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September 13, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, 2008. Dir Mark Herman

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, 2008. Dir: Mark Herman

Boy in Striped Pajamas 2

From The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, 2008. Directed Mark Herman

Released this weekend this looks like its a film to make a point of seeing - just forget the feelgood factor. I heard a review on the Francine Stock film programme on radio 4 in the car and then on the News 24 review from Mark Kermode (You can subscribe to the podcasts here). For Francine Stock's Film programme you can find the podcast here including a discussion with director Mark Herman.

I have to confess the original book targetted at younger teenagers passed me by, however, I have discovered quite a lot of controversy so far with a considerable degree of scepticism being voiced with perceived weakness of both the original book and the film being highlighted. The  comments by Linda Grant in the Guardian are quite harsh (beware plot spoiler) in this respect complaining about a "Disneyfication of the Holocaust". Certainly the distributor Miramax is owned by Disney but in terms of some of the films which it has distributed in the past you wouldn't know it, in this respect this is perhaps a piece of gratuitous journalism.   In the light of these comments the comments by young readers in the comments box of the CBBC Review of the book deserve some respect. As anybody who teaches media studies knows reaching the target audience is paramount. In this respect the book seems to have worked and this gives me hope for the film.

Linda Grant in criticising the film seems to want to have a her cake and eat it. She is on the one hand arguing that this is a Disneyfication (It may be -I haven't seen it yet), but then she comments upon the irony that it took Hollywood and Stephen Spielberg with Schindler's list to make the first really big film on the Holocaust. For Grant Life is Beautiful is anodyne. Personally I have found it effective whilst teaching teenagers and, despite my initial doubts when it came out, I decided that I think the film is worthwhile. Of course it should not be the only perspective on the Holocaust, but there are a lot of clever points embedded within it and I think it was a brave film that deserves respect.

Grant then discusses the failure of European cinema to cover Shoah (The Holocaust). The Diary of Anne Frank played down the Jewish component of the genocide (a contradiction), Alain Resnais powerful short film Night & Fog  was primarily news footage intercut with some recent footage of the time, and Shoah is the other film she mentions:

In Europe, Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (1955) and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985) both wrestled with the Holocaust, but Resnais' film fell back on newsreel footage. Only Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter (1974) attempted inexpertly to explore the themes of guilt and complicity. (Linda Grant Guardian Feature)

Well, whilst there is some strong justification in terms of The Holocaust not being covered well by European cinema -certainly in a direct sense - I have a feeling that she hasn't much wrestled with Lanzmann's Shoah for example. Well I've had a review of Shoah in the making for over a year and I have now opened in up in response to this current film (apologies to Eureka for being so long with it.) The review is unfinished because the film became almost too hard to review if you are engaging with it at all. It is less of a review than a response. In fact I found it too difficult. I spent a full day watching it, and it is traumatic.

The Boy in Striped Pajamas 3

From The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, 2008. Directed Mark Herman

Its very sparseness and feeling of interminabilty evoke feelings of guilt. After all watching this for only a few hours is nothing compared to the real traumas. It is a film which was extraordinarily difficult to make and it needs to be be seen but even then Shoah (The Holocaust) is something almost beyond comprehension. How does one represent such an absence? I have written a review of a book of essays on Shoah edited by Stuart Liebmann which came out shortly after I received the review copy of the film. It is academic and at times hard going intellectually but it pales into insignificance with the emotional hardness of the film. Perhaps part of the problem with dealing with Shoah (The events) is a psychoanalytic one concerning what Lacan describes as Das Ding:

The same phenomenon, a fatal attraction to the black hole of Das Ding, the site of a traumatic, vacuous horror, threatening to overflow social structures with a terrible organic vitality and force, appears to be at stake in horror movies. From this perspective, the site of the monsters in horror films and horror fiction in the psychic economy can be defined precisely: it is at a point of intersection between a social and a psychological space. (Stefan Gullatz)

This comment relates to the horror movie genre but perhaps we need to think about this sort of thing in terms of Europe and the representations of the Holocaust.

You cannot look directly into the core of 'the real' you can only circle around it otherwise you are sucked into it. Exactly of course what happened in Life is Beautiful.  The difficulties directors have had in dealing with anti-semitic themes specifically the Holocaust in European cinema are highlighted by the hostile response in France when Louis Malle made Lacombe Lucien. This generated so much hostility with worthies like Foucault accusing Malle of creating a right -wing plot that he did his film making elswhere for a few years.

Yes, I agree with Grant that cinema especially European cinema has not represented the Holocaust well and more must be done, however the responses of Mark Kermode and in the interview with Francine Stock give me confidence that this film is on the right tracks. It has a specific target audience and is likely to be shown in schools in due course. If it opens up knowledge and discussion about an almost unbearable  and unthinkable  process  then that can only be a good thing. Unfortunately raising money for these projects is a problem with ordinary investors chary of investing as box -office success in the short-term is likely to be weak. This is a case for state funding either directly or indirectly. How is Poland representing the gross anti-Semitism which shocks so deeply in Lanzmann's film for example?

Boy in Striped Pajamas 1

From The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, 2008. Directed Mark Herman

I've ordered the book and the film is on my to see list. This posting is underdevelopment as doutbtless there will be many more links to be made as the debate develops and there will be a review in due course. In the meantime fairly much on principle I would encourage readers to see the film either in the cinema or on DVD when it comes out and to form your own opinion, because I suspect these sorts of arguments will run and run. But please bear in mind that whatever its perceived weaknesses might be who the target audience is. Let the last word for now be with Shezheena of London because her review sold me a copy of the book: 

This book was really gripping, I could not put it down and it is a really good book if you are about 11 or older as younger audiences might not understand the plot and genre of this masterpiece! (Shezheena Age 11 London)

YouTube Trailer Here

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. 2008. Directed by Mark Herman

An Apple trailer can be seen here in better quality.


Film Education from Miramax

Linda Grant Guardian Feature (plot spoiler here)

Guardian Review

Guardian audio interview with David Thewliss (The Nazi Officer) on the film

Timesonline Review: Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Daily Telegraph Review


The film comes from the original novel by John Boyne who also collaborated on the script. Below are some links to the book reviews online. Certainly the book seems to have been picked up upon in the US amongst the teachng profession. with history being destroyed in the curriculum in the UK some seem to think it is an endangered subject, good historical novels targetted at children have an increasingly important role to play.  [Mickey Mouse vocationalism is obviously more important for the plebs].

Commonsense Review

Hip Libararians Book Blog Review

The Schools Library Journal (US) had this to say review quoted in full:

Gr 9 Up–Boyne has written a sort of historical allegory–a spare, but vividly descriptive tale that clearly elucidates the atmosphere in Nazi Germany during the early 1940s that enabled the persecution of Eastern European Jews. Through the eyes of Bruno, a naive nine-year-old raised in a privileged household by strict parents whose expectations included good manners and unquestioning respect for parental authority, the author describes a visit from “the Fury” and the family’s sudden move from Berlin to a place called “Out-With” in Poland. There, not 50 feet away, a high wire fence surrounds a huge dirt area of low huts and large square buildings. From his bedroom window, Bruno can see hundreds (maybe thousands) of people wearing striped pajamas and caps, and “something made him feel very cold and unsafe.” Uncertain of what his father actually does for a living, the boy is eager to discover the secret of the people on the other side. He follows the fence into the distance, where he meets Shmuel, a skinny, sad-looking Jewish resident who, amazingly, has his same birth date. Bruno shares his thoughts and feelings with Shmuel, some of his food, and his final day at “Out-With,” knowing instinctively that his father must never learn about this friendship. While only hinting at violence, blind hatred, and deplorable conditions, Boyne has included pointed examples of bullying and fearfulness. His combination of strong characterization and simple, honest narrative make this powerful and memorable tale a unique addition to Holocaust literature for those who already have some knowledge of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”–Susan Scheps, Shaker Heights Public Library, OH

There is some disagreement voiced with the review quoted above within the Schools Library Journal which can be accessed here:

Out with Pajamas

Pajamas is Powerful

The BBC CBBC review of the book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas including some comments from teenage readers themselves.

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