The Problem with “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”

by Kevin Jon Heller

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.

http://opiniojuris.org/2009/02/04/the-problem-with-the-boy-in-the-striped-pajamas/

5 Responses

  1. I can see the point you are making but I don’t think this is a fair representation of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas or any of the other films you mention.  These films are telling the stories of only one or two characters because this is the best way to get the audience to engage emotionally with their plight.  I don’t think the filmmakers are suggesting that the other 6 million victims are any less deserving of our attention and sympathy, but they are simply recognising that it is near impossible to comprehend such grief on such a large scale, so the best way to tell the story is by asking us, the audience, to symphathise with a few prominent characters and follow their progress.
    I also disagree that the makers of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas were saying that the German boy’s life was worth more than the Jewish boy, or that we should be any more upset about his death.  I think his character was a device through which the story could be told, exposing the horror, brutality and stupidity of the war through the eyes of an innocent and unassuming 8-year-old.  I thought the film was a brave and interesting take on the difficult task of making a film based on the Holocaust, and its main characters make it an excellent way of introducing such a harrowing subject matter to children in a way that they might understand.

  2. What a wonderful post! I had the exact same thoughts when I finished watching the movie.
    Perhaps the movie’s intention is not only causing us to identify with the German boy, but also horrifying us with that identification – and as a result, reach the conclusion that “Innocence does not admit of degrees”.

  3. I have not seen the movie and do not mind it having been spoiled by the twist.  I was curious why you found Life is Beautiful loathsome.

    The reason for my question is that I thought the scene with the Nazi soldier yelling out in the most Teutonic brutal fashion orders to the inmates in the barracks with the father translating to the son as this being some kind of game was one of the most incredibly brilliant juxtapositions I had seen in a film of horror/humor or hate/love.  I remember being absolutely blown away by the idea of it and how it was done.  But, that was me.
    Best,
    Ben 

  4. I loved Life is Beautiful, and I think movies like the one you described above do everyone a great service by bringing horror to light.  We can only learn  from the past if we are aware of the past to begin with.  Its hypocrisies, its twists, and its brutality.  The only alternative to centering the story on a handful of characters is to simply have a mindless, heartless documentary.  We connect with movies. 

    Judging from your summary – I think the movie killed off the German boy in order for us to see the reaction of his father.  He can mindlessly kill millions of Jews, but once its his own son he is stunned.  Its purpose is to point out hypocrisy.  No greater hypocrisy has ever been committed in the history of mankind.  This movie would drive that message through the audience’s heart like a stake.

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  1. [...] The Problem with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas | Opinio Juris – The Boy in the Striped Pajamas … 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. [...]