Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

(UK/USA, 2008)

There have been so many Holocaust movies made that you’d think there was no new angle to come at it from. And yet, this movie (adapted from a juvenile book) manages to. It’s all seen through the eyes of Bruno, an 8-year-old whose father is a Nazi SS officer transferred to the country to run a concentration camp. The son finds the barbed wire and makes friends with a Jewish boy his age on the other side of the fence. (I don’t believe this for a second; in the real world they would be discovered almost at once. But it’s a good storytelling device.) Bruno is pretty much oblivious to what’s really going on over there, which rings true. What 8-year-old could have imagined it? His mother didn’t even know the depth of the horror, and it pretty much destroys her when she finds out. Even little Schmuel, the Jew, doesn’t completely understand it, all he knows is he’s hungry all the time. The story is built carefully, with small scenes that show the moral degeneracy of the Nazi way of thinking. It all builds to a climax that is completely absurd but, I have to say, very moving. And it is a startling ending, and I want to say a few words about it, so I will issue a SPOILER WARNING if you want to be surprised.
Bruno learns that Schmuel’s father has disappeared (into the ovens, but neither of them know that). So he sets out, the intrepid kid explorer, to help find the old man. It should be fun! He dresses in a spare camp uniform and they dig under the fence. They head to the camp, and sure enough, that’s when the Nazis start a big round-up of hundreds of Jews and start herding them to the showers. His mother and father discover him missing, find the hole under the fence, and realize what’s happening. So it becomes a Perils of Pauline situation. Will the SS Commandant and his frau be able to rescue their son before he is gassed? We cut back and forth and the tension builds. They are jammed into a room and told to strip. Naked, they are herded into the showers. And you find yourself thinking, Hurry up, Mom and Dad, your innocent son is about to be …. Now waaaaaaait a minute! What would be the “happy ending” here? They get there in time to stop the gassing, the father has a moral awakening and decides to stop gassing Jews? Goes to Berlin and convinces Hitler this whole Final Solution deal should be called off? Right, sure, that’s gonna happen. But now here’s the guy on the roof opening the hatch to pour in the Zyklon-B. So what’s the other possible happy ending? “Stop!” the father shouts, and the man on the roof hesitates. Daddy opens the shower door, pushes his way through a lot of naked, filthy, skeletal Jews, grabs his son, and pulls him outside. Hugs him … and the shower door closes and the gassing proceeds. And aren’t we all happy? I was living in fear that something like that would happen, in which case I’d have to find the writer and director and introduce them to the pleasures of cyanide gas. Thank god that didn’t happen. I wished the kid no ill, but you have to realize, of course, that everyone in the shower was completely innocent. Once little Bruno crossed the wire, there was no possible happy ending. And there is not. Bruno dies. Horribly, though we don’t see that. I only wish we could have seen more of the father’s agony after that final scene. That would have been delicious.