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September 18, 2010

My review of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”

Filed under: Holocaust, movies — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 6:50 am

This morning I read a review of the book entitled The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, written by Irish author John Boyne in 2006. You can read the review here.  In 2008, the book was made into a movie.

The film was advertised as a “family movie,” rated PG13, which parents were encouraged to take their older children to see. The author of the book classified The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as a fable. Libraries classify the book as Teen Fiction, and the movie producer called the story a fantasy.

A fable is a fictional story that has a moral. For example, the German fairy tale, “Hansel and Gretel,” is a fable: the story couldn’t possible be true because it includes a wicked witch who lives in an edible gingerbread house and cooks and eats little children. Likewise, the story of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” has a moral, but it includes many details that are not credible, so it has been correctly classified as a fable.

The title of the movie refers to an 8-year-old Jewish boy named Schmuel, who is a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, dressed in a striped blue and gray prison uniform, but the story is actually about Bruno, the 8-year-old son of the Commandant of the camp, his sister Gretel, who is a true believer in Nazi ideology, and the wicked Nazis who gas little children.

Why did the author choose the name Bruno, instead of Hansel? Bruno is an old German name, which means “brown” in English, but it is used today in many countries. Did the author intend the character of Bruno to represent a little boy from the 21st century who knows nothing about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust? Is this a literary device, an anachronism, a person or a thing that is chronologically out of place, which is used to show the horror experienced by children today as they lose their innocence when they learn about the Holocaust?

When the movie starts, Bruno is shown to be totally clueless. He knows nothing about German nationalism nor Hitler’s “war against the Jews.” This is strange because Bruno lives in Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany, and presumably he goes to a public school where children were indoctrinated in Nazi ideology at an early age. He must have seen park benches with a sign saying that they were for “Aryans only.” He must have seen Jews being denied access to street cars in Berlin, but he apparently knows nothing about what is going on in Germany in the 1940s.

Bruno lives in the heart of Berlin and in the book, he is 9 years old. He would have been 5 years old on November 9, 1938 when the store windows of all the Jewish stores were smashed; he would have walked through the broken glass on his way to kindergarten the morning after.

As a German boy, Bruno would have been thrilled at the sight of “der Führer” riding through the streets of Berlin, standing up in his Mercedes, while the German people, who worshiped him, pelted him with flowers. In the book, Bruno calls Hitler “Fury” because he can’t pronounce “der Führer.”  In the movie, Bruno is like an 8-year-old boy in America today, who knows nothing about Nazi Germany.

When a tutor is hired to teach Bruno about why the Nazis hated International Jewry, he couldn’t care less. His older sister, Gretel, tries to explain to Bruno that the Jews are “the enemy,” and that the Jews are the reason that Germany lost “the Great War” (World War I).

One of the reasons that the Nazis gained power is because Hitler gave the German people back their pride and their self respect after their defeat in World War I. But we see none of the German nationalism and hear none of the Nazi marching songs in the opening scene of the movie. There is a huge Nazi flag in the first scene, but that’s all. In a later scene, Bruno’s mother turns off the radio as soon as she hears a few bars of the Nazi anthem, the Horst Wessel Lied.

At the start of the movie, the audience is as clueless as Bruno. There is a fleeting glimpse of people on the street being forced into trucks, but there is no indication that these are Jews being rounded up and taken to the concentration camps. The “asocials” and homeless vagrants were also taken off the streets in Nazi Germany and sent to a camp where they were put to work.

In the opening scene, Bruno and his little friends are shown running through the streets of Berlin with no adult supervision, even though the scene is taking place in the middle of a war in which Berlin is the main target for Allied bombing. In fact, Bruno’s anti-Nazi grandmother is killed during a bombing raid on Berlin, but that comes later.

The story line is that Bruno’s father, Ralf, has been promoted to the job of Commandant of an unnamed concentration camp. In the book, the camp is identified as Auschwitz, which Bruno pronounces “out-with,” another indication that Bruno is supposed to be a non-German boy today, since there is no th sound in the German language.

In order for Ralf to have been given such an important position as the Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, he would have had to have been in a lower position in another concentration camp, or he would have had to have spent some time in the training school for camp administrators at Dachau. The real life Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rudolf Hoess, was trained at Dachau and he had worked in the Sachsenhausen camp near Berlin before being promoted.

Before he was promoted, Ralf could not have been making enough money to afford a mansion in the heart of Berlin, such as the one shown in the movie scene which was filmed in Budapest. Unless, of course, this mansion had been taken away from a Jewish family and given to him, as was frequently the case, although this is not explained in the movie because the story is told from Bruno’s point of view.

Little Bruno is not told about the family’s relocation until the day that the movers are there carrying out the furniture, and he is not told that the family will be living just outside a concentration camp. For the trip to the camp, Bruno and his family take a train pulled by a steam locomotive. We see a cloud of ominous black smoke pouring out of the locomotive as the train approaches the concentration camp, the first hint of something horrible that is about to happen. Remember the train in the opening scene of Schindler’s List?

In the sleeper car of the train, Bruno is shown wearing blue and white striped pajamas that look like the prison uniforms that the Jews wear in the concentration camps – another harbinger of things to come. The inmates in all the prisons in Germany had worn blue and gray striped uniforms for years, something that everyone in Germany would have known, even the children, but Bruno’s father allows his son to wear blue and white striped pajamas. Like I said, this is a fable.

Hitler hated modern art and modern architecture, which he called “degenerate.” One of the first things Hitler did was to close down the Bauhaus school of modern architecture in Weimar and the Bauhaus architects later moved to America. Yet, in this movie, the Commandant’s house near the concentration camp is ultra modern, inside and out. The house is a fortress guarded by armed soldiers and vicious dogs. Rudolf Hoess, the real life Commandant of both the Auschwitz main camp and the Birkenau camp, lived with his family in a house just outside the fence around the Auschwitz main camp.

With no playmates in the vicinity of his new home, Bruno soon gets bored; then he sees what he thinks is a farm from his bedroom window. Actually, there was a farm near the Auschwitz II camp, aka Birkenau, where some of the prisoners worked, and the real Commandant of Auschwitz was a farmer before he joined the SS.  However, the Birkenau camp was far enough away from the Auschwitz main camp that the farm and the camp were not visible from the Commandant’s house.

Unlike the real Birkenau, which this fictional camp vaguely resembles, there are no fenced off sections inside the camp, so the unguarded perimeter fence is all that separates the Jews from freedom. In the movie, anyone can tunnel underneath the barbed wire fence because there is only one guard tower in sight, and it is unmanned.

Bruno goes exploring and meets Schmuel, an 8-year-old Jewish boy, who is a prisoner in the concentration camp where Bruno’s father is the Commandant. Schmuel works in construction in the camp, pushing an empty wheel barrow, and lives in the barracks with his father.

Only boys who were at least 15 years old were chosen to work at Auschwitz; younger children were immediately gassed, but not Schmuel. Schmuel was chosen to work, and he is allowed to work completely unsupervised, so that he does nothing but sit near the perimeter fence and stare out at the trees surrounding the camp. Since the movie was filmed in Hungary, these are not birch trees, like at the real Auschwitz II camp.

Schmuel wears a number on his uniform, which Bruno thinks is part of a game. Unlike the prisoners at the real Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Jews in the movie do not have their ID numbers tattooed on their arms, and they do not wear badges to identify them as Jews.

The concentration camp prisoners who worked in the homes of the SS staff were usually German inmates who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were chosen to work as servants in the SS homes because they were considered trustworthy. The other inmates of the concentration camps were assigned jobs based on their work skills. The Nazis used Hollerith cards to keep track of the prisoners and their assignments, based on their skills and education, which were coded on the cards. Doctors were always assigned to work in the camp hospitals, never in German homes.

In this fable, a Jewish doctor is assigned to work in the home of the Commandant, where he peels potatoes unsupervised in the kitchen, and pours wine at the table when the Commandant has guests, even though the family also has a German maid. This Jewish doctor could have easily poisoned the wine, or slit Bruno’s throat with a paring knife, but instead he bandages the little boy’s knee when he falls off a swing. Bruno’s mother says “Thank you.” and we get the first hint that she is becoming a traitor who will soon turn against her Nazi husband.

To top it all off, in the Striped Pajamas movie fable, 8-year-old Schmuel is pulled from his construction job of pushing an empty wheel barrel and assigned to clean a whole table full of expensive crystal glasses, completely unsupervised, in the Commandant’s home. In real life, Schmuel would already have been selected for the gas chamber because he is too young to work, but there are no selections at Birkenau in this fable: as we will soon learn, children and skilled workers are crammed into the gas chamber together and gassed at the same time.

In the real Auschwitz main camp, the crematorium was wedged in between the Gestapo building and the SS Hospital where any billowing black smoke or smell of burning flesh would have driven the SS men out of the camp, but apparently this never happened because there is no smoke and no smell from the burning of bodies in crematoria in real life.

In John Boyne’s fable, Bruno’s mother eventually figures out what is going on at the camp because she smells the odor from a crematorium and sees black smoke. Instead of telling her that the bodies had to be burned to prevent the spread of a typhus epidemic in the camp, her husband, the Commandant, tells her that sometimes they burn rubbish at the camp.

As the fable comes to an end, Bruno peeks through a transom (a glass window at the top of a door) and sees his father and other SS officers watching a movie about the concentration camps in which it is shown that they had orchestras, libraries, soccer matches and a cafe for the inmates. Actually, this movie is based on real life because the Nazis did make a film of the Theresienstadt concentration camp where the prisoners enjoyed all these things before many of them were sent to Auschwitz to be gassed.

The place, where the orchestra practiced at Birkenau, was close enough to the Crematorium III gas chamber that the prisoners could hear classical music as they descended into the undressing room. The soccer field at Birkenau was a stone’s throw from the Crematorium III gas chamber. There were large libraries for the prisoners at Dachau and Buchenwald and at the Auschwitz main camp, although not at Birkenau.

After seeing part of this movie, Bruno sneaks off to the concentration camp, taking an American style Subway sandwich with him for his friend Schmuel. (Back then, the Germans typically ate one slice of bread with a slice of sausage on top and German cookbooks had to explain how to make an American “sandwich.”)

Then we see Bruno’s father as he consults with other SS men in his office. There is an architectural drawing on the table, labeled Crematorium IV, which shows a gas chamber, disguised as a shower room.

As the music gets louder and louder, we know that the unthinkable is about to happen.

Unlike the Hansel and Gretel fable, this one ends badly.  I can’t reveal the ending because readers might want to watch this movie on DVD.

18 Comments

  1. Thank you. I reblogged your review.

    Comment by renogalsays — January 22, 2016 @ 10:53 am

  2. Reblogged this on Reno Gal Says and commented:
    Lately a lot of people have been mentioning to me the movie The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, whenever I discuss Joe’s memoir, The Altered I: Memoir of Joseph Kempler, Holocaust Survivor. I have seen this movie, several times, and felt completely absorbed by the plot. I haven’t read the book…yet. Joe has seen this movie as well and he remains silent on the subject. I’m not sure why this fictionalized account is being taken as some kind of truth, but I would like to set the record straight. I certainly don’t mean any disrespect toward this movie or book (which as I mentioned I do want to read), but people need to understand that the book, written by John Boyne, and adapted as a movie (2008, directed by Mark Herman) is generally accepted as a fable–a story conveying a moral–and shouldn’t be taken as the truth. What I’m about to say is very difficult, but most children taken to the concentration camps were gassed immediately. So, using this story as some basis of fact would be a disservice to the history of the Holocaust and would minimize the horrors of a camp, trivializing what truly took place in these despicable facilities of death and torture. I’ve even read that this movie is compared to Schindler’s List. I personally do not see a comparison. Schindler’s List is based on fact, and accurately portrayed. My father-in-law’s story parallels what is described in Schindler’s List, and is in fact one of his favorite movies on the subject of the Holocaust. I give the highest praise for Schindler’s List. Joseph almost made Schindler’s famous list, but you would have to read his memoir to find out what happens (wink, wink). He did know many people on that list and therefore it is a story dear to his heart. But, I digress. This blog post is a very good review of the movie The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Much better than I could do! Please read.

    Comment by renogalsays — January 22, 2016 @ 10:51 am

  3. Reblogged this on Theories of a stoner. and commented:
    The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

    Comment by immaculatejames — November 8, 2014 @ 9:20 am

  4. I took this movie for what it was….. A movie….you know ENTERTAINMENT. Not a history book or lesson. Maybe some here should try to do the same!! Why would any one present this to a child as history?? Easy, they didn’t do their homework and just assumed it to be nonfiction.

    Comment by Ana — January 8, 2014 @ 8:41 am

  5. Reblogged this on World War II and commented:
    Very good review

    Comment by wwiiparker — August 8, 2012 @ 3:33 am

  6. I completely disagree that children should wait until they are older to learn about the Holocaust. I cannot speak for the USA but in the UK, and increasingly at my own school, less and less children are studying History past the age of 13. Therefore, for them to have some understanding of the fundamentals of the Holocaust, in my opinion, is better than them leaving school never having studied the topic. Those children that do opt to study History at higher levels are free to study the topic in as much depth as they wish, as I have done and continue to do.
    Your idea for a film documenting the life of Anne Frank and her family sounds like a fantastic idea and I would very much like to see such a film; as I’m sure many other students and adults with an interest in the topic would equally.

    Comment by History Student — July 19, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

    • I didn’t realize that you are a student in the UK. Are students in the UK required to study the Holocaust, just as American students are? I don’t agree with this law, if that is the case.

      Comment by furtherglory — July 19, 2011 @ 6:08 pm

      • Yes, students up to the age of 13 in England are required at some point to have learnt about the Holocaust as it is a compulsary part of the National Curriculum for History in secondary schools. However, not all students do study History past the age of 13, as they choose to study different subjects for their GCSE exams. Schools in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland do not have to teach the Holocaust although many do. Universities do not have to teach the Holocaust, this is the choice of individual universities or students to choose to do so.

        Comment by History Student — July 20, 2011 @ 4:48 am

  7. No the children do not ask them questions as they appreciate the simple fact that this is a fictitous film based on a factual historical event. If the film simply showed Schmuel arriving at the camp intended to represent Auschwitz and immediately being gassed, it would barely last 45 minutes. I can’t find any argument to the contrary of your statement that the film implies that the Germans carried out mass murder for no reason- the reason of racism, to me, is equivalent to no reason. From this film, children are supposed to learn the basic contrast of life for an eight year old German boy and an eight year old Jewish boy during Nazi rule- as simple as that. There is no need to over-complicate a children’s film with the specific details one would expect from a more adult documentary analysis on the Holocaust. The basic point is that children should know that the Holocaust took place (the only compulsory topic on the National Curriculum for History), the basics of the treatment of Jews in concentration camps (the pyjamas in the film, the manual labour that Schmuel is meant to carry out), and the fact that not all Germans felt this way about the Jews (Bruno’s mother). This film fulfils each of those points and for that reason I feel that it is a brilliant film.

    Comment by History Student — July 18, 2011 @ 6:51 am

    • So the basics of this film are
      1. The Holocaust happened. That’s all you need to know because that is the only compulsory topic for students to study.
      2. The Nazis wanted to get rid of the Jews because the Nazis were racists.
      3. The Jews were forced to work in the concentration camps; even the children were forced to work.
      4. The Nazis gassed little children.
      5. Not all Germans were Nazis.

      American children would be better off if they did not learn this over-simplified version of history. Wait until they are older and show them a movie that explains the complicated version of history.

      For example, a movie about Anne Frank, which would start with a scene showing her father leaving his family behind in Germany while he sneaks over the border (illegally) into The Netherlands because he had been indicted for bank fraud and was awaiting trial in Germany. The movie would show the family arriving at Auschwitz where Anne, who was barely 15 years old and only 5 ft tall, was not gassed. As far as I know, Anne did not work at Auschwitz. After only a few months, Anne and her sister were transferred to Bergen-Belsen on a transport of sick prisoners which was monitored along the way by the Red Cross; Anne and her sister both died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen.

      There would be a very dramatic scene in the movie where Anne meets one of her old school friends who is at Bergen-Belsen. The friend, who survived, could be in the opening scene of this NON-FICTIONAL movie; she could explain that her family was sent to Bergen-Belsen because it was an exchange camp for Jews who were Zionists who wanted to go to Palestine. In this true story, the school friend would give Anne a Red Cross package, an event that actually happened.

      Anne’s father was over 45 but he wasn’t gassed when he arrived at Auschwitz; he bribed a Dutch doctor in the camp to put him into the hospital because he didn’t want to do manual labor in the camp. Anne’s father survived because he stayed in the hospital in Auschwitz where he received better food while he was pretending to be sick. Anne’s mother, who was also over 45, died of tuberculosis after only a few months at Auschwitz; she probably had tuberculosis before she arrived at the camp.

      The movie would end with a quote from Anne’s diary in which she wrote something like “We can never be just Dutch or just German; we will always be Jews as well.” In other words, she was saying that the Jews could never be completely loyal to the country where they lived; the Jews would always make up a state-within-a-state in whatever country they lived in. The German title of the Holocaust is “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” The Jewish Question was Should the Jews assimilate in the country where they lived, or should they have their own state-within-a-state? Anne believed that the Jews should always have their own state-within-a-state. Hitler wanted the Jews out of Germany because he didn’t believe in Anne’s philosophy.

      Comment by furtherglory — July 18, 2011 @ 7:48 am

  8. Maybe it’s a fiction story or fable but the real story is a lesson that everyone should read between the lines ,it has also a letter to evryone that kid’s world is so different from adults they have no place in hating each others even if we push them to do so they listen only to their hearts and their purity that comes only from their special word because they are angels and their language is always different from adults .
    Also the price is paid by the kids instead of their fathers and the nazi’s world is still living in some countries nothing will change and the history will always come back till the end of times .
    I guess it should be a :a story named ” kid’s in fence war “.

    Comment by Georgio — June 20, 2011 @ 3:55 am

    • The book and the movie are completely inappropriate and both should be banned. What does this story teach little children? It teaches them that the Jewish people are the most wonderful people in the world who have never done any harm to anyone in the entire history of the world, but the German people are monsters who kill little children for no reason at all. The story is a one-sided version of history that teaches little children to hate the German people. It should be against the law to fictionalize history, just as it is against the law in 14 countries to deny the Holocaust. Little children should not be introduced to history until they are old enough to understand it, and little children should especially not be introduced to history with fairy tales that cause them to have nightmares.

      Comment by furtherglory — June 20, 2011 @ 7:03 am

      • Little children are not subjected to watching the film (hence the aftermath of the “nightmares” you speak of)… that is the decision of their parents or teachers to permit them to watch the film if they consider them to be mature enough to understand the historical background and clearly the view that the film will be slightly biased. As a history student (specialising in the Holocaust) I am yet to come across an unbiased account of the Holocaust. I am also a classroom support teacher, and I don’t know about the children you know but I can safely say that when this film was shown in class, none of the students were left under the impression that Germans are ‘monsters’ and child-killers nor that Jews have never caused harm. I therefore think that it is unfair to dismiss what I consider to be such a brilliant film and beautiful story as ‘inappropriate’ and to call for its prohibition because of it’s bias.

        Comment by History Student — July 14, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

        • As a classroom support teacher, do the students ever ask questions like “Why wasn’t the little boy gassed upon arrival? Wasn’t it the usual procedure to gas children under the age of 15 immediately?” Do they ever ask “Where were the guards when the two little boys were talking at the fence?” With no guards in sight, “why didn’t the little Jewish boy just dig his way out of the camp?” Do they ask “Why wasn’t the little boy sent to the gas chamber with his mother instead of with his father?” “Was this the usual procedure that the children were separated according to sex and gassed with the parent of the same sex?” Both the little Jewish boy and his father were working? Do the children ever ask why Jews who were capable of working were pulled off the job and gassed?

          Comment by furtherglory — July 14, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

        • This “beautiful” and “brilliant” film is based on the assumption that the Germans carried out mass murder for no reason and that they were so sloppy in their methods that they accidentally killed the Commandant’s son. It teaches little children there was nothing but mindless killing of people at Auschwitz. The story does not follow the basic story of the Holocaust, but goes beyond that with a fictional story that is even worse. What are children supposed to learn from this book and movie? I think that they learn to worship the Jews and hate the Germans.

          Comment by furtherglory — July 15, 2011 @ 6:38 am

      • Well its true

        Comment by wwiiparker — August 8, 2012 @ 3:35 am

  9. The book review claims:

    “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a dramatic book that combines real history with fiction.”

    So apparently it’s not pure fiction. I guess they need to invent a new category like “non-fiction fiction” or something like that.

    Comment by Kageki — September 18, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

    • “real history” is a term used by David Irving. The book review should have said that the book is “official history combined with fiction.” The new category should be “fiction based on official history.”

      Comment by furtherglory — September 19, 2010 @ 10:31 am


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