I’m studying catharsis. I have a play to direct, which is written in the form of Greek tragedy, and I need to understand catharsis. I know I’ve experienced it. In fact, I experienced it this evening, watching a movie. I don’t think anyone reads this blog any more, so this is as good a place as any to try to vent a bit of what I felt tonight.
If you haven’t seen The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and you’re actually reading this post, you might want to stop right here. It’s a film set in Germany during WWII, and revolves around the unlikely (and nearly impossible) friendship between the 8-year-old son of the commandant of an extermination camp, and an 8-year-old Jewish prisoner on the other side of the fence.
We see the seemingly “normal” happy German family begin to disintegrate after the mother learns what kind of a place her husband has charge of. The horrible smells that waft over their home every few days are puzzling to little Bruno, but to his mother they change her husband from hero to monster. Meanwhile, Bruno’s older sister is being indoctrinated into belief in the Fatherland and its righteous cause.
But all this is in the background. It is the story we see through Bruno’s eyes which has the greatest impact, and which the film stays focused on. His moment of moral cowardice in not sticking up for his ‘friend’ Shmuel leads Bruno to offer to help find the Jewish boy’s father, who has gone missing somewhere in the camp. Bruno, whose naivete is at the heart of the film, is sure if he just pokes around, the papa will certainly turn up. Donning a cast-off pair of the funny striped pajamas that Shmuel always wears (there’s a room with hundreds of them, Shmuel tells him), Bruno digs a hole and crawls under the electrified barbed wire.
I begin to squirm. “This is not going to end well,” I think.
And I’m right. Through the worst possible bad timing, the boys arrive in Shmuel’s hut at the moment when it is being evacuated to the gas chambers. Of course Bruno’s absence is noticed at home; of course father, mother, sister, other soldiers all run through the woods, in the pouring rain, to find the hole and the discarded clothes. And of course they are too late.
All of this, with the superb actors, script, music (James Horner) and camera work, is harrowing. But what horrified me most was my own reaction. Because of the power of point of view, I was pulled into the story of this enchanting little blue-eyed boy, and everything in me wanted him to somehow, some way, be spared. As I watched the huddle of gray-striped prisoners being herded toward their fate, it was Bruno I was watching.
And then it hit me. Here was one little boy, beautiful to be sure, but just one of a hundred or more who were going to be executed without any reason. If none of the rest of them could be saved…why should he be? How would that be right?
We seek to put an individual face on tragedy to help us comprehend it, but at some point we need to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of individuals… each one had a family somewhere who mourned them, each one had promise, gifts, moments of happiness. And then they were gone.
As I study the Pan Am 103 bombing, which killed 270 people in a fire ball over Lockerbie, Scotland, I think of the reaction to the Hindenberg, the helpless grief of a reporter who simply sobbed, “Oh, the humanity!”