The Boy in the Striped
A new movie entitled "The Boy in
the Striped Pajamas," based on a best-selling book written
by Irish author John Boyne in 2006, opened nationwide in American
theaters on November 21, 2008. The film is touted as a "family
movie," rated PG13, which parents are encouraged to take
their older children to see. The author of the book wrote that
"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is a fable; libraries
classify it as Teen Fiction and the movie producer calls the
story a fantasy.
A fable is a fictional story that has
a moral. For example, the German fairy tale "Hansel and
Gretel" is a fable: the story couldn't possible be true
because it includes a wicked witch who lives in an edible gingerbread
house and cooks and eats little children. Likewise, the story
of "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" includes many details
that are not credible.
The title of the movie refers to an 8-year-old
Jewish boy named Schmuel, who is a prisoner in a Nazi concentration
camp, dressed in a striped blue and gray prison uniform, but
the story is actually about Bruno, the 8-year-old son of the
Commandant of the camp, his sister Gretel, who is a true believer
in Nazi ideology, and the wicked Nazis who gas little children.
Why did the author choose the name Bruno,
instead of Hansel? Bruno is an old German name, which means "brown"
in English, but it is used today in many countries. Did the author
intend the character of Bruno to represent a little boy from
the 21st century who knows nothing about Nazi Germany and the
Holocaust? Is this a literary device, an anachronism, a person
or a thing that is chronologically out of place, which is used
to show the horror experienced by children today as they lose
their innocence when they learn about the Holocaust? I think
All of the characters in the movie speak
English with a British accent. In real life, Bruno would have
spoken a German dialect and Schmuel would have spoken Yiddish.
They would have been able to communicate only if both also spoke
High German, the equivalent of English with a British accent.
When the movie starts, Bruno is totally
clueless. He knows nothing about German nationalism or Hitler's
war against the Jews. This is strange because he lives in Berlin,
the capital of Nazi Germany, and presumably he goes to a public
school where children were indoctrinated in Nazi ideology at
an early age. He must have seen park benches with a sign saying
that they were for "Aryans only." He must have seen
Jews being denied access to street cars in Berlin, but he apparently
knows nothing about what is going on in Germany in the 1940s.
Bruno lives in the heart of Berlin and
in the book, he is nine years old. He would have been five years
old on November 9, 1938 when the store windows of all the Jewish
stores were smashed; he would have walked through the broken
glass on his way to kindergarten the morning after. As a German
boy, Bruno would have been thrilled at the sight of "der
Führer" riding through the streets of Berlin, standing
up in his Mercedes, while the worshipping German people pelted
him with flowers. But in the movie, Bruno is more like an 8-year-old
boy today who knows nothing about Nazi Germany.
When a tutor is hired to teach him about
why the Nazis hated International Jewry, Bruno couldn't care
less. His older sister, Gretel, tries to explain to Bruno that
the Jews are "the enemy," and that the Jews are the
reason that Germany lost "the Great War."
One of the reasons that the Nazis gained
power is because Hitler gave the German people back their pride
and their self respect after their defeat in World War I, originally
known as the Great War. But we see none of the German nationalism
and hear none of the Nazi marching songs in the opening scene
of the movie. There is a huge Nazi flag in the first scene, but
that's all. In a later scene, Bruno's mother turns off the radio
as soon as she hears a few bars of the Nazi anthem, the Horst
At the start of the movie, the audience
is as clueless as Bruno. There is a fleeting glimpse of people
on the street being forced into trucks, but there is no indication
that these are Jews being rounded up and taken to the concentration
camps. The "asocials" and homeless vagrants were also
taken off the streets in Nazi Germany and sent to a camp where
they were put to work.
In the opening scene, Bruno and his little
friends are shown running through the streets of Berlin with
no adult supervision, even though the scene is taking place in
the middle of a war in which Berlin is the main target for Allied
bombing. In fact, Bruno's anti-Nazi grandmother is killed during
a bombing raid on Berlin, but that comes later.
The story line is that Bruno's father,
Ralf, has been promoted to the job of Commandant of an unnamed
concentration camp. In the book, the camp is identified as Auschwitz,
which Bruno pronounces "out-with," another indication
that Bruno is supposed to be a non-German boy today, since there
is no th sound in the German language. In order for Ralf to have
been given such an important position, he would have had to have
been in a lower position in another concentration camp, or he
would have had to have spent some time in the training camp at
Dachau. The real life Commandant of Auschwitz was trained at
Dachau and worked in the Sachsenhausen camp near Berlin before
Before he was promoted, Ralf could not
have been making enough money to afford a mansion in the heart
of Berlin, such as the one shown in the movie. Unless, of course,
this mansion had been taken away from a Jewish family and given
to him, as was frequently the case, although this is not explained
in the movie because the story is told from Bruno's point of
Little Bruno is not told about the family's
relocation until the day that the movers are there carrying out
the furniture, and he is not told that the family will be living
just outside a concentration camp. For the trip to the camp,
Bruno and his family take a train pulled by a steam locomotive.
We see a cloud of ominous black smoke pouring out of the locomotive
as the train approaches the concentration camp, the first hint
of something horrible that is about to happen. Remember the train
in the opening scene of Schindler's List?
In the sleeper car of the train, Bruno
is shown wearing blue and white striped pajamas that look like
the prison uniforms that the Jews wear in the concentration camps
- another harbinger of things to come. The inmates in all the
prisons in Germany had worn blue and gray striped uniforms for
years, something that everyone in Germany would have known, even
the children, but Bruno's father allows his son to wear blue
and white striped pajamas. Like I said, this is a fable.
Hitler hated modern art and modern architecture,
which he called "degenerate." One of the first things
Hitler did was to close down the Bauhaus school of modern architecture
in Weimar and the Bauhaus architects all moved to America. Yet,
in this movie, the Commandant's house near the concentration
camp is ultra modern, inside and out, a fortress guarded by armed
soldiers and vicious dogs.
With no playmates in the vicinity of
his new home, Bruno soon gets bored; he goes exploring and finds
what he thinks is a farm that he can see from his bedroom window.
Actually, there was a farm at the Auschwitz camp, where some
of the prisoners worked, and the real Commandant of Auschwitz
was a farmer before he joined the SS.
Unlike the real Auschwitz II camp, also
known as Birkenau, which this fictional camp vaguely resembles,
there are no fenced off sections inside the camp, so the unguarded
perimeter fence is all that separates the Jews from freedom.
Anyone can tunnel underneath the barbed wire fence because there
is only one guard tower in sight, and it is unmanned.
Bruno meets Schmuel, an 8-year-old Jewish
boy, who is a prisoner in the concentration camp where Bruno's
father is the Commandant. Schmuel works in construction in the
camp, pushing an empty wheel barrow, and lives in the barracks
with his father. Only boys who were at least 15 years old were
chosen to work at Auschwitz; younger children were immediately
gassed, but not Schmuel. Schmuel was chosen to work, and he is
allowed to work completely unsupervised, so that he does nothing
but sit near the perimeter fence and stare out at the trees surrounding
the camp. The movie was filmed in Hungary and these are not birch
trees, like at the real Auschwitz II camp.
Schmuel wears a number on his uniform,
which Bruno thinks is part of a game. Unlike the prisoners at
the real Auschwitz, the Jews do not have their numbers tattooed
on their arms, and they do not wear badges to identify them as
The concentration camp prisoners who
worked in the homes of the SS staff were German inmates who were
Jehovah's Witnesses. They were chosen to work as servants because
they were considered trustworthy. The other inmates of the concentration
camps were assigned jobs based on their work skills. The Nazis
used Hollerith cards to keep track of the prisoners and their
assignments based on their skills and education which were coded
on the cards. Doctors were always assigned to work in the camp
hospitals, never in German homes.
In this fable, a Jewish doctor is assigned
to work in the home of the Commandant, where he peels potatoes
unsupervised in the kitchen, and pours wine at the table when
the Commandant has guests, even though the family also has a
German maid. This Jewish doctor could have easily poisoned the
wine, or slit Bruno's throat with a paring knife, but instead
he bandages the little boy's knee when he falls off a swing.
Bruno's mother says "Thank you." and we get the first
hint that she is becoming a traitor who will soon turn against
her Nazi husband.
To top it all off, in the Striped Pajamas
fable, 8-year-old Schmuel is pulled from his construction job
of pushing an empty wheel barrel and assigned to clean a whole
table full of expensive crystal glasses, completely unsupervised,
in the Commandant's home. In real life, Schmuel would already
have been selected for the gas chamber because he is too young
to work, but there are no selections at Auschwitz in this fable:
as we will soon learn, children and skilled workers are crammed
into the gas chamber at the same time.
In the real Auschwitz main camp, the
crematorium was wedged in between the Gestapo building and the
SS Hospital where any billowing black smoke or smell of burning
flesh would have driven the SS men out of the camp, but apparently
this never happened because there is no smoke and no smell from
the burning of bodies in crematoria in real life. In John Boyne's
fable, Bruno's mother eventually figures out what is going on
at the camp because she smells the odor from a crematorium and
sees black smoke. Instead of telling her that the bodies had
to be burned to prevent the spread of a typhus epidemic in the
camp, her husband the Commandant tells her that sometimes they
burn rubbish at the camp.
As the fable comes to an end, Bruno peeks
through a transom and sees his father and other SS officers watching
a movie about the concentration camps in which it is shown that
they had orchestras, libraries, soccer matches and a cafe for
the inmates. Actually, in real life, the Nazis did make a film
of the Theresienstadt concentration camp where the prisoners
did enjoy all these things.
At Birkenau, the place where the orchestra
practiced was close enough to the Crematorium III gas chamber
that the prisoners could hear classical music as they descended
into the undressing room. The soccer field at Birkenau was a
stone's throw from the Crematorium III gas chamber. There were
large libraries for the prisoners at Dachau and Buchenwald, although
not at Birkenau.
After seeing part of this movie, Bruno
sneaks off to the concentration camp, taking an American style
Subway sandwich with him for his friend Schmuel. (Back then,
the Germans typically ate one slice of bread with a slice of
sausage on top and German cookbooks had to explain how to make
an American "sandwich.")
Then we see Bruno's father as he consults
with other SS men in his office. There is an architectural drawing
on the table, labeled Crematorium IV, which shows a gas chamber.
As the music gets louder and louder,
we know that the unthinkable is about to happen.
Unlike the Hansel and Gretel fable, this
one ends badly.
This web page was created on November