Movie: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008)

Tonight I watched The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008), Miramax, directed by Mark Herman. It's based on a book of the same name by John Boyne (2006).

The plot is nothing all that creative. It's set somewhere in Germany during World War II. An eight year old boy moves with his family (his father is some sort of high-ranking German officer) out to the countryside where they live near what the boy initially thinks is a farm. As it turns out the farm is actually a concentration camp full of jews. The boy's father appears to be in command of the camp. The boy meets up with another boy of the same age, and they communicate through the electrified fence of the camp. With a few hickups along the way, the two build up a friendship. I'll leave the plot summary there, because I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone who might want to watch it.

It's a story of childhood innocence seeing through political propaganda. It contrasts the sickeningly bourgeois life of the boy's family with the life of the jews in the camp. The complete lack of human respect shown towards the jews is central. I like to think that what ultimately takes place might have changed that, at least for the parents of this one boy. Little difference would it have made even if that was the case.

All of that is quite enough to make for a perfectly good movie. And it is a perfectly good movie. But what made it stand out for me, and why I'm bothering to write about it here, is what it suggests about the complete failure of humanity that the final solution to the Jewish problem really was. I think this is something that I knew and understood fairly well already, but to have it presented in such a personal and emotional way was poignant. Books are lovely and all, but there's a certain power in cinema that makes it an amazing medium for conveying emotion and understanding.

It's easy to think of the final solution as the product of a small group of psychopaths led by Hitler and put into action by brainwashed soldiers. But it was much more than that. People knew what was going on and knew that it was wrong. The party right at the beginning of the movie where we see the boy's grandmother demonstrates the kind of conversations that were no doubt taking place all over Germany during this period (the time is approximately four years after the start of the war, placing it in or around 1943). It seems impossible to think that the majority of the intelligentsia (at least, those who didn't flee when they saw what was coming) did not know what was going on. They are the people that we count on to maintain the moral direction of a nation, and they failed.

I hope I'm not being too harsh here. But it seems to me that what happened was not just a failure of a small group of psychopaths, but a failure of humanity as a whole. The capacity of humanity to hold and defend a fundamental moral ideal failed. I have no doubt that the majority of Germans, and especially those who were educated, had enough of a coherent moral view to understand just how wrong this was. And yet they did nothing. The muttered under their breath at parties about what was right and what was wrong. Yet they did nothing.

Sure, to do anything would have been to risk horrors that I can't imagine. I'm not trying to criticise the individuals who actually lived through that time. To do so would be sickeningly wrong. What I'm criticising is a flaw that clearly exists within people generally. It seems that, based on the observable fact of the holocaust, moral philosophy simply doesn't stand up to the horrors that humanity can produce. Moral philosophy is supposed to be the sword that we wield against such horrific beliefs. And yet those trained in the use of this sword failed to use it. Instead they cowered behind a shield of denial and distancing. Moral philosophy failed.

My question then is: what is to prevent something like this happening again? If moral philosophy will not defend us, what will?

Finally, I noticed near the end that the uniform worn by the German officers had a skull on the right of the collar. I've never seen this before and wondered what it stood for?


Post a Comment