306: What do we make of the horrific “Boy in the Striped Pajamas”?

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B
race yourself for a lengthy holiday season as a whole series of Holocaust movies — and a roaring controversy over such films — unfold around us. Generally, controversy over movies is about as serious as whether Britney Spears should be let out of custody or Tom Cruise was rude in an interview.

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     This is different.
    On Sunday, the New York Times fired the loudest shot so far in what is now a bitter dispute over whether films like “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” should be produced in the first place — and whether we should go to see them.
    I saw the film on Saturday and found the theater packed. People could be heard weeping at the close of the movie, softly telling each other they thought it was “powerful.” The movie’s overall message is, indeed, powerful: The lies told by parents (or anyone in unquestioned authority) can destroy the next generation.
    The movie is set in Europe in the 1940s and follows Bruno, a precocious 8-year-old whose parents suddenly announce that they are moving far from their urban home. Bruno doesn’t like this idea, but he worships his father, a German officer, and agrees to make the best of their new home. As viewers, we immediately realize the shocking truth — that the father is the new commander of a death camp. The father tries his best to force-feed Nazi propaganda into the minds of little Bruno and Bruno’s 12-year-old sister. The father starts by hiring a vicious tutor who tries to indoctrinate the children in anti-Semitism, including the hateful view of Jews as “vermin” who must be destroyed. But Bruno somehow refuses to buckle under such psychological abuse and winds up secretly befriending a little boy inside his father’s death camp.
    The results are tragic, which isn’t a “spoiler” in this case. What else could happen in such a film?

    The movie is based on a well-received novel for high-school students by John Boyne. Clearly, the filmmakers produced a movie version because they saw the power in the horrific, Shakespearean scope of this story. The father completely destroys the family he loves because of his own pride, prejudice and lies.
    But there is something about telling the story through a little boy’s eyes — and a little Nazi boy at that — that has sparked controversy.

    We already knew that the New York Times loathes this movie. Earlier this month, when it was showing only in selected cities, reviewer Manohla Dargis all but called the filmmakers themselves vermin. Dargis wrote that the entire movie amounts to “the Holocaust trivialized, glossed over, kitsched up, commercially
exploited and hijacked for a tragedy about a Nazi family.”
    Dargis was not alone.
    Salon reviewer Stephanie Zacharek also abhorred the film. She wrote: “There are plenty of subjects — old yellow hunting dogs, spirited folk
bravely facing cancer — that can be easily milked for maximum pathos.
But you’ve reached rock bottom when you start milking the death camps,
as ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,’ does.”
    Then, on Sunday, the most esteemed of the Times reviewers, A.O. Scott, weighed in with a lengthy “think piece,” trashing not only this movie, but also the earlier Oscar-winning “Life Is Beautiful” and accusing anyone attempting to make this style of film as merely making a shameful bid for a golden statue from the Academy.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

    AT THIS POINT, I am asking you as a reader of ReadTheSpirit: What do you think? Have you seen this film or “Life Is Beautiful” (another movie that focuses on a child’s quirky experience of the Holocaust)? What do you think about this kind of movie — or the previews you are seeing already for “The Reader,” “Valkyrie,” “Defiance” and others?

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    BUT not everyone has trashed this film.
    At the Chicago Tribune, Roger Ebert
called it powerful and said that its tale of rationalization in the
face of great evil echoes far beyond the Holocaust into other more
recent genocides and even into the lies told in mass-scale corruption in American business.
    Ebert wrote that the film “is not only about Germany during the war … It is about a value system that
survives like a virus. Do I think the people responsible for our
economic crisis were Nazis? Certainly not. But instead of collecting
hundreds of millions of dollars in rewards for denying to themselves
what they were doing, I wish they had been forced to flee to Paraguay
in submarines.”

    The San Fancisco Chronicle also appreciated the movie. Reviewer
Mick LaSalle saw the film as deliberately designed to provoke
larger moral reflections about our dangerous temptation to rationalize evil.
   
LaSalle points out that it really is Bruno’s mother who shows us the
fullest emotional response to this insideous temptation. She realizes
the true nature of her husband’s monstrous deeds with greater clarity
than little Bruno ever achieves. LaSalle says Vera Farmiga’s performance as the
mother is the crucial role to watch as you view the film, because her
responses to this evil achieve “emotional clarity and intensity (that
has) an almost cleansing quality—so pristine, plain and right.”

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HERE IS SOMETHING ELSE TO PONDER

    While it may be tempting to side with Scott and Salon — and perhaps they are correct in this case — consider the full scope of what Scott wrote on Sunday. He is one of America’s most respected film critics, but there’s a problem with his lengthy “think piece.”
    Scott knows Hollywood. Scott apparently doesn’t know religious history.
    One of the big gaps in his analysis is his claim that we, as Americans, shouldn’t be spending so much time thinking about the Holocaust, because “the Holocaust was not a central event in American history.” If you’re a Jewish American, I’ll bet your jaw drops as you read that line.
    Quite the opposite. Ongoing research is documenting anti-Semitic movements within the U.S. prior to WWII as well as widespread American ambivalence to Jews that led our elected officials to bar the doors from many Jewish refugees. As a nation, we refused access to the U.S. for desperate Jewish refugees both before and, this is stunning but true, even in the years immediately after the Holocaust!
    The enduring strength of American Judaism cannot be understood without understanding the wounds of the Holocaust. Beyond Judaism, the modern interfaith movement cannot be understood without glimpsing its roots in responses to the Holocaust.
    What’s more, global culpability in turning a deadly cold shoulder toward Jews is now a major lesson taught in high school classrooms across the U.S.

    Here is something else that Scott got wrong. He doesn’t seem to be aware that the reason we’re seeing so many media reflections on the Holocaust is that, as a nation, we have spent a couple of decades intensively educating our high school students about this global crime. Scott actually writes that “the recent burst of cinematic and literary interest” in the Holocaust is because “it is receding from living memory.”
    While it is true that Holocaust survivors soon will be gone, given their advanced ages, the fact is that high school students in America can’t graduate these days without at least one — and usually several — units related to the Holocaust from elementary school through 12th grade. The original book, “Striped Pajamas,” was written to help high school students in their studies.
    On Sunday morning, I met with a high-school group, the Divine Light Media crew based in Ann Arbor — very smart students who produce documentary films on religious diversity. In other words, this class of more than a dozen young people most likely contains future professional filmmakers.

    I asked them what they know about this story. None of them had seen the movie, but two of them are reading the book right now in high school. I asked why they think that so many attempts are made to help them learn about the Holocaust.
    Almost in unison, I heard young voices telling me from around the classroom: “If we do not remember, then it can happen again.”

    The troubling question we face is: Do films like “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Life Is Beautiful” help us in this process — or blunt the essential memories? Should there be limits in cinematic approaches to the Holocaust? AND: Tell us whether you’re likely to see any of these films in the final weeks of this year?

PLEASE, Tell Us What You Think.

    Not only do we welcome your notes, ideas, suggestions and personal
reflections—but our readers enjoy them as well. You can do this
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You also can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. We’re also reachable on Facebook, Digg, Amazon, GoodReads and some of
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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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