The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
The power is in the details . . .
There were many ways of not burdening one's conscience, of shunning responsibility, looking away, keeping mum. When the unspeakable truth of the Holocaust then became known at the end of the war, all too many of us claimed that they had not known anything about it or even suspected anything.
Richard von Weizs?cker, President of West Germany
I never thought I would see the fictional equivalent of Alain Resnais' Night and Fog, the harrowing documentary that juxtaposes a current pastoral crematory site with original footage. But I've seen The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a seemingly simple story of a German boy, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), living with commandant dad (David Thewlis), clueless mom (Vera Farmiga), and emerging Nazi teenage sister (Amber Beattie) adjacent to an Auschwitz-type concentration camp, which the eight-year old thinks is a farm.
The story is powerful because it is a fiction and therefore open to interpretation and representation. As Steven Spielberg made memorable images in Schindler's List, notably the girl in red, so too does Mark Herman dot his visual narrative with images of imprisonment (latticed stairway, for instance) and flight (the boys play at being airplanes). But the most powerful images are in the face of a mother (Vera Farmiga), who slowly realizes what her husband oversees in the camp, and the eyes of the way-too-wise Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), Bruno's eight-year-old friend over the fence.
The film's power is in the details such as the contrast between the well-cared for commandant's home and the starkness of the camp seen through Bruno's high windows, between the stolid loyalty of dad to the purification scheme of Hitler and the disaffection of mom coupled with Bruno's growing skepticism about the campaign against the Jews. At no point did I feel I was being preached to, but at every point I was aware of the enormous guilt the German people would eventually feel upon liberation.
Because The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fiction, it might be easy to discount its power as it stands next to Night and Fog. Nevertheless, the representational aspect of taking a microcosmic situation and applying it to the greater understanding works here. The growing awareness of the boy is parallel to Roosevelt's; the subtle ambivalence of dad as he realizes what his command will cost him personally and professionally is emblematic of any Nazi officer with a conscience.
But most of all the mother's accelerating understanding of the Holocaust as she sees it in her husband is unforgettable, in no small measure thanks to Vera Farmiga's performance. However, the denouement is unforgettable. I have rarely if ever seen an audience sit quietly while credits ran with just a dark background and no hint that more information would ensue.
The denouement is so vivid it made me see anew the horror of the Holocaust. Just silence on and in front of the screen.
"It makes worries like what you wear today seem stupid." Eighth grader after visiting the Holocaust Museum