The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (USA, 2008, Mark Herman)
Rented from Pic-a-Flic yesterday and just watched today, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (BSP). I think it's a good movie and by extension I presume that the book upon which it is based is good literature. As you mentioned yourself, however, it is not a great film. I begin with what is commendable and then take up my critique.
As much as I object to how certain Zionist formations have generated a "holocaust industry"in order to legitimate the policies of the Israeli state, historical memory is absolutely essential for ethical consciousness and affective fiction can be powerfully worthwhile for grasping terrible fact. BSP is affecting. I was drawn into the story and I cared about the characters. Monica anticipated the conclusion and said so out loud. I was more naive. But we both thought the way the moral message was delivered was impressive for its narrative economy and emotional subtlety. Sure, there was too much music telling us how to feel. But it was good music. And the performances all around are solid, especially from the actor playing the father, David Thewlis (whom I have always really liked ever since I saw him in Mike Leigh's Naked ), but the kid in the lead role of "Bruno" is to be applauded given that the whole picture rests on his shoulders.
Most of all, the story itself is a fresh entry point into material that has been addressed many, many times before. To the extent that we identify with the protagonist, his ignorance of the situation and innocence within it is ours. So we can learn the truth for the first time, at it were, and be appropriately horrified by it. Monica proposed that BSP would be a valid teaching resource for school children, although she was not entirely confident that it would be appropriate for kids as young as the characters in the movie. One thing is for certain, never mind a Social Studies or History class, any student in English class still struggling with the concept of irony will understand it at the end of BSP when the father is looking at the mass gas chamber, now silent.
Turning to what is not so laudable about BSP, I have an historio-empirical grievance and even more, a politico-theoretical problem. With respect to the former, what's an eight-year old Jewish boy doing in that camp along with all the grown Jewish men? Families were torn apart and the first tear ripped the able-bodied adult males away from the rest in order to have them put to hard labour. The Nazis were nothing if not organized and orderly - Jesus, what a terrible understatement - and no little kid would have been allowed where little kids were not allowed. The film pushes its unbelievable plot premise even further by the seeming ease with which young "Shmuel" escapes his work detail, as if it were just as easy to do as play hookey in grade three. There he is, regular as rain, hiding behind a junk pile conveniently located at a fence furthest from surveillance. Et cetera.
Another factual failure, what specific camp is portrayed in BSP? All the references are to Berlin, so it would seem that the setting is somewhere in Germany, although admittedly this is not definitively clear. Be this as it may, the fact is, there were concentration/work/deportation camps within Germany along it's eastern border, but all the extermination camps were outside of Germany. But perhaps the most questionable historical issue is the proximity of a senior officer's wife and children to a death camp. Either they would have been far removed from the site of such gruesome murder and blissfully ignorant or near enough to know what's what. No way, anybody on the scene could have been so clued out.
Of course, the entirety of BSP rests on the protagonist being near enough to know what's what, yet know nothing. And the key to this fiction is that he is a mere eight years old. And you know what, I was prepared to go with the flow of this poetic license and in doing so, the film affected me. But what I am not prepared to accept and which I now criticize along a politico-theoretical line is that the eight year old boy in the camp would know just about as much nothing, because the thing is, he is not merely near enough to the camp to know what's what - he's actually IN the goddamn place! Shmuel would understand all too well the reality of his situation. And what is more, I suspect he would be just a smidgen more outspoken about it. Ya think? (!)
BSP makes Shmuel a loveable victim to pity and that would work for me if it wasn't at the expense of his deeper human agency. He is denied a voice, the force of his personality. He is rendered little more than an object of the protagonist's compassion. His own subjectivity is not presented as something with which to contend. The film wants the audience to partake of a transcendental morality about the pure friendship of innocent children. But those two characters are fucking far from equally innocent.
Jacob, just recently we were remembering together the kid character from Come and See, who is literally grey at the end of the film, which is in turn a metaphoric sign of a spent human; he has - overnight - become an old man. This is the point. What Come and See documents with unflinching directness, BSP completely bypasses. The result is a movie which ultimately does a disservice to the very people it purports to represent. I could unpack the ideological implications of this but I will spare you. Suffice to conclude that BSP is not to be let off the hook by the dull-witted defense that it is telling Bruno's story and not Shmuel's story. The only reason why we give a shit about Bruno's story is because it becomes Shmuel's story. You feel me?