Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the emotions that seeing the movie, The Reader, stirred up in me. I suggested that part of what I found so difficult to accept about the movie was the premise that the SS-officer whose story is being told, the character played by Kate Winslet (who has since won an Oscar for her depiction of Hanna Schmitz), was depicted as essentially too stupid really to blame for her own crimes. Since then, many of you have commented to me that the movie had a similar effect on you. I’m not surprised.Probably, of course, it’s quite true that at least some of the perpetrators were sufficiently unintelligent (and sufficiently morally obtuse) not to notice that they were taking part in one of the greatest crimes ever perpetrated in human history. And it is certainly also so that the Nazis did not publicize every last detail of their master plan to annihilate European Jewry to all the people who served in the camps and on the roving death squads any more than any general ever feels the need to inform every private under him of every aspect of the larger plan for the war to come. Still, most of us came away feeling enraged by the underlying supposition that in some weird way Hanna Schmitz herself was also a kind of a victim, that she was little more than a dupe of the Nazi higher-ups, that the fact that she personally played a role in the deaths of untold and uncountable numbers of innocents was evidence not of her depravity but of her servile stupidity, that the fact that she freely volunteered to serve in the Nazi effort to murder an entire people was some sort of detail easily passed over on the way to telling the “real” truth about the Shoah. Honestly, the woman was a guard at Auschwitz, not a waitress in some SS-commissary somewhere! But, partially because Kate Winslet is a fabulous actress and partially because Bernhard Schlink is a very good storyteller, you do come away feeling something akin to pity for poor Hanna. And she was so nice to that young lad too, the one who grows up to be Ralph Fiennes! Obviously, there’s been some mistake. She hardly knew what she was doing. She was only following her orders. Isn’t that what prison guards are supposed to do?Now, I see that this theme is being worked at from other angles as well. 

Coming home from Israel last week on El Al, I watched a different Shoah movie. I won’t elaborate on the questionable taste of showing such a movie in such a setting. (The stewardess actually interrupted my viewing a scene of naked men being herded into a newly built gas chamber to ask if I wanted an omelet or the fruit plate for breakfast. It was a nice touch that she asked in Hebrew, however.) Or maybe I will, but just for a moment: what can these people have been thinking? If the captain’s own parents had been murdered and their deaths somehow captured on film, would he have showed that movie too to help distract his plane full of passengers on their long, dull flight from Tel Aviv to New York? Or is it possible that the vulgarization of the Shoah has become so complete, so unimaginably absolute, that the boundary between entertainment and the effort to preserve the sacred memory of our martyrs has become sufficiently blurred, including in our own eyes—this was El Al, after all, not Lufthansa!—and in our own hearts, that it seems peculiar even to complain about the choice of the movie? Don’t we want people to remember? I had the omelet.

The movie was The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, filmed in Hungary in 2007, released by Miramax, and based on a young people’s novel written by Irish author John Boyne. (It was a very successful novel, by the way, a bestseller in the U.S., Ireland, the U.K. and Australia, and, in translation, in several European countries.) Since some of you may still see the movie, I won’t give away the ending, but the basic concept is that a little boy named Bruno, played very ably by a ten-year-old British child actor named Asa Butterfield, is growing up in wartime Berlin. His father, a Nazi official, seems distant and a little strange, but he is depicted as a family man—attentive to his wife, loving to his children, more or less friendly to the men who serve under him. His mother seems pleasant enough too and the movie opens with an interesting juxtaposition of the carefree youths of Nazi Berlin playing their days away in the streets of the capital and the increasingly menacing sense that Germany has embarked on a war that is going to bring terrible suffering not only to the world outside its borders, but also to its own citizens. No one but the audience seems to know that, however. And then Bruno’s father is promoted.

Who he is supposed to be is never made entirely clear, but it’s obvious enough that he has been appointed the commandant of a concentration camp that anyone who knows something of the Shoah will recognize as Auschwitz. From this point on, the story becomes almost truly unbelievable. Bruno’s family moves into a lovely country estate just outside the camp’s outer boundary. Since there are no other children around other than Bruno’s sister, a tutor is engaged to teach them their lessons. The house is staffed not by regular servants, but by prisoners from the camp who are treated brutally for the slightest infraction of the rules. Dark allusions are made to the “real” business of the camp. The prisoners know. The Nazis know. We know. Everybody knows, in fact, except poor little Bruno. And because he doesn’t know, the movie is able to lurch forward through all its incredibly unlikely twists and turns to its horrific denouement.I don’t want to spoil the movie for those of you who may still see it, so I’ll be brief. Wandering bored toward the camp one day, Bruno meets a little boy his age on the other side of the fence. Shmuel, also played very well by ten-year-old Jack Scanlon, and Bruno establish an unlikely friendship. And so it goes, the more the tutor speaks poorly of the Jews, the more Bruno is drawn to his new friend. The hungrier Shmuel gets, the more determined Bruno becomes to smuggle some rolls or cookies into the camp. The details are so bizarrely unlikely as almost to be funny, but the ending isn’t funny at all. And, when the movie ends, Bruno has paid the big price for his niceness, for his willingness to help. His mother, naturally, is inconsolable. His father, stoic (as well he might be—he’s the one who gave the order that led to his son’s horrific fate), is clearly wounded by the horror. You see, you can almost hear the author looking down from his perch on the bestsellers’ list to comment, even though he was evil incarnate, even he—the commandant himself—ended up being a kind of victim. Nor to mention his poor wife and their surviving child, Bruno’s sister. You see, they were all victims, the (real) victims and the perpetrators alike, all caught up in a web of evil and depravity from which none could escape.

A few months ago, I wrote to you about Markus Zusak’s book, The Book Thief, which is also being made into a movie that will be released next year. That story too had this same notion at its core: that the perpetrators themselves were victims of forces they could never correctly perceive nor, needless to say, adequately control. And so we see ourselves being exposed again and again to this new wrinkle in the world’s effort to understand the Shoah: that rather than being the work of evil people intent on making war on the House of Israel, the Holocaust was some sort of evil miasma that settled on Europe in the 1940s almost arbitrarily making some into the murderers and others into the murdered, but leaving no one free to choose his or her destiny. This kind of universalization of history—that everything happens to everybody because we are all one gigantic organic whole, one happy family of all humankind—is the antithesis of the Jewish worldview and we should do what we can to combat it before it gains any more traction in society. 

The Shoah was not an unavoidable catastrophe that “just” happened, like a tsunami or an earthquake. It was a war declared by a nation in thrall to the devil on a people whose national ethos since its birth has only been to serve God. And the nations of the world are not peopled by marionettes unable to act in accordance with the moral principles they claim to espouse, but by men and women possessed of the ability to do good in the world or, if they so choose, to inflict indescribable suffering on others. The Shoah was not the unavoidable destiny of the German people, thus an instance of really, really bad national karma, but the malign offspring of the unholy union of moral depravity and intellectual corruption. It was not something that simply had to happen. Just the opposite is true, in fact: the effort to eradicate the Jewish people was undertaken consciously and purposefully by people who were acting fully in sync with the values they openly espoused and the immoral and degenerate worldview they publicly embraced. Blurring the boundary lines between perpetrators and victims serves no one: not the memory of the martyrs, but also not the surviving perpetrators themselves either, men and women whose only hope for redemption lies, to the extent it exists at all, in the kind of atonement that can only come with focused and deeply introspective self-analysis of the most painfully wrenching kind.

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