From the window of his new bedroom, Bruno (Asa Butterfield) — the eight-year-old protagonist of the 2008 Holocaust film, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas — can see what he thinks is a farm. When he asks his mother, Elsa (Vera Farmiga), if he can play with the children at the “farm”, she is surprised. The “farm”, as Elsa knows, is a Nazi concentration camp that her husband Ralf (David Thewlis), a senior army officer, has been sent manage. Even as they are having this conversation, Pavel — one of the inmates at the camp — comes to deliver vegetables. “Didn’t I tell you the farmers were weird?” Bruno tells Elsa. “They wear striped pyjamas.”
The family of Germans, comprising — besides Bruno, Elsa and Ralf — his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) has just moved from Berlin to the “countryside” (Out-With or Auschwitz in occupied Poland, the most notorious extermination camp, in the eponymous 2006 novel by John Boyne). With no friend or neighbour, Bruno, who wants to grow up to be an explorer, is left to explore the back garden of their house and the forest on his own. In the course of his explorations, he reaches the “farm”, with barbed wires all around, and meets Shmuel — a boy his age — who lives there. “I am a Jew,” Shmuel tells Bruno.
Across the barbed wires, Shmuel and Bruno, who are of the same age and share birthdays, strike a visual contrast — not only in their clothes (Shmuel is always dressed in the striped uniform of concentration camp inmates) but also their hair. While Bruno has a headful of black hair, Shmuel’s head is clean shaven. This distinction between the German and the Jew is likely to remind one of Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue” in English), and its refrain:
your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite
Addressing a rally at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi on Sunday, December 22, last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “Rumours of detention centres are being raised by the Congress and Urban Naxals. There are no detention centres, nobody is going there.” This was a complete lie, and several news organisations immediately pointed out that several such camps had been built across the country. Modi’s colleague in government, Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai had also told the Rajya Sabha in November 2019 that 988 alleged illegal immigrants were held in six detention centres across Assam. Twenty-eight had died in these camps since 2016, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in the state, according to human rights group Citizens for Justice and Peace.
Social activist Harsh Mander, who has been a vocal campaigner against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, led a mission of the National Human Rights Commission in January 2018 to these camps in Assam. (When the Commission did not take cognisance of the report, Mander resigned from it and filed a case with the Supreme Court.) In an article for Scroll.in (“The dark side of humanity and legality: A glimpse inside Assam’s detention centres for ‘foreigners’”, June 26, 2018), Mander has narrated harrowing stories of those trapped in these camps and appealed for a more humane approach to determining citizenship in the country.
In The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Bruno watches a Nazi propaganda film showing how the Jews in Auschwitz are happy and healthy, and he imagines that Shmuel, with his numbered uniform, is playing a game in the “farm”. This has echoes of the 1998 Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful, written and directed by Roberto Benigni. The protagonist of the film Guido Orefice (Bengini), a bookseller, pretends to his son, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini) that the camp in which they are interned is a complicated game. Giosué must follow his father’s instructions to win the game; the prize for the winner is an army tank. Guido does this to ensure that his son his protected from the horrors of the camp and survives.
“In the camp, one of the reasons that can drive a prisoner to survive is the idea of becoming a witness,” writes Giorgio Agamben in Remnants of Auschwitz. “To justify one’s survival is not easy — least of all in the camp. Then there are some survivors who prefer to be silent… Yet, for others, the only reason to live is to ensure that the witness does not perish.” Bruno and Shmuel do not survive the camp — they perish in the gas chambers. The last shot of the film focuses on the iron doors of the gas chamber, with an undeniable finality of the Final Solution.
Asked if he had ever thought of giving them a happy ending, Boyne — the author of the novel from which the film is adapted — said: “Never… there was one thing I knew that I could not change, and that was the simple fact that the stories of the people who arrived at the concentration camps almost always ended tragically.” Nevertheless, the book and the film have been criticised for trivialising the Holocaust. The New York Times said, “(it) glossed over, kitsched up, commercially exploited and hijacked for a tragedy about a Nazi family.” Research by Holocaust educator Michael Gray showed that young students seeing the film or reading the book thought Germans did not know about the Holocaust because Bruno’s family seems ignorant about it.
On arrival at the camp, Bruno and Elsa see smoke emanating from the chimneys of the camp and detect an offensive odour. “They smell worse when they burn,” a young soldier tells Elsa, after which she confronts her husband about the realities of the camp. Research has shown that most Germans were well aware of what was going on at the detention centres for the Jews. At Dachau, one of the earliest concentration camps, visitors — I went there in 2018 — are told how many of the residents of nearby villages worked there. One of the reasons that sparked violent student demonstrations across Germany 1968 was the realisation among young people that their parents were complicit in the running of the concentration camps.
Decades from now, no Indian will be able to claim that they were unaware of detention camps that are being built across the country.
The writer’s novel, Ritual, will be out in February