Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – a chilling tale from the darkest period of our history

Some films are far-fetched; others inconceivable; whilst some are so powerful, shocking and poignant one prays for them to be fiction. Whilst The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, based on John Boyne’s novel of the same name, is by no means a true story, it embodies in great detail the most horrifying aspects of Nazi Germany. Boyne’s novel, released two years prior to its big screen incarnation, topped best-seller lists in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Spain amongst others. Mark Herman’s adaptation, despite being generally well-received by critics and a recipient of five awards, hasn’t evaded criticism or controversy. Manohla Dargis, of the New York Times, rather unfairly described it as “the Holocaust trivialized, glossed over, kitsched up, commercially exploited and hijacked for a tragedy about a Nazi family”, an altogether bewildering assessment as far as I am concerned. How anybody could deem the film’s desperate final scene as ‘glossing over’ any aspect of the Holocaust is inconceivable. Furthermore the above comments appear to be more applicable to an uninspiring and predictable big-budget Hollywood ‘war’ movie, in which the world is yet again saved by the United States of America, rather than a shocking, brilliantly written and impeccably-acted work of fiction. On the final point, Asa Butterfield’s portrayal of Bruno, an eight-year old German boy who discovers a concentration camp “full of people in striped pyjamas” behind the house he moves to from Berlin, and mistakenly believes it to be a ‘farm’, particularly stands out. Both director Mark Herman and producer David Heyman have stated that they were looking for someone able to portray Bruno’s innocence, a role Butterfield’s “slim” knowledge of the Holocaust allowed him to fulfil; indeed both made sure to continue this state of affairs throughout the process of filming.

In many ways The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is a film about distinctions; some obvious, such as that between Bruno and Shmuel in Nazi Germany, also that between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people, one which Bruno quickly learns to be greatly distorted. Due to incessant promulgation of the ‘official’ line, it is taken by Bruno and one can only imagine, many other Germans in the Third Reich, that Jews are bad, indeed “not really people”, and their German counterparts good, even nice. This is until, of course, his eyes are opened during the course of the film to the true state of affairs. The distinction between youth and age is perhaps the least obvious; for example one assumes Bruno’s mother, Elsa, to be aware of what is going on, but her horror at Kotler’s offhand remark, “they smell even worse when they burn”, illustrates her naivety and relative innocence. Thereby the distinction between youth and age is blurred by a similar distortion between what we would normally consider right, and what we would fundamentally consider to be wrong. The character of Bruno can essentially be seen as representing the innocence and persistence of youth, for he doesn’t merely accept his father’s denunciation of the Jewish people but discovers for himself the falsehood of such doctrines. Herman cleverly contrasts between the pleasantly-attired, well-cared for yet naïve Bruno and the imprisoned, starved Shmuel, for whom the world of childhood is a million miles away from reality.

It is never easy to document any aspect of Nazi Germany, due to the shocking and utterly immoral nature of the acts committed by its political leadership. However Herman’s adaptation is a triumph, and Boyne’s story impeccably written and highly thought-provoking. I cannot think of too many films as inspiring, realistic and desperate as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. Some may decry it as exaggerating the Holocaust, even disrespecting it, whilst others may and most likely will continue to point out its inadequacies for the foreseeable future. However, all of these points are immaterial when one takes the film for what it is. Herman brilliantly documents, albeit in microcosm, one of the most horrific sequences of actions ever undertaken, designed to cause untold misery and suffering to millions, and in doing so reminds us that there are no winners in war, only losers. The final scene, in which Shmuel and Bruno are taken to the gas chambers, along with many others, and the lights go out, is chilling to say the least. Bruno’s illustrates the sad truth that nobody won the Holocaust; there were no battles, it was a foregone conclusion, and in the end all of humanity lost out to the forces of evil and terror, something that must never happen again.

No comments:

Post a Comment