Thursday, May 31, 2012

"Pavel used to be a Doctor, but he gave it all up to peel potatoes."

Last night, I watched a movie called The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I thought it was excellent. I mean, really excellent. The moment it ended I decided it was the best movie I've seen in quite some time. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but the gist is that it's about an 8-year-old boy, Bruno, who is the son of a Nazi soldier. Early in the film, Bruno's family relocates after his father is promoted and placed in charge of one of the death camps. Bruno knows that his father is a soldier and that he is working hard to help the Fatherland, but he knows nothing about the horrors of the camp. When he eyes its gates through his bedroom window, he thinks it's a farm. He's curious about it and wants to explore it for himself, but he hesitates as the people inside seem strange. "They're always wearing pajamas," he says.

Eventually Bruno does manage to get close to the fence surrounding the camp, despite attempts by his elders to keep him near, and when he does he finds a boy his age on the other side. The two develop a friendship - or at least something like one - as Bruno's desire for companionship overrides the anti-Jewish propaganda of his upbringing.

Apparently some people have complained that the film is implausible and historically inaccurate. I don't know whether it is or it isn't, but I don't think it really matters. This is a powerful, human fable about our tendency to demonize those outside our socially constructed groups. The point gets made whether the accents are correct or not.

I've noticed it's becoming very passe to bring up Hitler and the Nazis in debates about morality, politics, and philosophy. On one hand, I understand this trend. When every major political figure has someone out there referring to him (or her) as Hitler, it's hard to take such comparisons seriously. What concerns me, though, is the possibility that this trend is stemming not so much from weariness over unfair comparisons but from the assumption that we are too enlightened to ever let anything like the Holocaust happen again. If this is the case, it is a very dangerous assumption. Human nature has not changed since the days of the Nazis. We are still susceptible to the same thoughts and attitudes they fell prey to, and assuming otherwise only serves to demonstrate our susceptibility. Such an assumption depends on an attitude of superiority, and the assumption of superiority was what enabled the Nazis to commit such terrible crimes against their "lesser" brothers and sisters. Nazi Germany should have a regular place in our discourse about important issues. It was a real event in recent history that involved real people just like us today, and it can teach us invaluable lessons if we let it. Fashionable or not, it needs to remain in public consciousness.

When I was in Wildwood, New Jersey three years ago, I met a Muslim man from the Middle East. He was staying with several other international students in a house behind ours. My friend and I asked if he would be willing to take a survey about spirituality, and he responded warmly. He invited us into his room, offered us tea, and seemed happy to answer our questions. He said his Muslim faith was very important to him but that he also believed in religious freedom. "Different beliefs should be respected" he said. However, when the word Jew was mentioned everything he said went out the window. "I hate Jews" he said. "They only care about themselves. They smell terrible, too. They don't even shower. It's disgusting."

My friend and I weren't sure how to react. As I remember, we looked at each other in silent surprise and then asked some clarifying questions, trying to identify the source of his animosity. At this point my memory of the interaction is vague, but I don't think he said anything that helped to justify his hatred. It just seemed like pure, villainous prejudice. As I watched The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I remembered our conversation and I found myself wishing I could go back to it. I wanted to tell him - honestly and forcefully - what I really thought. I wanted to tell him that his hatred was dangerous and that he sounded foolish. I wanted to tell him that his views were the product of ignorance and propaganda, and that no people group deserves more sympathy than one that was almost systematically exterminated. I wanted to tell him that his lack of empathy and compassion was horrifying to me, and that if he was going to persist in such prejudice I would prefer that he leave the country. When I was watching The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, there were so many moments when I wanted the characters to say something just like that, but they never did. I couldn't understand why they didn't, but then I realized that when the opportunity had arisen in my own life I had let it pass me by.

I'll be thinking about this one for awhile. Definitely worth two hours of your time.

1 comment: