‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, Evil, and the impact of Incarnation

I mentioned in my ‘Hating the God you Love’ post that I’d recently watched The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. While not a ‘Christian’ film, it has a deeply Christian underlying message, and enough theology to keep you going for several months’ worth of Thought for the Days.

Like Schindler’s List or Hotel Rwanda, this isn’t exactly an enjoyable feel-good first-date film, but – in my opinion – it is very, very good. I’d put it in my top 20 list. Health warning though – don’t watch it if you’re feeling emotionally fragile. The reviewer’s quotation on the film cover says it all: “This film should be seen.” I laughed at this at first for being wooden praise, but now I understand what the reviewer meant: this is an important film, but watching it isn’t to be undertaken lightly.

I’m aware that the film (and the book on which it’s based) has been criticised by some for not being ‘true’ or historical – I think this misses the point, and I’ll defend against this charge more later. It is a story; it didn’t happen, perhaps couldn’t have happened. But I don’t think that really matters.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is – or was for me – an incredibly moving and powerfully affecting film. It manages to make you feel how utterly evil Evil is. It also makes you feel how important and valuable every single human life is, and how tragic and terrible is its loss.

The story centres on a German family – father, mother, young teenage daughter and most of all their 8-year-old son Bruno – during the Second World War. Bruno’s father is a soldier, and at the start of the film he has just been promoted, meaning that the whole family must move to a new house in the country. Only gradually does it become clear that the father’s new position is Commandant of an extermination camp – fairly obviously Auschwitz, though this is never spelt out.

As an aside, the film is a perfect companion piece to the excellent and poignant Italian-language Life is Beautiful (La Vita è Bella), which views concentration camp life from the inside from the point of view of a father protecting his son who, right up to the end, has no idea of the terrible reality of his situation.

The reality of evil

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas presents very powerfully the reality and inhumanity of evil. It reminds us that evil does not always look evil, or how we expect evil to look; unlike Voldemort in Harry Potter, it does not come with a sinister snake-like face, a hissing voice and malevolent red eyes. Evil comes through ordinary people who look and sound like you or me – indeed, who are like you or me. It is not primarily ‘out there’ but ‘in here’; with us and among us and in us.

That’s not to say that Evil does not have a wider, even a supernatural, aspect. The characters in the film are clearly caught up in an evil which is far bigger than themselves. Nonetheless, it is always the people themselves who make the evil happen; it is the willing participation and involvement of ordinary humans which allows evil to prevail.

The film shows how frighteningly easy it is for even normal and ‘good’ people – people just like us – to get involved in or become complicit in terrible evil, colluding with brutality and oppression out of prejudice, ignorance or fear. It shows how terribly easy it is also to make excuses for what you’re doing, what you’re involved with, and to ignore the terrible realities and consequences; even deceiving your own conscience to the extent of persuading yourself that evil is good and vice versa. And this applies to Christians as much as anyone else.

Indeed, the film shows all too clearly how even the whole institutional church can become complicit in evil, turning a blind eye, carrying on with ‘business as usual’, operating under and on behalf of a heartless and terrible regime, sanctifying their ceremonies, state occasions and funerals. This sadly is a historical fact, and not just for the church under the Nazi regime.

Bruno’s family are portrayed as Christians, at least culturally; on the train journey to their new home his sister prays to Jesus to look after the poor. But as the film unfolds and she becomes indoctrinated with Nazi propaganda, she learns to hate and despise the poor and oppressed Jews at her own gate. She is of course entirely unaware of any hypocrisy in this. Their father too is shown – at least at first – as a kind man, but as he carries out his role at the concentration camp we see him becoming increasingly harsh and unfeeling, not only towards his prisoners but even towards his own family.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas shows how terribly easy it is for humans to dehumanise and brutalise other humans, even to the extent of viewing and treating them as sub-human vermin to be controlled and exterminated (the ruling Hutus referred to the Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’ in the Rwandan genocide). And in the process how those doing the brutalising paradoxically become brutalised and dehumanised themselves.

Humanity and the value of human life

Conversely, the film shows up the potential goodness of humanity and the human spirit in stark contrast to the inhumanity and brutality to which other humans are subjecting it. It shows that, while the brutalisers become increasingly brutish, those who are being treated brutally can choose to retain their humanity and dignity in the face of everything.

The film does not, I think, simply categorise people into good and bad, but manages to show goodness and brutality, humanity and inhumanity side by side and even within the same person. It also largely avoids simply equating Germans=bad, Jews=good; it rather shows that humans are human, and that each person on either side of the fence can choose to collude with or give in to evil, or else to stand up against it or under it.

It also makes the point very clearly that no-one is merely a number or a statistic. In the film, the Jewish prisoners are all identified not by name but by the number sewn onto their ‘striped pyjamas’. Similarly, when we hear that 30,000 children die daily of preventable diseases, we just tend to see a statistic, just numbers; but each one of those 30,000 is a real child, a real person, with real feelings and thoughts and hopes and potential. Each person matters; every human death is a tragedy. John Donne was right: “Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind”.

The power of Incarnation

Perhaps most importantly of all, the film reminds us that only love can defeat evil; not in the first instance by destroying it, but by absorbing it, taking it upon itself. Martin Luther King wisely said, “With violence you can murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder… you can murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate”. Only genuine love and innocence can take on evil and remain uncorrupted. I think this is a point of absolutely crucial importance in how we react to the evil in the world (and in ourselves); for example in how we fight the so-called ‘war against terrorism’, or any of the other real and metaphorical battles we’re involved in.

(Warning: major plot spoilers follow!)

The central and most complex character in the film, Bruno acts by turns as both Peter (as denier) and as Christ. He denies his friend Shmuel out of fear of the brutal guard Kurt Kotler, leading to Shmuel being cruelly beaten despite being innocent of any wrongdoing. But later, eager to redeem himself, he dons Jewish prisoner clothes (the ‘striped pyjamas’) and enters the camp to help Shmuel look for his pa (who we of course know has been killed by the guards). So ultimately ‘the boy in the striped pyjamas’ could refer to either of the protagonists, the German Bruno or the Jew Shmuel. That’s incarnation in a nutshell. Bruno identifies with his friend completely, taking on his clothing and identity and all that goes with that.

This is where the film’s Christian parallels become unmistakeable (and also where I give away the ending). Bruno identifies with his friend completely, even to death; though in the film this is unwitting, nonetheless it is an inevitable consequence of Bruno’s act of identification and ‘incarnation’. Searching for Shmuel’s dad, Bruno and Shmuel unwittingly become caught up in a group of prisoners being marched off to the ‘showers’ to be gassed. Bruno and Shmuel die together, holding hands; killed in the camp run by Bruno’s dad, under the programme of brutality and extermination that he personally oversees and approves, and which at this last instant he is unable to halt.

The film does raise the troubling possibility of seeing Bruno’s father as God, in charge of a brutal world, but I don’t think the parallel really extends that far; ultimately, he is just an agent caught up in a bigger tale, more akin to a Pilate or Herod perhaps. And Bruno’s death perhaps opens up to his father his best chance of redemption – of re-humanisation. Perhaps.

Good Friday without Easter

So evil takes its course and reaches its inevitable conclusion. There is no hint of resurrection at the end; no obvious redemption even. The story ends at Holy Saturday, if you like; the in-between period after Good Friday and before Easter. We are left reeling with the unmitigated impact of unredeemed horror, tragedy, grief, loss and waste.

Yet in a sense Bruno’s final act of identification with Shmuel is inherently redemptive. In one sense, it’s enough. Yes, on one level it changes nothing, and is merely a tragic waste. But in a deeper sense, it changes everything – certainly for Shmuel, for Bruno himself, and for Bruno’s family, but also in some sense for the whole world. Nothing can be the same again. Love has done what love must do, and what only love can do, and in the process evil is inherently diminished and in a sense defeated, overcome. This for me is the story of Good Friday, presented as powerfully as I’ve ever seen it. It knocks The Passion of the Christ into a cocked hat.

In a small way, perhaps even just watching the film can help to re-humanise us, if we let it.

Questions the film raises

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas also prompts me to ask myself some difficult questions:

  • Who do I (or we) see as less important, less human, less valuable; as a ‘problem’? People from a particular country or region or religion or sexual orientation or social class or political affiliation? (Fundamentalists? Liberals?)
  • How much would I be prepared to identify with an ostracised or marginalised person or group, perhaps at risk of life or at least reputation? Would I be prepared to identify with people I disagree with and whose public image I would feel embarrassed to be associated with?
  • What evils am I (or are we, or the church) complicit in, probably without even being aware of it? What systems or structures (economic, political, social, religious) do we support or prop up that dehumanise, disempower or victimise people or people groups? e.g. unfair, unethical trade systems and practices; immoral industries; exclusive and unhealthy forms of religion…
  • When and how does a normal person become evil (or an agent of evil), and what makes it happen? Could this happen to me? What would it take for me to become actively involved in doing evil to other people? What would it take to redeem someone who had become so complicit in evil that they had effectively become evil themselves?

Postscript: history or story?

I mentioned earlier that some have criticised The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas for not being ‘true’, not based on actual events; for using the historical setting of the Holocaust and extermination camps to tell a fictional story which could never have taken place in real life. I disagree on two fronts.

Firstly, almost all fiction, except sci-fi and fantasy, has to use real locations and settings, either contemporary or historical. To criticise Slumdog Millionaire for not being true, though it uses the real setting of India’s slums and sectarian violence, or  The Shawshank Redemption for not being representative of a real American prison, would miss the point of the stories they are telling.

Secondly, in not trying to tell a historically true story, the author or screenwriter is freed up to tell a story that’s true in other, perhaps deeper, ways. It’s never possible to convey the full truth of actual events; everyone involved will have different memories and perspectives, and all versions will be necessarily partial and partisan. But in using a broadly historical setting to tell a fictional tale, it becomes possible to tell deeper truths than the mere reporting of facts and events: truths about the human condition, about human relationships and emotions, about (in this case) human responses to suffering and evil and brutality.

Of course, it’s still important to get the historical details broadly right. Perhaps The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas does present a somewhat skewed and partial view; indeed, it’s almost inevitable that it will. But it’s not trying to rewrite history, unlike Pearl Harbor, The Patriot or U-571. The picture it presents of Auschwitz seems to accord reasonably closely with history, if not accurate in every detail.

So get hold of a copy and watch it; ponder the reality of evil, the value of life, the significance of incarnation and identification. But book a day off afterwards to recover.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Arts, Evil, Good Friday, Incarnation, Tragedy, TV and film and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, Evil, and the impact of Incarnation

  1. Rosie Edser says:

    I thought the most powerful moments were when the family’s striped-pyjama-clad servant tended to Bruno’s wound and the Jewish boy Shmuel forgave Bruno for betraying him…oh and when the father – well all of them – allowed the servant to be beaten to death just outside their dining room. I really enjoyed the boys’ friendship

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  2. dsholland says:

    “the film reminds us that only love can defeat evil;”
    This week I realized why the Creator God had to be the personal and loving Christian God. Love is the answer to the problem of the one and the many (if you consider this as the pain point of existence). Mere self denial, while dealing with the pain does not really address the problem. Being “nice” because its “better” for all concerned doesn’t address the problem because the individual is still diminished when the sacrifice is self motivated. “Sucking it up” is just another form of self denial, it may be polite but the problem is not solved. To my mind the universe demands a Creator God, but the human condition demands a God of Love, and that Love rests on Faith and Hope.
    I realize this is nothing new, but before I just believed it was this way. Now I see why it MUST be this way. No other solution works.

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  3. Ben Newton says:

    Dude,

    Thanks as ever for continuing to write such thought-provoking comments and blogs. I’ve just added the film to my love film collection…!!
    Have you read A Theology of Hope (Jurgen Moltmann)? Just starting to read it in anticipation of a church talk I’m doing on the renewal of heaven and earth. It’s a fantastic book.

    Hope you’re keeping well.
    ben

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    • Thanks Ben – great to hear from you! Hope you enjoy the film (if ‘enjoy’ is quite the right word). My latest recommendation is ‘American History X’ – watched it when I was off work ill last week. Again, troubling but very powerful.

      To my shame I haven’t actually read anything by Moltmann yet, but I would really like to. I shall make a point of putting ‘A Theology of Hope’ on my Christmas list! I hope your talk goes well – sounds very interesting, and I’d love to hear it.

      Hope all’s well with you,
      Harvey

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  4. Jean Lowe says:

    I think one of the true things about the film is that children can often see for themselves what is right or wrong. Bruno is naive about the world and the awful things going on around him, but he sees truly what a friend is. His shame at having betrayed Shmuel when asked about the food is a strong point in his character. I remember as a child being told that “colored” people were happy and that it was outside agitators that were stirring up otherwise contented people. They were also said to be lazy and not terribly bright. At that age in the country a child played with whatever other children were around. Up to a certain age the white children could run in and out of the African American children’s houses. It didn’t take great intelligence to see that thier lives were impoverished – things we took for granted like plumbing weren’t available. And it was clear these despised people worked hard and had character. It was clelar that they thought deeply about justice and equality while adults that I knew well had cocktails and a good dinner every night – yes they worked hard, but it was nothing like the sharecroppers’ efforts. What the adults told us never rang true. It is very difficult as a child to doubt one’s parents and other elders, but in this case, I learned to keep my thoughts to myself until I grew up and was on my own.

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    • Hi Jean, thanks very much for your comment, and I’m sorry for not replying sooner. That’s a fascinating (and troubling!) perspective you bring, and again underscores how easy it is for us to kid ourselves that others are less human or important, and for those attitudes to become culturally embedded. And you’re right, I think it’s much easier for children to see through this, but of course much harder for them to challenge it. I just wonder who it is that I see as less human without realising it – the beggars on the streets? ‘Youths’ who feel like a threat to me? People with learning difficulties and special needs who I secretly prefer not to engage with?

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  5. Marilyn says:

    This movie was so sad,I’m so hurt ,I’m shocked,I can’t even imagine how someone would treat another person ever like that,no words could erase the pains or even understand how this happened,yes there is war,theirs loses,death,but this was so painful to see,for hatred of another,just for nothing more then a different culture,for ending their race,religion,culture out of nothing but pure hatred,it kills me to think,people are like that

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    • Hi Marilyn, yes, it’s terribly sad. The film is imagined of course, not a ‘true’ story, but yes, I’m sure people did treat other people like that – and sadly still do. With anything like this, I think the most important thing is to look at ourselves and ask whether there are any ways in which we might do the same – not necessarily in big and obvious ways, but in small and subtle ways, treating certain kinds of people as undesirable or less valuable.

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