Among the various cherished relationships that I’ve been blessed to have at different stages in my life, the ones with childhood friends are the ones that I consider to be the purest form of friendship. This is a unique brand of love that is open and welcoming, unadulterated by preconceptions and one that is built on the virtue of unconditional acceptance. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, based on the novel of the same name by John Boyne, is a touching (albeit heartbreaking) exploration of the beautiful friendship between two young boys accidentally brought together by the shackles of war during the zenith of the Nazi regime. This is a film that still tugs at my heartstrings and has me grabbing a box of tissues even after multiple viewings.
Set during World War II, the narrative follows eight-year-old Bruno, the son of a Nazi commandant who has been posted to oversee one of the many concentration camps near Poland. Lonely, unhappy and missing his three friends in Berlin, Bruno aimlessly wanders around his new surroundings, straying towards the forbidden barbed fences of the concentration camp. There he meets Shmuel, a Jewish boy who is one among the thousands of enslaved victims of the Holocaust. Oblivious to the true sinister nature of the milieu, the two boys indulge in a heartwarming friendship that leads to tragic and disastrous consequences.
The film, at its core, is a telling example of how the unbiased and untarnished nature of an innocent friendship can transcend the human-made monsters of caste, race, religion and war. In Bruno and Shmuel, we observe the innate ability in children to pierce through the veneer of prejudice and judgment imposed on them to embrace a selfless camaraderie in its most basic and pristine form, despite experiencing diametrically different forms of oppression. We see this in the manner in which Shmuel lends an empathetic ear to Bruno’s grievances just as easily as Bruno pockets a stash of goodies to share with his buddy over the fence. There is a fierce sense of loyalty in this friendship, as Bruno steadfastly defends Shmuel against the provocative hate-mongering jibes of his father with a simple but powerfully loaded declaration of “He’s my friend”. Shmuel in turn never holds Bruno accountable for his father’s actions, proving that children possess an inherent wisdom to readily forgive and forget – a quality we have grossly trivialised as adults. The tragic and shocking climax extols possibly the greatest virtue of a strong friendship: a resolute unwavering trust that gives both boys the resilience to set things right in each other’s lives even though the deadly repercussions of their belief are beyond their comprehension.
Despite having received criticism for apparent historical inaccuracies, the beating heart of the narrative lies in the depiction of a pure and virtuous friendship that would have stood the test of time, had it not been brutally ripped apart by the poisonous tentacles of hatred. The film also leaves us with some important takeaways to ruminate on. Children are infinitely superior beings. They do not recognise or understand cruelty. Their hearts are warm, funny, unfiltered and unaffected by external hostilities. If we could only scale the fences of resentment that our lofty egos have built and let children teach us kindness and generosity in relationships, the world would be a much better place.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.