fall into line without ever stopping to reflect critically on what they are doing, the underlying values or the results of their actions. Or their inaction.
This is where Elsa herself is implicated, because she failed to face up to what she did know was happening. The Final Solution of mass killings may have been kept from her, but like all ordinary Germans, she was very well aware of the round-ups, the mass deportations to the labour camps. It is likely that she would be aware of executions in the streets. And as for the camp run by her husband, she knew full well that prisoners were treated in an inhuman way because it happened in her own house. She never questioned the idea that these people were evil, the cause of all Germany’s problems and a danger to all good people. She was prepared to accept her husband telling Bruno that ‘they’re not real people.’ Vera Farmiga says of her character:
Elsa doesn’t think. She doesn’t think for herself, she doesn’t think deeply. She chooses to be oblivious, concerning herself only with the safety of her family and her position in society – everything else is beyond her periphery. She’s a sort of accomplice and assistant to her husband’s ideals, his desires, his morals and his ambitions. But as she starts to open her eyes to what is unfolding, as she starts to explore for herself, there is a gradual decline of tenderness, trust and respect for her husband. And eventually she stands up and says No! Eventually, she condemns what’s going on. She even tries to get her husband to see the evil that he’s responsible for. But it’s too late … She has intuitions; she knows that people are being horribly mistreated. But she doesn’t look; she doesn’t want to see it because seeing it would implicate her husband, and it would implicate herself.
As Bruno’s understanding of the camp begins to grow, he is naturally increasingly troubled by the conflict within him, because he still loves his father. He questions his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) about the place he longs to believe is just an odd farm. Gretel insists that the Jews are ‘in there because they’re evil. Evil, dangerous vermin.’ ‘Papa’s not horrible is he?’ asks Bruno. Gretel assures him that their father is a good man. ‘But he’s in charge of a horrible place,’ Bruno replies.
This disjunction between family man and camp commandant is very troubling for the viewer. It’s easy to think of such people as sadistic monsters like Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List). But for the first part of the film, it’s hard not to like Bruno’s father. This is partly because David Thewlis plays him so warmly, emphasising this true-to-life complexity. He says:
The challenge is not to play a clichéd, two-dimensional evil Nazi. In my research, I came to learn that my character was very much based on fact…. I don’t think I’ve researched a film as much as this for years because I felt a great duty to do that. Usually, I take someone from my own life, someone I’ve met at some point and think, that person could have been like this person. How can I apply those characteristics? Whereas I’ve never met anyone who at all resembles the character I’m playing here because it’s quite unimaginable to understand how one could be a loving father – I’m sure he is a loving father – and at the same time, leave your children at breakfast, go next door – literally – and spend your day amidst these terrible, terrible, terrible atrocities. How do you get your mind set into that?
I was given a letter that Rudolf Höss [commandant of Auschwitz] wrote to his children just before his execution. It was lying around at home, on my kitchen table, and I had some neighbours over. I hadn’t told them what I was working on. They saw this letter lying around and started reading and when they’d finished it, they turned to me and said, ‘Oh, what a beautiful, heart-rending letter this man has written to his children! Who was he? Why was he dying? Was he sick?’ To which I replied, ‘Yeah, he was VERY sick!’ But the letter is clearly written by a man with an intense love for his children; it’s very articulate, very touching, almost poetic. Try and understand a human being – a sensitive human being – but one who’s capable of this! No way can I find it in myself to justify or forgive, obviously. But my job was to somehow find the humanity in him, and not to see all these people – as the cliché goes – just as monsters. They were human beings. And there are people out there today that are just like him.
This is why films like this are so important. We must never forget what horrendous evil Hitler unleashed. Neither must we forget that it was ordinary people who became caught up in his genocide machine. The power of his rhetoric and personality, coming at just the opportune time in German history, won the nation to his cause. Ordinary people became mass murderers. Ordinary people looked the other way while it happened. It was easier to believe the propaganda, to go with the flow and keep quiet than to stand up and face the consequences. It is, of course, easy to understand why people were afraid to voice opposition when to do so could lead to a labour camp. Dachau was, after all, established as early as 1933 for political prisoners. We do not know how we would have acted if we had been there. Nevertheless, we must say that fear does not excuse inaction. ‘Following orders’ does not excuse evil. These things happen in our own generation: Cambodia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, Darfur, East Timor. Ordinary people still allow themselves to be swept along by evil men, not thinking, not questioning and not challenging what is happening. Given the easy-come, easy-go morality of contemporary western society, this is terrifying.
While it is traumatic, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is also a story of hope. Bruno’s innocent acceptance of Schmuel as a human being, just like him, who deserves his friendship, compassion and help, is absolutely right. While everyone else fails to looks beyond their prejudices, Bruno reaches out to the boy he is told should be his enemy. He identifies with Schmuel, recognising that they are no different. He comes to understand that Pavel is a good man, not potato-peeling vermin. This refusal to accept distinctions between human beings as equal is vital. It is fundamental to civil society. It is fundamental to how we are created by God.
The moral relativism of contemporary society has no basis on which to establish this equality. Yes, it makes the right kind of noises, saying that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and values, which should be respected. But why? There’s nothing objective about it; it is too vulnerable to the whims of the few, who are able to carry others along with them. The only answer is the deeply held, thought-through principles of an objective morality. Ultimately, any objective morality must come from beyond mere human beings; it must come from God. It is not enough that society should be based on Christian values. That had been true of Germany, after all. Rather, the individuals within society need to become convinced of them and committed to their outworking personally. The values of Jesus Christ – his concern for truth and righteousness, his compassion for the weak and lost, his acceptance of every kind of person (among others) – need to permeate our own lives before they can permeate society.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, with its anguishing loss of innocence and its touching affirmation of the value of all people, has the power to engage us, overwhelm us and change us.