“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion”.
Can the children of Nazi Germany be held accountable for the atrocities committed against European Jews?
How could they be. After all they are still children who have innocent impressions of their world. Such questions have been asked in literary texts where the central theme is the Shoa.
Bernhard Schlink’s novel, The Reader is best described as a confessional novel in which the narrator fails to rid himself of guilt. In this case, Michael Berg (David Kross) feels guilt for not helping an illiterate Nazi woman with whom he has a sexual relationship while still a teenager. As an adult, his guilt is extended to his inability to help bring closure to the Nazis’ victims.
Stephen Daldry’s film of the same name asks the same questions. The answer as to whether young children are complicit and guilty of crimes committed against humanity could lie in John Boyne’s novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas which is also adapted for the screen by director Mark Herman.
This story is reflected from the point of view of an innocent eight-year old boy, Bruno, whose father commands a death camp. This boy’s innocence is contrasted with his father’s meticulous attention to detail in carrying out Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution and murdering Jews. Amongst these Jews are hundreds of innocent children.
The consequences of indoctrinating rather than truthfully educating children is shifted onto the shoulders of the young boy’s twelve-year old sister, Gretel. She believes that the creation of the new Fatherland will be accomplished through a justified killing of Jews.
This girl’s innocence is lost during her adolescent infatuation with a Nazi military officer. She believes her tutor’s history lessons. It is her first encounter with propaganda. The teacher tells her that the social and economic problems that Germans face are as a result of their nation’s defeat during the Great War and their betrayal by the Jews.
Vera Farmiga’s performance as the children’s mother is plausible in light of the unseen dissention and disapproval within the non-Jewish German communities against Nazi ideology and the methods used to bring it about. David Thewlis’ performance is also credible, but does not reach the level of coldness that Michael Moriarty achieves in the controversial American TV series, The Holocaust.
The star of this film is undoubtedly Asa Butterfield as the boy, Bruno. His physical presence, small and innocent, chillingly resembles Adolf Hitler with his characteristic dark hair and side path. Every screen shot of this boy reminded me of Hitler and led me to reflect on his evil while watching the film.
I am not giving away the film’s mis-en-scene, but I am urged to mention Bruno’s innocent friendship with his Jewish friend, Shmuel. Their friendship is foregrounded to show how they interpret and try to understand the events which surround them.
The opening scenes of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas are important. It shows young boys running through the streets of Berlin playing war games. Even in today’s context of television and TV games to replace outdoor games, most male viewers should relate well with these scenes.
A highly effective device of showing binary oppositions is the visual presentation of the two boys’ meeting place. It shows the vast difference between Nazi Germans and German Jews. I particularly liked the production’s post-modern production setting of Bruno’s home. Hitler, who had a fantastical admiration of classical architecture, was no fan of modernism.
While the boys continue to play, Gretel discards her dolls as playthings to pursue her misguided sense of duty in obeying the commands of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist ideologies in the realisation of the master race and its Fatherland.
I came across seething criticism of John Boyne’s novel. It objects to the use of the Holocaust as a fictional theme. But I have mentioned in an earlier post that this is an essential method to memorialize the Holocaust. It is still necessary for us to continue our journey of cultural learning in order to recognise and protest against the mass killing of one cultural group, usually non-complicit and dissenting, by another which seeks to justify their superiority or survival.