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The Boy in The Striped Pajamas: A Parable for Our Times By: Meghan Nally

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) presents itself as an historical drama, but the staging hides an apt parable for the 21st century. The historical setting, paired with director Mark Herman’s creative use of cinematic elements, makes for a film that not only provides commentary about Nazi Germany but illustrates the process in a way for audiences to intellectually and emotionally understand how and why such egregiously hateful dynamics towards a people came to be. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a parable for how unrecognized privilege and externally imposed societal ideologies can result in the inability to think abstractly for oneself and the compounding factor that this loss in individual thoughtful responsibility results in an imprisonment to group-think, an identification with society that damages all embroiled in hateful ideology.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) takes place in Nazi Germany during time of the second World War. We are introduced to the film’s main protagonist, Bruno at the start. Bruno is a carefree 8-year-old boy who enjoys playing with his friends the most. His life drastically changes when he learns his father, Ralph a Nazi Commander, received a promotion and how he and his family must move from their home in war-stricken Berlin, Germany to the countryside because of it. The family completely uproots their lives and attempts to adjust to their new circumstances. Some find it easier than others.

"Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour or reason grows." John Betjeman

The sister Gretel takes in everything she’s being taught and shown, accepts it, and embodies and believes in it without hesitation. The father continues on with his duties, but as the film progresses finds it difficult to keep his family united due to the environment they’re in. As time goes on and more is revealed and discovered about the true nature of her husband’s position and overall agenda of the Nazi party, Vera the mother begins to lose her hold until she finally insists the her and the children leave at the end.

As you'll note from the clip above, Gretel completely adopts the demonizing view of "Jews" as a people. She is beyond the sounds and smells of youth, now embroiled in the "dark hour" when reason grows. Yet her "reason" is that of the white-nationalist Nazis, fearful of their precarious position in society.

Elsa's realization of betrayal.

Bruno’s journey however is a little different. He struggles adjusting initially, as Bruno a natural explorer is told never to leave the house or front yard. Eventually Bruno’s curiosity gets the best of him and he sneaks out to go discover the woods and his explorations lead him to the “farm” he saw from a window in his bedroom with “workers in pajamas” in it.

Here things begin to change for him as he befriends a boy imprisoned inside what is really a concentration camp, Shmuel, who is exactly his age. They play games on either side of the fence, get to know each other, and Bruno begins to learn what the camp really is and what/how it functions. As his friendship grows with the boy through everyday visits and many conversations; so does his intellectual and emotional confusion as it contradicts everything being taught to him in school, at home, and every social construct of the time. He finds himself forging a meaningful and true relationship with him.

As the film progresses, internal and external conflicts continuously arise and begin to increase in frequency, and tensions between family members mount. Eventually it all becomes too much after a Jew is beaten to death in their kitchen, truths are exposed, and fights ensue, but as the family prepares to leave Bruno goes missing.

His loyalty to his friend Shmuel, good intentions, and friendship land him inside the concentration camp in an attempt to find his father after he has gone “missing”. The plan hatched by the boys involves sneaking Bruno in as a prisoner. Once in the camp while trying to find him, Bruno sees firsthand the horrors of the camp, and realizes Shmuel has been telling him the truth all along.

All of a sudden madness ensues as it is “shower time”. The boys get swept up in the herd and in an unfortunate series of events end up being put in the incinerator with the masses.

Human incineration

Bruno’s parents are too late to the scene finding his clothes outside the camp, and the film ends with the camera slowly panning out of the dead silent closed door of the chamber both boys now lie behind.

A shot of discarded clothing prior to incineration

The trouble truthfully begins right from the get-go, once Bruno’s family announces they’re moving. Herman’s use of camera angles begins to create the deep personal immersion of the audience into the film, which is of upmost importance for the overarching objective of the film. Herman utilizes subject camera distance throughout the entirety of the film. The closer the camera is, the more emotional weight the subject gains. Close ups also convey importance to the viewer. During moments of intense interpersonal emotions within a specific character, Herman utilizes the close up shot. The raw reactions, any mixed feelings, and thought processes are so accurately and clearly conveyed. And so, by incorporating these shots not only do viewers completely understand exactly what the characters are feeling and thinking, they become invested in the emotions themselves. These become pivotal moments that stick with the audience and stand out as important upon later and complete reflection.

Still of a tracking shot

The first time Herman implement’s this strategy is when Bruno learns of his father’s promotion and the family’s big move. Imminently the shot is redirected solely to him. Nothing else is in focus or even in the screen but his face here. The uneasiness Bruno is so clearly feeling radiates off the screen and right into the core of the viewers, fostering a sense of suspicion and anxiety about the situation right off the bat. By concentrating in on this from the very beginning and leaving it to resonate in the audience’s minds, a tone is set for the rest of the film and events to follow. The opulence of the "promotional party" is juxtaposed with the camps the father is intended to "manage."

Bruno is a distant viewer in this scene, shot from below, alone on the balcony, looking down upon his Father as he receives accolades from colleagues. The matter of "looking down" is significant for viewers, even though it simply appears as a natural scene in an opulent house. Viewers are introduced to the growing sense of shame rising in Bruno, or rising (at least) in the audience. Viewers today do "look down" upon the Father in his overt Nazi collaboration.

Another very clear example of the utilization of close ups to vividly express and convey emotions is when the mother learns what is really happening in the camps. After coming back to the house from the store upon getting out of the car she makes a comment about a particularly pungent smell. One of the soldiers who accompanied her retorts with “they smell even worse when they burn”. Herman immediately cuts to the mother, and the camera slowly pans in at an unobtrusive normal angle to a close up of her. The audience gets a front row seat to the emotional fall out thereafter. The initial disbelief soon turns into utter shock as she connects the dots, and results in absolute overwhelming horror at the end realization that the camps are burning the Jewish people inside them. She (and the rest of the country) had no idea that was occurring within. Once again, the shot features her and only her, just further rendering the intensity at which the audience feels what she does.

"They smell even worse when they burn, don't they?"

In this scene Elsa learns of her betrayal by her husband and the "fatherland." The disgust and horror we see on her face here is in response to her experience of "smelling" the burning human bodies, as she listens to the dehumanizing comments of the soldier quoted above.

“Parables, paradoxes, hyperboles, and extreme commandments all disorient only to reorient us. But what is reoriented in us? and in what direction? I would say that what is reoriented by these extreme sayings is less our will than imagination. Our will is our capacity to follow without hesitation that once-chosen way, to obey without resistance the once-known law. Our imagination is the power to open us to new possibilities, to discover another way of seeing, or acceding to a new rule in receiving the instruction of the exception.”

– Paul Ricoeur ‘The Logic of Jesus, the Logic of God’ in Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination (281)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) is a parable for our times. It does in fact disorient the audience only to reorient in the direction of self-autonomy and reject the unrecognized privilege and socially imposed ideologies mentioned above that result in the following of the “will” rather than imagination. The primary disorientation is seen in the irony of the concentration camp and the family’s home. The concentration camp seems to be the obvious prison while the home is in the world and its inhabitants seemingly free in comparison. Through the utilization of mis-en-scene elements it is revealed that the home and the family are really the ones in a prison. They’re chained by their concrete mindsets and inability to think abstractly in their world view and opinions of other humans.

Mis-en-scene elements of this film are crucial to the creation of this overarching message. Two main ones are the way Herman employs both color and lighting. The film is primarily shot in two specific locations: the house and outside the concentration camp. These two locations starkly contrast each other in both lighting and color. Every scene inside the house is dimly lit. The coloring can be described as mundane at best, even grey and bleak at times. These foster a sense of inconspicuousness and puts the audience on edge.

The scenes outside at the concentration camp, a true physical prison, are juxtaposed and filled with shared truth, conversation, and human connection. All of the outside shots are filled with sunshine and natural lighting. They are more vibrant, bright, and saturated.

Visually juxtaposed to the light-filled, quasi-natural environment surrounding the conversations between Bruno and Shmuel, are the shots composed in Bruno's home; though he is "free", the home is visually presented as another kind of prison. The family is not supposed to physically leave, conversations are sparse, and the truth of the horror both nationwide and what lies behind their house is withheld from them, like the rest of the country, and veiled with Nazi propaganda. Their opinions, judgement, hatred, lack of humanity, and repression are what imprisons them and keeps them from discovering how to see humanity and the world clearly and freely.

Notice the lattice-work of the staircase in the screen-shot shared behind this text. Bruno is behind a different set of bars. Gretel's clutching of her Aryan dolls also represents her attempt to cling to a fading sense of the innocence and beauty of the "people" to whom she belongs. They are both at a remove from one another, accentuated by the bars of the staircase. Again, Bruno is "looking down" at his sister, another capitulator in thought and life.

In contrast, and although Bruno and Shmuel also dwell in different physical and cultural worlds than Bruno and Gretel, the differentiating factors don’t matter to them as children, and they ultimately forge a meaningful friendship. As their bond develops, they begin going to great lengths for each other. Through this we are reminded that if we strip away the ingrained societal notions that were imposed, people are people. No one should categorize another, because only hate and prejudice can come of it. This is still an important message to convey today as it still rings true. We are not post-racial by any means. nor is Bruno, for that matter, who denies knowing Shmuel in this scene, just after expressing his friendship to this "enemy":

Notice, too, that Bruno expresses his shame at his Father's life, but then lives into it precisely as a Nazi son, and then experiences his own shame at being who he is after his Peter-like betrayal.

"54 Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. 55 When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. 56 Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” 57 But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” 58 A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” 59 Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” 60 But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” 62 And he went out and wept bitterly." (Luke 22:54-62)

As stated before, the film reinforces the parabolicity of unrecognized privilege and externally imposed societal ideologies that can result in the inability to think abstractly and the finding of oneself stuck in a concrete mindset to which an individual can ultimately become imprisoned to through specific themes. A lot of these important themes are core Jesuit values. Among these Jesuit teachings are the ideals of solidarity, the notion that we are more alike than we are different, humanity, tolerance, contemplatives in action, and magis. As a Jesuit institution of higher learning these are some of the chief characteristics embedded in the Ignatian vision of education at the University of Scranton.

Solidarity is a key value woven throughout the film, also known in the Jesuit circles by the phrase: "becoming men and women for and with others”. Solidarity is a core principle of Catholic social teaching. It is the equality of all in dignity and rights. Pope John Paul II describes it as “above all a question of interdependence, sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world in its economic, cultural, political and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, par. 38)

Bruno's solidarity, interdependence, and virtue can be seen in his connection with Shmuel. He goes everyday down to the camp and is physically there with him. They exchange thoughts, share emotions, and Bruno listens to him and tries to sympathize with him. It is something he will never understand completely or experience himself. But yet he tries to help the best he can by just being there or bringing anything he can, like food. He commits himself completely to Shmuel in the end by going to help find his missing father. Bruno does not just simply feel for his counterpart, he feels responsible for his friend in the purest way he can.

He continues on to say “When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a ‘virtue,’ is solidarity. This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual because we are all really responsible for all.” (Krammer, 2013)

The Boy in The Striped Pajamas (2008) furthers solidarity by conveying the notion that as humans we are all more similar than we are different. At a basic level, we all desire compassion, companionship, and love, and we all deserve the same level of dignity and human rights. Bruno and Shmuel are at their core, one in the same. The boys play together, feel the same way about their fathers, laugh together, and enjoy each other’s company the same. Their circumstances and complete differences in their status and doctrine that fills their lives do not change the fact that at the end of the day they both appreciate and need this symbiotic companionship along with compassion and dignity they give one another.

As Pope John Paul II notes here, ...

Additionally Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church names solidarity as a core principle of Catholic social teaching and states that “the acceleration of interdependence between persons and peoples needs to be accompanied by equally intense efforts on the ethical-social plane, in order to avoid the dangerous consequences of perpetrating injustice on a global scale.” (Krammer, 2013). This can be obviously seen in the state that the country of Germany as a whole finds itself in. The efforts referred to were completely abandoned and the consequences severe; an entire race of people, imprisoned, tortured, and so many killed.

The Jesuit teachings of humanity and tolerance stress finding good in all people, that all humans are equal. Humanity and tolerance at their core mean everyone should be treated equally and not stereotyped into categories in which discrimination begins, no matter what race, gender, age, or religion they are. The coined term for this Ignatian-Jesuit characteristic is "cura personalis" which is Latin for “care for the whole person.”

“the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body…” (1 Corinthians 12:12)

The term originated in Jesuit circles originally only referring to the students they were educating in their institutes. Their mission was to educate the whole person, which in turn meant they were taking care of the person as a whole. However, it has since expanded to society and all those who inhabit the Earth. It refers to our call to care for the community around us and human body as a whole intellectually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Cura personalis takes into account the entire person as a whole when it comes to decisions, considerations, the impact actions have on anothers sense of self and all the relationships they have in their lives. It calls for respect for the needs of the person as a whole and an appreciation for their unique gifts and insights.

It is through the historically accurate depiction of the time period that contains the complete and utter absence of all this, which is how the film ultimately expresses the importance of humanity, tollerance, and cura personalis. The drastic measures in which the film does so appeals to the morality and humanity of the audience. Bruno’s family is always dressed immaculately. Their outfits qualify as fancy in accordance to the historical time frame. Every piece of clothing perfectly clean, ironed, and every hair perfectly in place. Bruno’s father and the Nazi soldiers are constantly in uniforms and suits that are properly fitted to their bodies, sleek, professional, properly cleaned and ironed accompanied by polished shoes. This look of power and domination is so starkly juxtaposed by the costumes of Shmuel and the other Jewish people in the concentration camp.

Bruno confronted by Nazi soldier

The Jewish people in the concentration camp are clothed in striped pajamas that are utterly filthy, beaten up, ill-fitting and raggedy. Additionally, their bodies are caked in layers of dirt and soot, covered in scabs, and teeth yellow grey or rotting; while Bruno’s family and soldiers are always clean and well kept. The usage of appearance via costumes and makeup only further drives the notion that in the eyes of the German people Jews don’t even deserve the dignity of basic cleanliness or proper clothing, and they’re not people.

Shmuel chosen for the task because of his "small fingers" and Bruno's betrayal.

Herman's use of camera angels provide expressive content to a scene. In a unique scene where Bruno hurts his knee while playing, a Jewish man from the concentration camp, Pavel, takes him inside and treats him. He and Bruno talk, and Pavel reveals he used to be a doctor. The mother walks in and quickly dismisses Bruno. Throughout the scene, Pavel is sitting on a stool on the floor while Bruno is on the counter and the mother is standing up. The interactions between these individuals are characterized by an obvious angle shot from above, either Bruno or Vera’s viewpoint. This angle conveys a sense of condescension. It reinforces the classes and current social status of these very two different groups of people. Throughout the film the adults in Bruno’s life are constantly telling him that Jew’s are “not really people at all”. This shot emphasizes the mindset and opinions of these individuals and most of the country at the time, that they were somehow more human than those of Jewish decent. That they were above them.

The creation of the loss of humanity and intolerance, and its effects are discussed in the essay Michelangelo and the Curse of Ham: From a Typology of Jew-Hatred to a Genealogy of Racism, which can be found in Writing Race Across the Atlantic World (2007). The essay discusses Michelangelo’s Nakedness of Noah, specifically the character Ham. In the artwork Naoh is banishing his son Ham, but for what shameful act has been debated for centuries. Regardless of the horrific act, the image became a vehicle for hatred, and then later enslavement of the Jewish and African American races. And it has to do with how and who Ham was depicted as as time went on

What is the basis for each of these different interpretations, Ham as Jew and Ham as Black? Neither is self-evident from the scriptural passage itself. Though one essential and permanent element is there. In all interpretations, Ham was the archetypal Other. Whatever the phobia of a moment, Ham was it” (Beidler, 2007).

This statement shows how the cycle begins, and the article goes on to illuminate the spread. Crediting the widespread propagation of the images to every class and library through transition into manuscripts available to all. Once these socially constructed ideologies become widespread, they take hold in the minds of the masses and have drastic effects.

“Even before the Curse of Ham became a justification for enslaving Africans, it became a means of constructing them. The Curse of Ham not only created African identity; it was also essential to the fixing of white identity. Just as Africans made it possible for Europeans to master and tame the wild reaches of the lands beyond the western ocean, so a theory of African origins allowed Europeans to tame the fear that they themselves might become as wild as the lands they sought to conquer. Europeans dared to master the Western Hemisphere first on the skin of Africans and only then on their muscle” (Beidler, 2007).

It is this complete loss of humanity and lack of tolerance that allowed for an entire race to create and completely enslave another race, create an identity for themselves, and then pass down unrecognized privilege for centuries and generations to come.

The analyses introduced above are both applicable to today’s culture and offer contemporary parallels for what happened in Nazi Germany. Through propaganda widely distributed to the public it found its way into every household and eventually into the teaching materials in schools and the shaping of the youth. It infiltrated the minds of the public and both violated and interrupted the self-autonomy of every individual, resulting in a concrete mindset and inability to process the privilege they’d come into.

While the first step in deconstructing these externally imposed social ideologies and the literal and intellectual imprisonment they create is to recognize and try to sympathize, Jesuit values teach that mere thinking and understanding it is not enough, that action must be taken to address social justice issues. Although humans have the ability to be thoughtful and philosophical, we should not merely think about social problems, we need to take action to address them.
Bruno and Shmuel, together in the concentration camp

In the film while it was a mix of Bruno’s ignorance and his solidarity to Shmuel that aided in the rejection of forming discriminatory beliefs, in the end it wasn’t enough, for either boy. These qualities did not save Bruno from his fate. This is a metaphor, that while certain physical death usually is not a consequence, lack of contemplatives in action are the death of true humanity.

In The Burden of Guilt and the Imperative of Reform: Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew Take Up the Challenge of Re-Spiritualizing Christianity in the Anthropocene Age (2017) two modern religious leaders, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I and Roman Catholicism's Pope Francis speak globally specifically about the crisis of climate change.

And while this topic is not one found in the film, the same overarching arguments and solutions can be applied for social justice issues talked about in this paper. They identify the deep roots of the crisis in today’s anthropocentric culture. Pope Francis in particular insists on the importance of the recall of this ethos, and the need to revert back to St. Ignatius of Loyola’s world view in particular. One that sees all created things as an expression of God’s glory, which starkly contrasts the ascesis of modern capitalisms. The later can be described as disciplined avarice in action, and both men advocate for the reversion to the first which can be described as disciplined contemplation in action.

For Bruno and the people in the film living through Nazi Germany, their contemplatives in action would have included the Jesuit teaching of Magis. Magis is the value of giving and providing service to those in need and marginalized. As humans, we are encouraged and called upon to peruse justice on behalf of all persons. In the film justice should have been sought for the Jewish people specifically. Neither this nor contemplatives in action are necessarily easy or convenient. In fact, sometimes when its most imperative to step up, there may be potential personal consequences. Whether it be loss of respect of others due to defying social “norms” or imminent danger, the choice can become difficult.

Bruno and his mother experience the adversity when they begin find themselves on the path to perusing magis for those who suffer in the camp behind their house. Herman utilizes the mis-en-scene element of deliberate silence instead of a soundtrack to aide in the creation of this adversity. The choice to forego a soundtrack creates an eerie silence that conveys to the audience incredibly overwhelming feelings of tension, anxiety, an uneasiness. Further rendering just how hard the choice can be to make in the thick of situations, even though it’s imperative to “choose the better”.

While the message of the film rings true for the specific time period of our history, as stated previously the parabolicity of the film is just as important for today’s culture. So many systematic issues that resulted in the situation Germany found itself in in the 1940s, still exist today. Many like to think these were left in the past, but we are not yet post radical by any means. Today’s society is extremely anthropocentric and modern capitalism continuously reinforces social constructs, specifically white supremacy, in which our country and so many others were built upon.

Witness the recent events in Charlottesville, VA.

As I noted above, we are far from being a post-racial culture in the United States. Even the demographics surrounding COVID-19 and public health show us the disparities within our own culture, determined along "racial" lines.

These only deepen the unrecognized privilege which ultimately imprisons so many intellectually and obstructs complete of self-autonomy, all the while continuing to worsen social injustices like racism that continue to result from this. One very relevant example is the recent murder of an African American man Ahmaud Arbery. While out for a jog, Arbery was tracked and gunned down by two white men, father and son.

While these issues do remain alive today and are arguably ingrained in our culture, it does not mean they will remain. According to Franz Boas, the founder of cultural anthropology

“the greatest moral battle of our time: is the struggle to prove that—despite differences of skin color, gender, ability, or custom—humanity is one undivided thing” (Menand, 2019).

Throughout history science has often been invoked as a justification for things like colonization, segregation, discrimination, exclusion, and extermination. Boas and so many others spent his life breaking this cycle and dedicated to finally proving that

“the belief that some races are superior and some inferior is learned; it has no basis in biology… our biological endowment evolved to allow us to choose how to respond to our environment. Only we can tell us how to live” (Menand, 2019).

It is through education that this cycle and culture can begin to break. The chains of the externally imposed social ideologies and closed mindsets must be shattered, in order to truly rid self of unrecognized privilege, regain self-autonomy, and revert back to St. Ignatius of Loyola’s world view of disciplined contemplation in action. It is through avenues like Jesuit education that these values are taught, and social justice issues are fought for. It is and always will be the tireless the fight of our generation and those to come. It is through art, media, and films like The Boy in The Striped Pajamas (2008) that help in this fight by serving as reminders and aiding in the wake-up call; as it provides a parable for the world we still live in today.

The essay fulfills the requirements set for the Final Project for Parables in Pop Culture (T/RS 228) at The University of Scranton, under the direction of Dr. Cyrus P. Olsen III, for spring semester 2020, under the conditions of COVID-19 lockdown.

Bibliography

Beidler, P., Taylor, G., Macmillan, P. (2005). Writing Race Across the Atlantic World : Medieval to Modern. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/scranton-ebooks/detail.action?docID=308417.

Krammer, F. (2013). Understanding CST Catholic Social Thought and Teaching. Just South Quarterly. Retrieved from http://www.loyno.edu/jsri/sites/loyno.edu.jsri/files/CST-Solidarity-Summer-2013-JSQ.pdf

Menand, L. (2019, August 19). How Cultural Anthropologists Redefined Humanity. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/08/26/how-cultural-anthropologists-redefined-humanity

Mongrain, K. (2017). The Burden of Guilt and the Imperative of Reform: Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew Take Up the Challenge of Re-Spiritualizing Christianity in the Anthropocene Age. Horizons, 44(1), 80–107. doi: 10.1017/hor.2017.57

Sikov, E. (2009). Film studies: An introduction. NY, Columbia University Press.