Saturday, 18 August 2012

When Mythologising Goes Bad - SPOILERS WARNING

This is the point at which my blog makes an awkward tonal shift.

I had the dubious pleasure of watching The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas last night. I had read the book before as well, and unlike the apparent massive sales of the book and various accolades for the film, I was left feeling slightly uneasy about the whole thing. And apparently I'm not the only one. (1)

Spoilers ahoy, for those who have neither watched or read, but want to. Are those people gone? Good.

As you hold-outs probably know, the book concerns the friendship that develops between a young German boy and a Jewish boy who are either side of a barbed wire fence. The stinger is, of course, that the Jewish boy is in a concentration camp (both mix up the difference between a Work camp and an Extermination Camp) - referred to in the book as "Out With", which I'll come back to in a minute. The final twist (seriously, I did warn you, stop reading if you want to read or watch it) is that the German boy eventually sneaks into the camp under the fence and is killed, while the camp commander, who is also his Father, obliviously looks on. Roll credits. Pass the tissues.

On the surface, it's a good story. It also has a clear moral, I suppose (although I think anybody who needs to be told that wantonly exterminating minorities is an evil thing to do is probably pretty much past help anyway). Dig a little deeper though, and you run into some massive problems.

The first, and most obvious, is that it reduces the largest mass extermination of ethnic minorities in history into a tragedy about a boy who is not a member of any of those minorites. The second is that it inaccurately displays history, mostly in some very minor ways (that fence would probably have been electrified) right up to horrifically distorting it. The "Out With" reference I mentioned earlier is clearly a play on Auschwitz. Apart from the obvious geographical fact that Auschwitz was in Poland, not Germany, there is also the fact that if you were unable to work (ie: a child or elderly) you simply would not have survived long enough to strike up a friendship with anyone, let alone someone on the other side of a very heavily supervised fence. These are a couple of examples. There are many more -  I won't iterate them here, and there are a couple of justifications for a couple of them (dramatic license is ABSOLUTELY NOT a justification).

These facts may seem distasteful to some, and I may be accused of being flippant. I am absolutely not. Stories and movies inform the way we view the world, especially history. If you don't believe me, try the following experiment. Picture William Wallace. If you claim you didn't immediately picture Mel Gibson, or even just someone in a kilt, rather than this, you are either a medieval history student or a liar. In most cases, it doesn't matter, but it it is very important to remember that within living memory, between 11 and 17 million people (including 6 million Jews) were killed on the mandate of a state and the silent assent of its people. Nothing less than the absolute truth is what the victims of this, almost certainly the greatest atrocity ever committed, deserve - not only for the victim's sakes, but to make sure it never even approaches happening again.

Posterity deserves better than a Grimm's Fairy Tale.

(1) This gives a more detailed criticism of the film from a Rabbi's perspective. It is far more powerful than what I have written here, and I have tried not to simply reword it. This post is more about how the book and the film made me personally uncomfortable, and why it's probably not a good idea to trumpet either the book of the film as a 'classic' or a 'tragedy'. For those who don't want to click the link, the tl:dr version is this: "No one may dare alter the truths of the Holocaust, no matter how noble his motives."

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