The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: A Failed Holocaust Fable

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David Lukacs / Miramax Film Corp.

Jack Scanlon as Shmuel and Asa Butterfield as Bruno in The Boy in Striped Pajamas.

When the full extent of the Holocaust became generally known after the end of World War II, the thought that its horror was too monstrous to write about in the conventional fictional forms slipped into the conversations of literary intellectuals. Fiction implies maneuver — heroic activity, moral preachment, even softening sentiment, all of which gestures seem trivial and inappropriate in the context of unprecedented, and in some sense inexplicable, evil. Putting the point simply, it is impossible to think of a novel, play or film that conveys the full effect of the Nazi genocide. The works that abide — Anne Frank's diary, Primo Levi's recollections of the death camps, Schindler's List — are all starkly factual. (See the 100 best albums, movies, TV shows and novels of all time.)

And their looming presence in our minds renders a movie like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas ludicrous. It concerns an eight-year-old boy named Bruno (Asa Butterfield) whose career soldier father (David Thewlis) is placed in command of a concentration camp early in the war. The child is unaware of the camp's function. He thinks it is some kind of farm. All he knows is that he has no friends and no worthwhile activities to divert him. He isn't even allowed to go to school; he and his sister are tutored at home by a Nazi functionary, while their mother (Vera Farmiga) ditheringly denies what she must know is taking place in the camp. Eventually Bruno wanders through the woods, encounters the barbed wire and Shmuel, an inmate of his own age. He wonders why the boy always wears "pajamas" (actually, of course, the striped prison uniform), thinks perhaps the numbers sewn on this garb are part of some fun game his pal is playing. His misapprehension is reinforced by a movie about camp life his father has produced, showing its inmates singing and dancing and repairing to a café for light refreshment after the day's work is done.

Striped Pajamas, written and directed by Mark Herman, requires everyone in it to remain unconscious to every clue — and there are many — about what is happening in the family's backyard. Even when the gas chambers are fired up, smoke blackening the sky and stench filling their nostrils, they insist the camp is just burning some old clothes. The largest silence is Shmuel's, who never forthrightly explains his desperate circumstances to Bruno. Maybe he doesn't want to shock his new friend. More likely his true imprisonment is in the desperate manipulations of this movie, its need to keep everyone in a state of ignorance or denial until Shmuel sneaks Bruno into the camp and toward a supposedly suspenseful, potentially tragic, but totally improbable ending.

I don't think I've seen — at least since equally offensive concentration camp fable, Life Is Beautiful — a movie so reliant on human stupidity to achieve its effect, so totally dishonest in its insistence on that quality (which it presents as innocence) to achieve its narrative goals. Bruno and Shmuel may be only eight years old, but that is well past the age of reason, and they are caught up in situation that would force anyone to acquire a shrewdness well in advance of their years. I don't know if a movie as simpleminded and emotionally shameless as this one definitively proves that fiction is not a suitable vehicle for the consideration of crimes as vast as the Holocaust. But it will do until the next historical travesty comes along.

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