Holocaust Ending: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

“Enjoy the movie.” That is the response we get when we tell friends and acquaintances that we are on our way to the cinema. And while it is true that we generally seek enjoyment, whether by looking at separated lovers or severed heads, movie-going can be a disconcerting, unsettling event well beyond the shocks and jolts provided by horror and romance. The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas (a British film in its British spelling), is likely to be such an experience to anyone with a pulse and a sense of humanity ready for the tapping. To me, it was nothing short of devastating. I am not resorting to hyperbole when I say that I was rendered speechless; those accompanying me can attest to my disquietude. It has been a decade since last I watched a film (Saving Private Ryan) that has stirred and traumatized me to such a degree that, coming out of the theater, I felt sick to my stomach. No wonder. I had just been coerced into walking straight into the gas chamber of a concentration camp.

Whimsical and naïve, The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas is a suitably misleading title for a story that is out to challenge and deceive you. It is not your traditional Hollywood response to the horrors of the Third Reich, which is why I refer to the film’s conclusion as a Holocaust ending. Hitchcock might have voiced his objections, as he did in the case of his own Sabotage (previously discussed here); but the dark twist in Mark Herman’s melodrama is no cheap device to rattle your nerves: it is both heart wrenching and thought provoking, as the emotions it elicits will be mixed, depending on whose life, whose position you examine: those engaged in the horror or those consumed by it.

The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas is largely told from the perspective of a child, which is to say that it casts a familiar and much examined world into a twilight of the uncanny—the known revisited as the hazily uncharted in the act of exploration. The Boy is about as un-Hollywood in its exploration of childhood and fascism as Pan’s Labyrinth—and similarly gruesome. In its final scenes, in which terrified parents run through the woods in search of their son, it resembles the horror of a Grimm’s tale before Disney got his fingers on it.

The Boy is uncompromisingly bleak. The title character, as you might have guessed, is a Jewish child in a Nazi concentration camp. As I was reminded on a recent visit to Riga, Latvia, the camp uniform does indeed resemble old-fashioned sleep ware, a comparison all the more poignant if we consider that the camps were the final resting place for most of its inmates.

The central character, though, is the son of a Nazi officer. Eight years old, he is unaware of what is going on beyond the walls of his austere new home, the one to which his family moved from Berlin after his father was assigned with the supervision of the nearby concentration camp. To the boy in his cheerless isolation, the camp is farm, a lively community where he might make new friends. Day after day, he ventures through the woods to the electric fence behind which he descries a boy is own age, a fellow whose life seems mysterious and exciting to him. Why should he accept that his new playmate is separated from him? Why not ignore or overcome this barrier? Why not wear “striped pyjamas” to be just like his new friend?

We have the answers to those questions; history provided them, and everyday life often confirms them. We know what happened. We might even know what is going on right now. Some of us know and are ready to confess to the limits of our humanity, the margins beyond which fall those whom we consider in the abstract of numerals rather than as individuals. The Boy is too intimate a story to be called metaphorical. We are being sentenced to death, and the film’s ending is our own. Facing it, we realize that beyond knowing lies the challenge of understanding.

7 Replies to “Holocaust Ending: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”

  1. Of course you meant that Harry (silly me ). I read this book over a couple of night-sits that I had and the ending was not what I expected…I was hoping for a fairytale ending and not one that left me feeling upset. I would like to see the film but I have so little time off these days. By the time I get around to it, it will be out on DVD.A movie never seems to live up to the expectations of the book though…With the exception of \’Lord of the Rings\’ maybe. I read \’Love in the Time of Cholera\’, a wonderful book but a disappointing movie. I never seem to know what to write on your blog as my knowledge of words isn\’t quite up to scratch so I apologise for that.Im sorry you are having problems posting comments on my blog. I will keep my eye on yours though.Take care for nowOff out to work again soon.C

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  2. Thank you for writing, Cory. I hope you will find time to sit down and watch a good movie soon, or enjoy a book. I seem to have far more time to myself than you do, which is why I play with words.It isn\’t easy to translate written text into definite images, no matter how descriptive the words are. We want to see the characters we encounter in fiction; but others (including those who make movies) rarely see them the way we do, which is what often makes adaptations so unsatisfactory. Besides, words can sound beautiful and rich and exciting to us; they have qualities that cannot be translated or substituted.I shall try to leave comments again in the future; I noticed that other readers of your journal do not have a problem posting theirs.

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  3. Well your blog is certainly full of rich and colourful words Harry. I wish i could express myself as well through words but i struggle at it. It would be nice to feel that people visit my blog because of content rather than the images.You are right, i have had no other complaints about posting comments but not to worry im not keeping count on my replies. It is just an easier way for me to keep track of who i am speaking to. I will have to add you to my bloglist when i get home from work later – this will make finding you a little easier. Hope you have a good day 🙂

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  4. LOL…I would have no comments and no-one visiting. My images only attract for a little while then the visitors are off elsewhere. It doesnt bother me though i just wish i could write as good as a lot of people on blogspot. Now, if i had your words and my images, well id be flying…LOL.

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  5. LOL…i had a good laugh at that.I would say the same but express myself much better. Im quite good at expressing myself around people but when it comes to writing it down it just dosent seem to come out the way that i want it to. I envy my elder sister for this, she has the brains..lol.

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