“Why do the farmers all wear pajamas?” It’s a damn good question for young Bruno to entertain and, as expected, Mama and Papa are unwilling to offer an answer. Minutes after moving to his new house in the country, Bruno looks out of his bedroom window and just happens to notice the death camp next door. It’s not a very cheery place, but Bruno is most intrigued by the lack of animals. Daddy is doing important work here, and young minds are meant to swallow the anti-Semitic teachings of the creepy tutor who stops by twice a week, not the unpleasant images of the countryside. “Well, they’re not really people, per se…,” Papa begins, only to be interrupted by the call of duty. Far from satisfied, Bruno goes exploring and, as the trees part, he finds a barbed-wire fence, behind which sits a sad-eyed boy; bald head, bottom lip puffed out just so, and dirt streaking those chubby little cheeks. Why fret, little one? Daddy says all is well. And how could an evil man look so good in uniform?
And so begins The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the 344th Holocaust drama to be regurgitated by Hollywood in the past decade alone, but the first to cheerfully send two moppets to the gas chamber without any last-minute heroics. But that’s for the wild ride of an ending; a conclusion that throws in a smorgasbord of obscenities, including a sobbing mother, barking dogs, a torrential rainstorm, and yes, a horrified father who screams “Noooooo!’ as he flies toward the death house door. But as brave as such choices are — sending eight-year-olds to their doom is no mean feat — the film insists on using their deaths to cable an allegedly “shocking” message that few outside insane asylums have failed to internalize. You know, that the Holocaust was so monstrous that even the kiddos died. Often quite tragically. I’m sure there are a few remaining holdouts who came to this film unseasoned in the ways of mass murder, and thought perhaps that world wars had few civilian causalities, deliberate or otherwise, but familiarity still breeds contempt, even with the last untouchable genre.
Above all, Pajamas is meant to be a parable of innocence, told through the eyes of the naïve Bruno. He believes whatever his father, sister, tutor, and mother tell him, suspecting nothing evil lurking beneath the covers, despite the contradictions posed by the Jewish boy’s misery. He not only thinks the camp is a farm, but seems to nod in agreement whenever he hears that Jews ruined Germany. What’s the truth? And will he find out the hard way? Before proceeding, though, let us consider the odd plight of Bruno’s bizarre sister, a young uber-frau who transforms from mild-mannered young lady into fanatical devotee of Hitler in the span of a single scene.
She’s mainly the victim of puppy love, or at least the kind that involves one of papa’s barrel-chested assistants; the sort of man with a few dozen teeth too many, all defined by their brilliant sheen that threatens to outshine the most golden set of locks this side of the Rhine. She wants him, he wants her, though even he is forced to pause after learning she’s barely entered puberty. Her hips may indeed produce a future Fuhrer, but for now, it’s best that she be a sounding board for hateful, woefully biased rhetoric. I half wished the story had been about her alone; perhaps then I wouldn’t have roared with mirth the moment her room became a cheerleader’s shrine to National Socialism. Hitler was a madman, but here’s evidence even he could be softened by Tiger Beat level worship. Even dictators deserve concert posters.
Admittedly, though the film remained about as subtle as Kristallnacht or the march of Panzers through Poland, it wasn’t nearly as bad as expected, becoming less a devil’s brew of lost footage from The Day the Clown Cried than a mildly less wretched version of Life is Beautiful. I learned nothing, cared for even less, and felt oddly indifferent, even as the masked soldiers released the Zyklon gas. No, I hadn’t lost my humanity, but even suffering becomes rote unless it asks more of us than passive sniffling. No doubt the filmmakers thought they had struck Oscar gold with this little mix of the Holocaust and childhood, but surely someone should have stepped in to question the sort of death camp where tunnels could be dug beneath an electric fence under the bright sun of high noon. I’ve seen Dairy Queens more heavily guarded.
And why must the CEO of Death, Inc. live right next door to the office? Was this common? Did Nazis always shit where they ate? Mom, too, was a bit of an odd duck. For a good two-thirds of the film, we see black smoke pouring from the chimneys of the camp. Outside of a wildly inappropriate joke or two, are we to believe that she didn’t mind the smell? Also left hanging is the fate of the sweet old Jew who tended to Bruno’s injury. He’s beaten savagely for spilling soup, but we’re no more offered the closure of his death than we are the satisfaction of watching mama hold up her lifeless son to the gods of war, asking for a pity that would never come.
At the very least, though, the film breezes by at a lean hour-and-a-half, realizing that in the end, all we’re really interested in is how the holy hell this kid got accidentally gassed. And so he did, a damning indictment of bureaucracy’s failings and blind hatred, all with the flair of misunderstanding found in an episode of Three’s Company. At this point, all that’s left is the Holocaust musical, and though I know it’s coming, I’d like to believe even that level of crassness won’t resort to milking tears from the corpses of first-graders. It’s a low blow indeed, and my eyes had to stay defiantly dry on principle. It’s not hard, of course, when one knows one is being manipulated with all the megawatt power Hollywood can muster, but there’s still an outside chance things could go awry and one might instinctively shake one’s head at the senselessness of it all. Instead, it’s all the sheer folly of youth, coupled with the striking no-brainer that a responsible non-Nazi father would have simply picked a reputable boarding school and avoided the whole mess altogether.