“If any of you put a stumbling block before
one of these little ones who believe in me,
it would be better for you if a great millstone
were fastened around your neck and you
were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe
to the world because of stumbling blocks!
Occasions for stumbling are bound to come,
but woe to the one by whom the stumbling
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Director Mark Herman’s (Little Voice, Brassed Off) adaptation of John Boyne’s best-selling children‘s novel, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is in some ways similar to Life Is Beautiful, in that both films re quire a certain amount of suspension of belief, but more on this later. Set in Hitler’s Third Reich, it is the story of an unusual friendship between two boys sharply divided by politics and racism, as well as the growing awareness of a mother of what is transpiring in the nearby concentration camp.
Eight year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is the son of a German SS officer, whereas Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) is a young Jewish prisoner who often sits by the barbed wire fence gazing outward. We first see Bruno on his way home with some friends, all of them imitating a fighter plane, their arms out stretched like wings as they ” fly” through the crowded streets of Berlin. They take no more note of soldiers herding along a Jewish family than they do of the buildings that they pass.
At home Bruno’s parents are preparing for a party to celebrate Father’s (David Thewlis) promotion. We learn that Bruno’s grandparents do not approve of the promotion, nor of their son’s Nazi views, but it is only when Father moves the family to a cold-looking home in the countryside—much to Bruno’s distress at leaving friends behind—that we realize the reason for their disapproval. Father is the new commandant of a Nazi concentration camp. We know what Bruno and Mother (Sheila Hancock) do not—what it is that is the source of the black smoke belching from the chimney’s of four buildings at the camp. Innocent Bruno wonders why the various people he sees in what he thinks is a farm are wearing “striped pajamas.”
Whereas his teenaged older sister eats up the racist propaganda of their tutor and of a young officer to whom she is attracted, the lonely Bruno becomes bored and, against his mother’s strict orders, leaves the yard to go exploring. Beyond the trees and bushes that shield the concentration camp Bruno comes upon the boy in striped pajamas, and over a period of several weeks, they become acquainted, Shmuel gratefully downing the food that his new friend brings. Bruno wonders at the harsh treatment meted out to the servant at home, his father telling him that Jews “are not people like us.” He is surprised to learn that the meek servant had been a doctor when the man binds up a bad cut on the boy’s leg. So is his mother, and we see the beginning of what Liberation theologians would call her conscientization when she quietly thanks the man..
This is a touching story, with the father-son scenes that calls to mind the Rogers and Hammerstein song about planting prejudice in children, “You’ve Got to Be taught..” The suspension of belief is required because it is unlikely that the Jewish boy would have been allowed so much time to sit idly by away from his work detail, or even that, being a child, would have escaped the daily round-up for the “showers.” Setting aside this, it is a film that will stick in the memory for a long while, especially because of the conclusion. Although the book was written for older children, I would not recommend it for any below the age of eleven or twelve. This is not a story of “they all lived happily ever after.” But it offers a great opportunity for parents and middle school-aged children to talk about prejudice and it’s poisonous results. Showing only briefly at art house theaters, you will need to look for it when it comes out on DVD.
1) How is Bruno seem like American boys when we first see him? If you are a man, do you recall, as I do, playing soldier during war time or pretending you are in airplane? Do children ever question their country or involvement in a war?
2) How does the boy’s grandparents add an ominous touch to their coming move? What do they know that neither Bruno nor his mother apparently know?
3) How does Father justify the harsh treatment of their Jewish servant? ( “Those people, they are not really people at all. “) Compare this with the justifications offered in the past by white Americans for segregating blacks and whites. Listen again to Rogers and Hammerstein’s song from South Pacific. Do you think that children need to be “carefully, carefully taught,” or is racism something taken in subconsciously during childhood?
4) What is the breakthrough moment for Bruno and Mother, at least in regard to their servant? How does this show that segregation is necessary if racism is to be preserved? if you were raised amidst prejudice, what experiences led you onto a different path?
5) Father can be kind and understanding with his children: how does this show that a racist compartmentalizes his life? For a good film on racism in an American family, see American History X.
6) How does the evil perpetrated by Father and his ideology fall back on him? When the two young friends start looking for Shmuel’s father did you start dreading what would come next? How did you feel at the conclusion of the film?