Saturday, November 8, 2008

Yes, Bruno, there was a Holocaust

Far be it from me to suggest restrictions on how artists approach any subject, even the Holocaust. This most calamitous event in a long series of sorry human transgressions remains a source of endless fascination, horror and authorial obsession, and it has attracted lots of diverse talents.

But when I review a movie that deals with the Holocaust, I find it impossible to separate my values from my criticism. And for me, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" seems pretty much an exercise in audaciously poor judgment. In focusing on the son of a Nazi officer and concentration camp commandant, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" too often finds itself acting the poor witness: The movie spends too much time looking in the wrong direction.

David Thewlis plays a German officer who has been assigned to run a concentration camp. Dad and mom (Vera Farmiga) try to keep things normal for their two children, eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) and his 12-year-old sister (Amber Beattie). Toward that end, the family moves into a house that’s located at a supposedly “safe” distance from the camp. But the curious Bruno discovers the place anyway, initially supposing that the men wearing striped pajamas are farmers. He doesn’t grasp the enormity of what he’s seeing even when he begins to develop a "friendship" with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a Jewish boy imprisoned in the camp. Bruno and Shmuel chat through a barbed wire fence.

Based on a 2006 novel by John Boyne, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" has the feel of something written for teen discussion groups. It's presumably intended to teach lessons about the price of institutionalized bigotry that's turned into national policy. But in shortchanging Shmuel, the story inevitably serves to diminish the most important part of the Holocaust: the murder of six million Jews and millions of others who didn't fit the Nazi mold. The expanding consciousness of an eight-year-old German boy and the ultimate suffering of his family pales in comparison to the vicious consequences of Hitler's "Final Solution." I can't say more without giving away the movie's shocking ending, but know that “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” makes for a poor introduction to a subject that never should be reduced to fairy-tale proportions.

Writing in the New York Times, critic Manohla Dargis took an even more extreme view: “See the Holocaust trivialized, glossed over, kitsched up, commercially exploited and hijacked for a tragedy about a Nazi family. Better yet and in all sincerity: don’t.”

Dargis may swing the hammer a little too hard, but she pretty much hits the nail on the head. I didn't, however, get the impression that the filmmakers wanted to exploit the Holocaust. They probably hoped to do the opposite. But before it's possible to venture into such deep thematic waters, it's necessary to learn how to swim. In this case, that would have meant amassing greater knowledge and engaging in deeper reflection than "Boy in the Striped Pajamas" shows.


Toto said...

Really disagree here. I thought the book and the film (the book is better, hardly a shock) tackles a subject that's been treated over and again from a fresh, utterly innocent perspective.

The author has been studying the Holocaust for years ... he's been a voracious reader on the subject, even though he never directly intended to write about it.

Robert Denerstein said...

I know a lot of folks don't see the movie the way I do, and I certainly don't doubt that the author did some reading about the Holocaust. But that doesn't mean that his perspective was the right one. In any case, the movie -- for me -- doesn't reflect the fact that a lot of study went into it.