The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

By Yuri Franco

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an extraordinary film that portrays the horrors of the Holocaust by telling a tragic story. History is tainted with awful wars and injustice, but the Holocaust has been the most inhumane and cruel genocide in the history of mankind. It is difficult to believe that one hateful and psychopathic lunatic could harm so many people simply out of hate and racism. The film also portrays the role of SS officers, the propaganda, and media of this era as well as the so-called camps and the victims in the extermination camps.

The film begins with the news that an SS officer has been promoted and he and his family are to move to the countryside. The family includes the SS officer Ralph, his wife Elsa, twelve-year-old Gretel, and eight year old Bruno (who is the main character of the film). Everyone is excited with the promotion and the family has a party to celebrate and to say farewell to their friends. The only people who are not excited about the move are Bruno and his grandmother who clearly opposes Ralf’s position and its potential duties.

The family moves to the countryside to a beautiful and enormous house that seems to be surrounded by nothing. In reality the house is nearby an extermination camp (modeled upon Auschwitz). Bruno is lonely because there are no children nearby to play with and he does not go to school. Later he and his sister Gretel get a tutor named Herr Liszt who just feeds the children a bunch of nationalistic propaganda. Liszt is obviously a strong follower of Hitler’s party and tries to teach the children to despise Jews. Gretel blindly and ignorantly believes all of his teaching and transforms from a sweet girl who plays with dolls into a Nazi obsessed teenager. She also becomes infatuated with Lieutenant Kurt Kotler her father’s cruel young subordinate. Bruno on the other hand has trouble believing what his tutor teaches him about Jews because the Jewish people he knows are nothing like what Liszt describes.

Bruno begins to explore around the house and discovers what he thinks is a farm. He meets Shmuel, and eight-year-old boy who is a prisoner in the camp. Bruno is amazed by Shmuel and questions why he wears pajamas all day long. Shmuel explains to Bruno that he and his family were forced out of their homes and put in camps by soldiers and their clothes and possessions were taken and they had to wear striped uniforms. Bruno and Shmuel develop a friendship throughout the story. Shmuel becomes a companion for lonely Bruno and Bruno plays with Shmuel and brings him food because he is extremely malnourished.

As the film progresses it becomes clear that the so-called work camp is an extermination camp. Elsa like Bruno is initially oblivious to the fact that her husband is in charge of the extermination camp. She figures it out one day when she steps out of the car in front of her house and there is a horrible smell in the air. Lieutenant Kurk Kotler says to her, “They smell even worse then they burn, don’t they?” She becomes furious and enraged that her husband did not tell her what he was doing. She decides she and the children cannot live near the extermination camp and plans to move away to Heidelberg.

The story takes an ironic turn at the end of the movie. While everyone is getting ready to go, Bruno goes to say farewell to his friend Shmuel. The only problem is that Shmuel’s father is missing and Bruno decides to help out his friend. Bruno changes from his clothes into a prisoner uniform and digs a hole under the camp’s fence and goes into the camp. Bruno tells Shmuel that he will help him find his father. When Bruno is in the camp he is stricken by the starvation and sickness that is inside the camp. The way the media portrayed the camps was completely different and this was something he has never before seen in his life. Bruno and Shmuel do not find Shmuel’s father but they get pushed into a line that led to a gas chamber. Inside they were instructed to take off all of their clothing for a shower. Bruno and Shmuel hold each other’s hands tightly and the lights cut off as they are gassed.

Elsa realizes that something is wrong when Bruno does not appear. Ralf and other soldiers search desperately for Bruno and find his clothes by the fence. Ralf races into the camp and looks for Bruno but realized the tragedy that happened to his own son in his own camp. The story ends with Elsa and Gretel crying over Bruno’s clothes after realizing what happened. Although this story is fiction, it gives you a clear understanding that all human life is equal no matter the race or religion. In the film it was unfortunate that Bruno’s father had to lose his son in order to realize what he was doing wrong; that is if he did indeed realize it. This was just one story about one mother who lost her child in the Holocaust, but in reality there were thousands that lost their children in gas chambers daily. This film did an incredible job at showing the horrors of the Holocaust in yet another way.

The film also shows the audience the role of an upper level SS officer. In 1933, Hitler authorized SS chief Hermann Himmler to centralize camps under SS leadership. SS commanded concentration camps in Germany and German-occupied territory. SS officers were the superior officers and had the power to decide a prisoner’s destiny. SS-Death’s Head units worked under SS officers and were in charge of guarding and administering the camps. The SS officers were not part of the police force and did not have military experience but were in complete control of the camps. This does not seem to make sense but neither does the mass genocide. It is difficult to see officer Ralf both as a responsible family man and as a murderer, but that is exactly what he was. SS officers had no sympathy or feelings for the Jewish people, gypsies, homosexuals, or people who were not considered of pure race, or even those who opposed the Nazi policies: they murdered them coldly and with no remorse.

There is a part in the film that shows a clip of what supposedly was a work camp for prisoners against the Nazi party. The film shows people in a camp, who are well fed and do not seem to have a worry in the world; the children are playing and seem very happy. There were several films that were made to give the impression that Jews, gypsies, and other prisoners were treated well. A film that is a great example is Terezin: A Documentary Film of the Jewish Resettlement. The film was made by Jewish actor and director Kurt Gerron who was promised that if he made the film he and his family would live. He made the film but he and his family were sent to Auschwitz and gassed upon arrival. The film shows people in camps doing productive things and they seem to be enjoying themselves. The women are happy and chatting with each other. These kinds of films made it easy for German people to believe that the best solution was to send the Jews, gypsies, and other minorities away to these camps. They thought that they were the cause of all of the problems and they would be better off away in these camps. This was a load of lies; these camps were not thriving communities but concentration camps and extermination camps.

The concentration camps and extermination camps were extremely crowded, unsanitary, and disease infected places no one would want to imagine living in. Not only were these places awful because of the conditions, they were also a living hell for the people sent there. People who were sent to concentration camps were detained for no reason and were sometimes put to work; they were starved, beaten or killed for no reason. Some camps exterminated many people upon their arrival. Mostly, these people consisted of women, children, and elderly people. Families were torn apart when they arrived and many people never reunited with their loved ones. The horrible and gruesome events that happened in these camps are very hard to believe and sound like they belong in a sick horror movie. It is so unfortunate that something was not done earlier to prevent millions of people from losing their lives.

The victims of the Holocaust not only consisted of Jews, but also consisted of gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, Soviet POW’s, ethnic Poles, disabled people, Romani people, and freemasons. Hitler’s plan was to exterminate all of these people so that Germany remained a so called pure superior race. This plan was ridiculous and it is amazing how he could get so far with it. Certainly of all these groups, the Jewish people lost the most people. It is estimated that 5.9 million Jewish people lost their lives during the Holocaust. This number is so overwhelming it is impossible for many to even imagine the mass of people it represents. The level of hate Adolph Hitler had for these people was unreal. He was a very sick individual.

This film tell an incredible story with a tragic ending that makes viewers realize how everyone who lost their lives because of one man’s hate had an individual and distinct story. Shmuel and his father were victims because of who they were, and Bruno became a victim because he wanted to help his friend. The irony in the story was that Ralph lost his only son because he gave the order to carry out a vicious policy. He had no problem exterminating the prisoners and authorized their deaths in the gas chambers but he is devastated when his son dies along with them. The film is ironic in showing how the innocence of a child like Bruno can allow him to have better logic and compassion than a brainwashed SS officer like his father Ralf. Bruno does not judge Shmuel because of who he is: he becomes friends with him and is willing to help him regardless of what he is taught. His father on the other hand is part of the Nazi party and learns to despise people in order to conform and advance his career. Overall this film includes a bit of everything: it includes history, drama, and tragic irony. It is a great film and does a good job portraying some of the horrors of the Holocaust.