“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.