Anyone who has been following my blogs knows I’m still suffering from (or enjoying?) a hangover induced by The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The protagonist, at the beginning of the novel, is no more than a nine-year-old German girl, and she knew so little of the harrowing realities of World War II until she became one of its victims.
To quench my thirst for more war stories, I re-watched two movies that almost has the same premise as that of Liesel Meminger’s tale.
There is something about the idea of the innocent having their eyes scrunched open to the harsh realities of the world they’re a part of that greatly appeals to me. I guess it’s that it relays the ultimate message of life being unfair, for fate being a cruel juggernaut, that being young and pure doesn’t exempt you from the “rules” of life. Here, I’m going to cite a couple of flicks that zero in on that premise: The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas and The Grave of the Fireflies.
Friendship through a barbed wire fence
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), based on the best-selling novel of the same name by John Boyne, is a story of two eight-year-old boys—Bruno, a son of a Nazi concentration camp commandant, and Shmuel, a Jew inmate—who form a deep friendship despite their unlikely backgrounds.
The title character is Shmuel, and no, he’s not wearing striped pajamas at all—those are actually the prisoner’s clothing in the concentration camp where he is held captive. It is Bruno who thinks they are clad in sleepwear, though he’s somewhat questioning the logic of farmers (he also mistakes the camp as a farm) wearing pajamas while working.
Bruno and Shmuel first met when the former “explores” the new surroundings, being a kid that craves for friendship and adventure after his family moves to the countryside. Bruno passes by an unguarded corner of the concentration camp where the Jew kid is slumped. After that, Bruno goes back everyday to bring food and play games, until Shmuel tells him the truth about what’s going on on his side of the fence. Bruno soon learns that given their backgrounds, they should be enemies, but they did not put an end to their friendship.
After the death of a Jew servant in Bruno’s house, Shmuel is sent there to clean glasses. Bruno gives Shmuel some cake, and when a Nazi officer walks in to ask if Shmuel is stealing food, the kid says Bruno gives him the pastry. In fear, Bruno denies to the officer what Shmuel had just said. For several days, Bruno doesn’t see Shmuel and he fears it’s because of what happened in the kitchen. When the Jew kid finally turns up in their usual meeting place, he is sporting a swollen black eye—one that is given to him by the Nazi officer. With a kind, forgiving heart, he still accepts Bruno’s friendship after what happened. That made me going “awww!”, feeling a little touched that for a boy so young, Shmuel has an extraordinarily forgiving heart.
Bruno learns more about Jews and Germans, the Third Reich, antisemitism and the Fuhrer…but his bond with Shmuel remains strong. When Shmuel tells Bruno that his father has been missing in the camp, the latter sees this as an opportunity to make up to his friend after the kitchen incident. Donning an extra prisoner’s uniform stolen by Shmuel, Bruno enters the camp (through a hole beneath the fence) and they begin their search for the lost father.
This is where cruel fate rolls into the picture. Bruno is in the wrong place at the wrong time, because apparently when he enters the camp, it is “shower time” for the inmates. Yes, folks. We’re talking about the Holocaust, right? It’s gassing time.
Naturally the boys don’t know what is happening, and they are too weak to go against the torrent of Jews being shoved into a chamber. They are swept inside, not knowing that they’ve just entered the welcoming embrace of death. My arms were reduced to a double mass of gooseflesh when I realized this, and I held onto a secret hope that maybe, just maybe, they are going to survive. But we’re talking about the rules of life here—no exceptions. The last image the audience saw of the two boys is this:
No point in keeping the tears at bay, I thought. I’m glad there’s always a pack of Kleenex in easy reach when I watched this again. Aside from the chamber door where no pounding from the inside can be heard anymore, Bruno’s mom’s hysterical crying at the end is a heartbreakingly haunting scene as well.
I’d like to point out one scene that practically symbolizes the movie. It is when Bruno is searching for his ball in the attic, and he accidentally shines his flashlight on a creepy little mountain of naked dolls…
Foreshadowing has never been this blatant. Bruno just wants to make friends with somebody his age (symbolized by him searching for the ball), and he for sure he doesn’t want to die because of some Zyklon B pellets with hundreds of naked Jews in the same room as him (symbolized by his horrified reaction when he sees the dolls).
This is a deeply moving tale of friendship that surpasses all possible limitations set by the cruelty of the Holocaust times. Also—it has to be reiterated—this is a story that tells us how even people who don’t deserve to suffer or die harsh deaths—people who are so alive that having them killed is like robbing an expensive treasure—are not spared by hands of fate.
The short lifespan of fireflies
The Grave of the Fireflies or Hotaru no Haka (2008) is a live-action adaptation of the 1988 animated movie by Studio Ghibli of the same name. Both flicks are based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka.
The Grave of the Fireflies follows the story of Seita and Setsuko, siblings orphaned by the war, and how they struggled to keep themselves alive amidst the unfavorable conditions of a war-ravaged Japan. Apparently the live action adaptation took a lot of liberties, since the narration comes from the cousin of the two main protagonists, not from the scarlet “rei” or spirit of Seita.
There is nothing much to say about the plot or storyline, because in hindsight you can already imagine the quotidian lives of people living in wartime: the bits about sirens, bombs, destroyed properties, air raids, seeking refuge in shelters, robbery and other grave crimes, possible insanity, and ultimately, death. Lots of it. What makes this a great war story is that it doesn’t sugarcoat anything, no kitsch and no embellishments. Just the plain, dark, and painful truth.
I think the animated version of this set the bar when it comes to war-from-the-child’s-perspective type of flicks—or literature for that matter.
The title of the movie refers to the shallow grave Setsuko digs with her own hands when the fireflies—their only source of light they have at night—die in the morning. I think the fireflies symbolize their hope: short-lived and too weak to shine brightly in the darkest of nights.
The very point of this kind of movies is how the most precious of things can be destroyed in just a flash. There has been countless of movies with the same theme that aired, but no one ever really learns.
As Heero Yuy from Gundam Wing said, “Wars take many lives away. Humans never forget the grief, but they also never stop the fighting. Streams of blood and tears are only an ornament for their destructive ritual.”
I’m not sure how many more films and books and accounts of personal experiences it would take for people to understand this very simple thing, but I’m guessing there would never be enough. For most people, the desire for power is greater than the preservation of human lives; as I’m typing this, I know that wars are ongoing elsewhere. When someone says he wishes for “world peace,” the usual reaction he’ll get is laughter or ridicule. It may be because it’s such a cliché wish, but it’s also because deep inside us we think this is never going to happen…
I don’t want to end this post in such a pessimistic note, but I want to state the truth. Who knows, though? Silver linings might still exist…even for clouds that formed out of atomic bombings.