The Problem with “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”
I rarely like – if that is even the right word – movies about the Holocaust. Such movies almost invariably invite us to identify with a small number of Jews imprisoned in the concentration camps, turning the millions of others (unintentionally, to be sure) into a nameless, faceless backdrop of suffering that makes the fate of “our” Jews all the more poignant. Sometimes the small group lives and we are “happy,” as in Schindler’s List or The Counterfeiters or the loathsome Life is Beautiful. Sometimes they die and we are sad, as in The Grey Zone. Either way, our emotions are largely dictated not by the horrors visited on the millions of innocent Jews, but instead by what happens to the Jews the movie privileges – the ones we root for to survive.
I now have a new addition to my list of disliked Holocaust movies: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The movie centers on a young German boy whose father is the commandante of a Nazi extermination camp. The father is evil, a Nazi ideologue; his wife is horrified by what she knows is going on; the daughter joins the Hitler youth; and the boy, our protagonist, is too young to understand what is really going on inside the camp. One day the boy sneaks out of his house and comes across a young Jewish boy sitting on the other side of the camp’s electrified barbed-wire fence. They talk for a while, then agree to keep meeting at the fence. Slowly, over the course of a number of weeks, they become good friends. The Jewish boy continually hints at the treatment to which he and his family are being subjected, but never explicitly discusses the killings that regularly take place in the camp.
Then the boy’s father disappears – one day before the German boy is set to move away from the camp, at his mother’s insistence.
SPOILER ALERT – STOP READING NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE.
The movie ends with a disturbing twist: the German boy digs a hole under the fence, puts on a Jewish “uniform,” and enters the camp to help the Jewish boy look for his father. Unfortunately, he arrives in the camp just as the final group of prisoners is being sent to the gas chamber. The German boy dies along with his Jewish friend, his father arriving a split-second too late to prevent the guards from dropping the Zyklon-B into the chamber. The father is distraught, and the movie ends with a fade to black from the gas chamber door.
I know many people who really liked the movie, including its “twist” ending. It is certainly wonderfully acted, especially by the two boys and by the amazing David Thewlis, who plays the father. But what message is the movie is trying to send? That friendship knows no boundaries among the innocent? Fine – but that message does not require the German boy to die along with his friend. So what is the point of the final twist? To show that his German boy’s father, despite his monstrousness, is still capable of love? That seems like a rather sick message: that the real tragedy is not the senseless murder of the thousands of Jews in the camp, but the unfortunate murder of one boy who doesn’t belong in the camps and doesn’t “deserve” to die.
Now, I know that isn’t the message the movie is trying to send. I imagine it simply wants to portray the irony of war – that what goes around, comes around, in all kind of unexpected and perverse ways. But The Boy in the Striped Pajamas nevertheless partakes of the same logic of identification that corrupts movies like Schindler’s List: we certainly don’t want the Jewish boy to die, but we really don’t want the German boy to die, because he has done nothing to deserve his fate – the sins of the father should not be visited upon his son.
The problem with that, of course, is that no one deserved to die in the gas chamber – not the German boy, not the Jewish boy, and certainly not the other Jewish prisoners. The movie thus does both the viewer and the Holocaust a great disservice by forcing us, via its narrative structure, to identify with the German boy. Innocence does not admit of degrees.