Monday December 1, 2008
When a pampered little boy in clean clothes and groomed hair parks himself outside the barbed wire fence of a Concentration Camp somewhere in a forest clearing in Nazi Germany, he meets an eight year old born the same year. They strike up an unlikely friendship. One is confined. The other free. They are too young to know the difference. Or perhaps a more profound observation – that they both are prisoners. And – they are children.
Fiction always requires a suspension of common sense at some level. We are quite accustomed to the obvious license literature and cinema often take. Animals don’t speak English. Spiders don’t take on human form. Coincidences often push the limits of plausibility. And yet these are the hallmarks of compelling story-telling. We cut our writers and movie-makers plenty of slack – even when the fiction’s backdrop is historical.
John Boyne’s novel has been adapted to the big screen. It’s not a simple one. The premise is unsettling. The horrors that will forever live in infamy as the most appalling atrocity in the advance of the Arian race are indelibly etched into the consciousness of every student of history. To deny the inhuman elimination of over six million of Hitler’s innocent targets, as some apparently do, is to rewrite history to one’s own liking. We all know the culprits. We shrug them off as illiterates. But they are dangerous illiterates.
So efforts will continue to keep the memory alive. The mantra echoes through the decades, “So that it will never happen again.” And yet with all our sophistication, with all our strategies to prevent it, genocide continues. Terrorism lives. Ethnic cleansing persists. The stories must be told and retold. Perhaps someday the world will learn.
Accounts of the Nazi atrocities abound. Carolyn and I have visited three Holocaust Museums (Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Jerusalem). But this cinematic account takes a new tack. It’s a devastatingly potent approach. Two recommendations came along that we view the new film. Chuck Colson encouraged his readers to see it. Then Pam, one of my regular readers and frequent commenter said this –
Tonight I saw the most painful movie that I have ever seen. This movie shows Nazi Germany through the eyes of two eight-year-old boys, one a son of a German officer, and the other a prisoner in a nearby camp. I can’t stop crying. Please see this movie.
If “happily ever after” is your kind of evening out, then this won’t be your cup of tea. It’s a dark conclusion. Without giving away the ending, know that you’ll need to sit for awhile before you’ll gather whatever is required to get yourself out of your seat and moving toward the exit. It’s a stomach punch, as reality sometimes is.
That caution raised, be prepared for a story that will grip your heart. The genius of the film is that it draws you in as though the outcome of this gruesome moment in our collective consciousness becomes your story. It happens because you become so readily attached to this little boy – Bruno is his name.
Bruno is proud of his father. He’s a distinguished officer in the Armed Forces. He is admired and respected in his upscale neighborhood. Everyone is pleased with the progress of nationalism. It’s a welcome era of prosperity and affluence. There is a new orderliness, a new patriotism sweeping the Motherland. His older sister, Greta, feels it, too. Bruno runs the streets of the city with abandon. He and his friends fly up and down the sidewalks like a squadron of fighter planes – imaginary dare-devils soaring through the neighborhoods where adults smile knowingly at the charm of little boys at play. Their father’s “promotion” comes as a surprise. At first, mom is proud, too. But it will mean a farewell to the house they love. An adventure.
Only the officer’s mother (Bruno’s grandmother) seems to know intuitively that something is terribly wrong with this idyllic family portrait and national giddiness. Their relocation puts Lieutenant Karl Kotler in command of a prison camp, which, we soon learn, has devised the machinery of mass murder and high volume incineration. Too much for an eight-year old who takes pride in his father’s position and his place in the country to understand. Schmuel sits across the fence, and lives on the “farm.” (This is his parent’s explanation.) It all seems normal to Bruno.
What unfolds is a lesson in personal morality. At what point does conformity to the framers of an unjust cause become co-conspiracy? What do we teach our children? Who do we invite into their world to become their mentors and educators? At what point to we share responsibility for systemic injustice?
Chuck Colson believes we should watch the film “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (Bruno’s way of describing his friend Schmuel on the other side of the fence) because it forces these questions upon us. The innocence of childhood can be taken away all too soon.
It’s Monday morning, and as a leader, you and I are facing new realities. We’ve enjoyed a weekend of thanksgiving, and found plenty to be grateful for even in this era of doom and gloom. But now we’re back to the reality of Monday and the final month in the calendar year.
If Bruno teaches us anything at all, we are dealing with issues that matter. Our choices count. Evil and good are in mortal conflict. People get caught in the cross-fire. We’re here to protect, to warn, to challenge, to think and to put our confidence in the One who will bring it all to a proper conclusion.
That’s why we’re here.
Copyright 2008 Kenneth E. Kemp