Are historical inaccuracies harmless?

9:41 AM


I rarely talk about movies that I don't like, but I really hated The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas.

The movie is about Bruno, an 8 year-old boy whose father is a Nazi officer in charge of a concentration camp. One day, Bruno discovers the camp and becomes friends with Shmuel, a Jewish boy his age who is a prisoner at the camp.

Now, I know most movies that focus on a past age end up having some historical inaccuracies. They are, after all, fictionalized accounts and not documentaries.

But still, where do we draw the line between historical inaccuracies and blatant lies? Can a movie with several historical inaccuracies still be good? In the case of The boy in the stripped pajamas my answer is no.

Certain essential facts in the story are not simply small, unimportant, historical mistakes. For example, children were not taken to concentration camps to work alongside adults. Another movie that deals with the Holocaust, Life is beautiful, has a child in a camp, but he was hiding from the Nazis all the time and not working there. 

It even crossed my mind that Shmuel might not be real, that he was Bruno’s imaginary friend. If this was the case, I think the story would have been much more interesting.

Here's something else that bothered me: Bruno was gone for hours every day and nobody noticed. There was an armed guard with a dog in the front entrance, but there wasn't so much as a lock in the back door that led to the camp. And the most appalling of all: if an 8 year-old managed to crawl under the fence in minutes, how come nobody else in the camp did it?

All this may seem irrelevant and maybe I’m being picky. But some of these mistakes, like saying even children could escape the camp, are actually insulting. These mistakes also create two problems.

For one, they make the story seem too implausible in itself. The way the movie portrays the camps makes it difficult to believe that a prisoner would manage to talk to an outsider for several days or that a child would  manage to enter the camp at will.

Secondly, the movie is about WWII. All these details create confusion about the real events that occurred. The prisoners didn't escape because the fences were electrified in real camps, which isn't shown in the movie.


To make matters worse, the movie and the book in which it was based are aimed at teenagers. Young readers don't have enough historical background to spot these inconsistencies and might take everything in the movie as real.

But don't take it from me, because I'm no expert in WWII. A Rabbi wrote a review of this movie and he says he lent the book to one of his friends who is an Auschwitz survivor. According to the Rabbi, his friend "wept, and begged me tell everyone that this book is not just a lie and not just a fairytale, but a profanation."

Remember the other day we were talking about The Producers? Many people consider this comedy to be insulting, because the Holocaust is not a subject that should be dealt lightly. I understand this but I believe movies like The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas are the ones that deal with the Holocaust lightly.

The initial concept of the movie is indeed very original and promising: to tell the story of the Holocaust as seen through the naive eyes of an 8 year-old boy. But the movie's merits stop there.

Is "The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas" still good, despite its inconsistencies? 

UPDATE: While I was checking some college information for my sister, I found an article in an educational website talking about movies that can help students learn. One of the movies was The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas and the article says that this movie "helps discuss the concept of eugenics and exemplifies Nazi concentration camps." (Source in Portuguese)

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10 comments

  1. Interesting - I haven't seen the film yet, but I read the book and was moved by it. Your reaction sounds a lot like my brother's, who also read the book. He said the naivety of the kid, who is the son of a camp commander but didn't know who the Fuhrer was, drove him crazy...etc.

    I realise it wasn't exatly 100% true to life (or even far from it.) I took it more as a parable, though, and in that light I was moved by it. I've visited Auschwitz, too, and found it to be a terrible but essential experience. It is interesting though to read what you've quoted about the reaction of an Auschwitz survivor.

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  2. Maybe because of the way this movie/book approaches the subject it might polarize people: some love it, others hate it.

    From what I've seen in Imdb forums those are the most common reactions - no middle ground.

    Many of my teenager students were also very moved by the book, which made me a bit worried, since they didn't know much about the details of that particular period.

    In case you get to see the movie, let me know what you think (I didn't read the book).

    Have a great weekend xx

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  3. Haven't seen the movie - by the way, neither seen Life is Beautiful. I really don't like the sibject - it makes my heart ache. I had the chance to see the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, but didn't. There's something in the matter that makes me very sad,realkly frightened. And, really, if a small boy could pass under the fence, why not a grown man, thin with the poor food they had? Lacks a lot of logic and makes the concentration camps look more like a summer camp. They weren't. Then nazis killed people there. In the most terrible, nasty ways.

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    Replies
    1. Exactly, it is a very painful subject, this is why it's important to deal with it properly. I'd really recommend Life is Beautiful, it's a great movie, but if it doesn't make you feel comfortable, you might as well stay clear of both movies ;) Have a great weekend xx

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  4. Hello Paula,
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    ReplyDelete
  5. Nicely said Paula... I too think that they wanted to tell something important in unusual way but crossed the line in a wrong point.

    I've seen Auschwitz, and another camp - Stutthof ( where my granpa, polish soldier, was held and survived ) and just one step into those places makes you horrified. Simple expositions show the horror - You move from a window full of someones glasses and You have enough, then to another one with hundreds of shoes, then another one with tens of prosthesis, or suitcases, or human hair and it's only the beggining... this horror seems to have no end.

    The saddest thing is that even if this boy would somehow be "accepted" into a nazi camp, then he would be for sure ultimately murdered by co-prisoners as there was a big fight for every piece of food and a number of killings among those held was very high :(

    I've enjoyed plenty of WW II comedies, and have nothing against most of them, but this is just out of place :/
    it doesn't matter that it's light, the thing is that they've lighted up the wrong subject in a wrong way.

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  6. I've never visited Auschwitz or other camps, but it must be a very difficult visit, specially if you have family directly involved in the war. I wonder how popular this movie is in Europe...

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  7. It didn't doo well I think... Most of movies like these have a large media coverage, ewerything involving Holocaust and World World II is still considered a big tabboo in here, this one surprisingly did not bring as much attention as others - like Polanski's Pianist or Schindler's List and a lot more... "Chidlish" formula could be one of the reasons

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  8. I'm not surprised. In Brazil I think many people watched, specially since the book was such a best seller.

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