Thursday, March 12, 2009

Holocaust Fairy Tale

By David Luhrssen
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Seeing the world through a child’s eyes is a dangerous proposition in literature or film. The temptation to sentimentalize is strong; the urge to load adult concerns onto the child protagonist is almost inescapable. One of the better kid’s eye movies of recent years, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), was also among the most controversial. Some critics couldn’t accept the concept of the naive eight-year old son of a death camp commandant befriending a Jewish prisoner his own age.

Seeing it again on DVD strengthens my opinion that calling the film unrealistic is beside the point. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an allegory, a word most film critics wouldn’t understand even if they took the time to look for it in the lexicon. Little eight-year old Bruno represents innocence betrayed, the danger of naiveté, the son devoured by the sins of the father, the monsters that lurk in human skin. Of course, a Jewish and German boy could not have met through the barbed wire of a death camp and become friends. The plot is a fairy tale, a grim one like all good fairy tales and conveying an unsettling message. And it’s a good child’s eye drama.

British director Mark Herman captures an eight-year old’s range of freedom and confinement, the unhurried hours of summer days that never end. The path through the back door of Bruno’s yard leads down a sylvan trail, but the secret garden he thinks he finds is actually an inner circle of hell.

Bruno’s family is a microcosm of Nazi Germany. His older sister suddenly turns into a devoted Nazi, as much for the hot young SS officer in dad’s office as for the movement’s emotionally powerful imagery. Their regal grandmother is quietly contemptuous of the Nazis while grandfather is a party member from misguided patriotism. Mom gave little thought to the “relocation” of the Jews until discovering what actually goes on in her husband’s camp. And dad is not the raving demoniac Ralph Fienes played so well in Schindler’s List but a patient family man, sincere in his belief that Jews “aren’t really people at all” and that he’s “working very hard to make this a better world” for his son. In the end, he only destroys the one loves.

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