A Window into Life in the Suburbs

"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Luke 12:27 (NIV)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

On Video: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

While doing a little bit of research for this review, I was fascinated to note that there have been dozens holocaust films made since the 1940s... many of which aren't in English. There's a fairly decent list in Wikipedia although being Wikipedia, I can't guarantee it's exhaustive or entirely accurate. But I gave up counting after 60 when I was constantly interrupted by children and husband. A quick scroll through the list suggests something closer to 200 films or more.
I've seen a few holocaust films in my time -- Life is Beautiful, Schindler's List, Cabaret, The Diary of Anne Frank, Escape from Sobibor, Sophie's Choice (though not all of it). And I expect that many more will be made and many more stories like these from other parts of the world get told.
Still, I don't think anyone can watch such films untouched by the horrors of war and genocide. Such films are a constant reminder to us that evil lurks amongst us and within us. As George Santayana has famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

The poignancy of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas lies in its haunting manipulation of the narrative's point of view. Throughout much of the film, we take on the bewildered perceptions of the 8 year old protagonist, Bruno. We see war time Germany through his eyes and though we have the benefit of hindsight, it is through his naivete that we engage with his world as he tries to make sense of the horrors that his family is so desperate to shield him from. Even with all that we know about what happened, it is no less unsettling to see these sudden bursts of controlled violence within the facade of domestic felicity. Scattered throughout the film are hints that the nearby "farm" with its well-used chimneys is less interested in farming livestock and crops than herding men to their end.
After a slow build up, Bruno meets the boy in the striped pyjamas, Shumel, a young inmate of the "farm", hidden in the forest behind the family home.  Desperate for friendship and company in a world of men, an awkward relationship between two "innocents" is forged out of this encounter.

Despite the film's best efforts, I found it hard to connect with these characters. I really wanted to like this film as I had heard so many good things about it. Quite possibly I was not in the right frame of mind...  or that the slowness of the film worked against it (a factor that is seldom a problem for me) or even the jarring use of British accents. While I liked the storyline and was appropriately disturbed by the recurring use of understated violence, I didn't find the dialogue or the characters involving. I could sympathize with their motivations but mostly I felt like an outsider looking in at people interacting in a war film rather than war film about people.

Certainly, there was much to weep over -- the loss of innocence, the loss of humanity, but in the end, despite feeling the horrors of the situation, I was unable to empathize with the people in it.


  1. That is an interesting perspective. I haven't seen it, but really look forward to seeing it. The trailers looked great - pity if it isn't very engaging

  2. I think the great majority of people on IMDB found it compelling.
    I didn't find it so but it doesn't mean others won't. You should see it anyway. It's a decent film.


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