I was just complaining about Christmas movies, saying it doesn’t seem like there are any good ones this year. I take that back. There are. The Boy in Striped Pajamas is an unusual and important Christmas movie. It is unusual because, at first look, it does not appear to have anything to do with Christmas at all.
The movie is set in the 1940s in Germany. It is about an 8 year old adventurous German boy named Bruno and his family living in Berlin. Bruno’s father, Ralf, is a high-ranking military officer who has just accepted an important position in the Nazi war effort. This requires the family to move to a country house near what Bruno believes to be a strange farm. In fact, it is a Nazi death camp, and Ralf, is an SS officer who has just been placed in charge of mass exterminations of Jews. This knowledge is hidden from Ralf’s wife Elsa and the children. But the reality seeps out as Bruno secretly goes exploring and discovers the camp’s perimeter, and a Jewish boy, his age, in “striped pajamas,” named Shmuel (Samuel). In time, Bruno, and other family members realize that something is very wrong, and he questions his father’s moral goodness.
Without giving the whole film away, one sees the deep anti-Semitism of this era that gripped German culture. The children are taught that Jews are not really people, but evil vermin who deserve to be destroyed. We see the powerful influence of a teacher who turns Bruno’s sweet twelve year old sister Gretel, , from her interest in her treasured doll collection. Soon she disposes of her dolls and
decorates her bedroom with Nazi youth posters, espousing the anti-Semitism of her tutor. We see people with a Christian heritage, naively buy into the propaganda of the day.. Soon they adopt an easy conformity and mouth the same hatred toward Jews as the Nazi leaders.
It would be comforting to think these attitudes are “long ago and far away,” but they are not. A move is afoot in our own day that is much larger than what the Nazis propagated in Germany to destroy Israel and the Jews. Significant political powers are publically committed to the eradication of Israel. Today, children in many schools all over the Middle East are taught from an early age these same lines of hatred from state-controlled media. Thankfully, films like The Boy in Striped Pajamas remind us of the imbedded dark thread of anti-Semitism that runs through history. May it help us to not forget this evil.
So why do I call this a Christmas movie? Not just because it came out at the end of the year. Take a second look. Recall how at the birth of Jesus, a jealous Herod went on a rampage, for fear of a rival, and slaughtered all the Jewish boys of Bethlehem (Matthew 2). His act, echoed Pharaoh’s own slaughter of Jewish boys in Egypt in Moses’ day. Recall every other attempt in history to destroy the Jews (Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, European). We Christians forget that part of the Christmas story includes the anguished words of Jeremiah where— “a voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more. “ (Jeremiahs 31.15 and Matthew 2.18). The great mourning of Bruno’s mother Elsa, at the end of the film reminds me of this Christmas text.
Christians will discern a powerful redemptive picture at the end of the movie. Bruno, wanting to be near Shmuel, digs his way under the barbed wire fence and dons a set of striped pajamas himself (prison clothes). He is now, for all purposes, a prisoner himself. Holding Shmuel’s hand, he walks into a barracks, just as the guards, awaken everyone to herd them into the showers. But these are death showers, where all are stripped naked, the doors are locked and poison rains down.
As a PG 13 film with such disturbing scenes, this movie is obviously unsuitable for young children. But I urge you to see it and learn from this unusual yet very important Christmas film of 2008.