“Are you not allowed out? Why? What have you done?”
“I’m a Jew.”
—Bruno and Shmuel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
The first time I watched this movie, it came out like a blur. Everything was blurred out in my memory—the confused glances between my friends, the softened contrast of the movie in my class’ projector screen, and the boy in the striped light blue pyjamas with his his hair all shaved off.
I was a middle-school student back then, and so I didn’t understand a bit of what the movie implied. I remember thinking that the boy might be a cancer patient, seeing that he was bald—and I think most of my classmates think of the same thing too! The fact that our movie screening session was cut short due to a teacher finally showing up didn’t help as well.
It was only ten years later that I began to understand what the movie really was about. It was an innocent view of our horrifying world in its utmost heartbreaking period.
“There is such thing as a nice Jew, though, isn’t there?”
“I think, Bruno, if you ever found a nice Jew, you would be the best explorer in the world.”
—Bruno and Herr Liszt, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
With that being said, “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” became one of those heart-wrenching movies that managed to make me silently cry in-between scenes.
It tells about an impossible friendship between a Nazi military commander’s son, Bruno, and his father’s subject of captive, an 8 years-old Jewish boy, Shmuel. It was heartbreaking to see the difference in treatments of those two, though both are 8 years-old. They were living in a world where unfair and inhumane acts are sought for its superiority, yet still childish enough to face the reality with proper worldview.
The film follows young Bruno’s attempt to make friends in his new city. Adopting an 8 years-old perspective, the film take on a freshly more-innocent outlook upon the Holocaust. Bruno, who was always taught that the Jews are monstrous creatures befriended one without his knowledge on first meeting. After learning this, however, he believed in what he learnt of Shmuel, his friend, rather than what the adults say about the Jews. Because after all, aren’t adults stupid at times?
It was amazing how we witnessed Bruno’s simple transition from directly believing what his parents told him to be true to confronting it because of his initial interactions with Shmuel. And this really reflects on how curious-minded children who always have something to question would face the issue. It was just too bad that the history book was dominated by the perspective of general populations on politics than the real social conditions.
Bruno was confronted with the fact that his best friend was his supposed enemy and that his father’s work was not all good and dandy.
When I am watching Bruno confronting his teacher on whether Jews are really bad, how he snuck outside with a handful of food, and his lies to his mother, I was suddenly reminded of my childhood. Sure, I live in peaceful environment without having to worry about wars, but I was also told of the bad guys, the kidnappers and thieves, have been taken over by childish impulses to go on adventures no matter what my mother said, and friends whom I want to share my delicious food and new toys with. It was just so happen that Bruno’s friend was a Jew and I was not. He was living in the era of the Holocaust, while I was living in the era of Spongebob and fairytales.
It got me thinking that maybe, if the adults had the same amount of courage and innocence to challenge the ideas, the impact won’t be as bad. As my nephew always illustrated, don’t be afraid to question everything with whys. Sometimes it is the only way to reach a wholesome open-ended truth.
There was also, however, the kind of children who would only want for approval from their parents and other adults and naturally think of their sentences as the truest form of truth. Bruno’s older sister is a reflection of that—becoming a Nazi fanatic because she wanted to impress her father’s soldier, her teacher, and her parents. In doing so, she did not even think about challenging the ideas of its truth, but rather happily throwing her childish stuff and original perspective in the process.
“The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” reminded me that children cannot be solely thought as inanimate objects. They can think and feel on their own, and therefore their opinion have to be take into account. Forcing our thoughts on children would only resulted of them being swept up in adults arguments—unable to think of their own furthermore challenge the ideas.
Lets just say that if I turned out to be a monster, I don’t want my children to be one as well.
“That horrid smell from the chimneys. What is it?”
“I think they just burn rubbish there sometimes.”
—Bruno and Father, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
The most heart-wrenching dialogue in this film might be the ones Bruno exchanged with his father as I quote above.
After reading Elie Wiesel’s “Night”, I was always haunted with his illustration of those crematorium towers. Being a children Bruno was, the unfamiliar smell got him curious and he sought answers from his dad, a knowledgeable adult. And his father being a Nazi military commander as he were, told him that they were burning down some rubbish—that is if you mean thousands of humans, still alive and well. Bruno’s innocence protected him from the nasty truth of the camp—which he still believed to be a farm ran by men in striped pyjamas.
It was never mentioned in the movie, but the original “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” book by John Boyne illustrated the story with Auschwitz—the same concentration camp that was most dreaded by Wiesel in his time of captive. The innocent 8 years-old Bruno was told to perceive it as Out-With, never really understanding the fear behind the name itself.
“No Ralph! No not THAT! How could you?”
“Because I am a solider! Soliders fight wars!”
“That isn’t WAR!”
“That is a part of it, it’s a vital part of it! The Fatherland we all desire, all of us, you included cannot be achieved without work such as this!”
—Mother and Father, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
It was amazing how military perspective was explained so bluntly in this movie in snippets.
It was illustrated how Bruno’s grandmother thought that maybe his father’s fascination and proud in being a military officer was far rooted in his costumes worn since early ages. It was highly possible, however, because out of all my military acquaintances, all of them had the dream to become an officer since childhood. And honestly, taking a military officer as a future goal was a fad, intergenerations long.
Again, in this context, forcing a popular belief might not be the best case in rising children.
There was also a mention of the Fatherland held dear by many Nazi officers. In truth, this perspective is what was commonly used in military strategies. Create an abstract discourse of utopia vision to achieve their loyalty.
It was, after all, never important for them who they are fighting with, nor what they were really fighting for. They just wanted to fight, and they got it by constructing their own war.
“We’re not supposed to be friends, you and me. We’re meant to be enemies. Did you know that?”
—Bruno to Shmuel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Emotionally-engaging as it is, the book and movie were often thought to be a trivialization of the issue. The concentration camp was illustrated to have lousy security level that anyone can escape or enter easily, only separated with strands of barbed wires. The leisure working hours where Shmuel can snuck to take afternoon breaks were also highly questionable.
It was also thought to be historically inaccurate, as children under the working age would always be thrown directly into crematoriums as recorded by Wiesel, who had then lied of his age to pass through.
On the other hand, I was overly-impressed with the movie’s perspective in looking at the Holocaust. It was highly refreshing, though at times agitating, watching how the city boy’s thought of his friend who always play around in his barbed-wired farm. Heartbreaking as the Holocaust is always told, “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” brought out a different kind of sadness in me—different than the feeling I had when I was visiting the Holocaust Museum or when I was reading Wiesel’s “Night”.
Maybe it was because we humans, no matter how hard we try to emphatize with, will always see a disaster with a third-person point of view ad therefore it will remain as it is—a story. Children, however, are often thought to be universally lovable. In this case, I came to love Bruno and Shmuel as well, while oftentimes reminded of my own nephew. I want them to survive the disaster and live happily ever after.
My wish was unattended.
When I was visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum last year, I was struck by a powerful quote. As I attached above, the speaker was not a Jew nor was he any other minorities directly subjected to the Holocaust. And he, as well as others living in overtaken lands back then, was in fear to stand up against the military, though he perfectly understand that what they were doing was wrong.
But then he was captured, and thus began his days of oppositions.
It was the same with Bruno’s family. Nobody really cares of the inhumane wrongdoings until one of them were subjected to it.