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Literature / The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

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"We're not supposed to be friends, you and me. We're meant to be enemies. Did you know that?"
Bruno: There is such thing as a nice Jew, though, isn't there?
Herr Liszt: I think, Bruno, if you ever found a nice Jew, you would be the best explorer in the world.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a 2006 book by John Boyne about a young boy of nine named Bruno, who loved to play with his friends and go to school, among other fun things to do in Germany in the 1940s. Yeah, those 1940s. That is, until his father's job forces his family to move to Poland, particularly to an odd camp called "Out With", which consists of a small house with an odd fence beside it. His older sister, Gretel, informs him that it will only be "for the foreseeable future", which she figures to be about two weeks.

However, things do not go as quickly as they'd hoped. So Bruno takes a look around and peers out a window to see what is beyond the fence. What he sees is, to him, amazing- so many people, old men, young men, boys of all ages, all wearing the same striped pyjamas! He asks Gretel about them, and finds out that they're called "Jews", which according to Gretel aren't really people.

Later on, Bruno decides to investigate for himself. While walking around, he meets a young boy about his age named Shmuel. After talking for a while, they forge an odd sort of a friendship, meeting as often as they can at the one spot on the fence.

The book was adapted into a film starring Asa Butterfield, Vera Farmiga and David Thewlis in 2008.

A sequel novel, All the Broken Places was released in 2022. The novel focuses on a 91-year-old Gretel, Bruno's older sister.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas provides examples of:

  • Age Lift: Downplayed. In the movie, Bruno and Shmuel are a year younger than in the book.
  • An Aesop: The story, and its non-fictional counterpart, took place not even a century ago. If it happened then it can happen again. Please, for the love of God, don't let it!
    "Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age."
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The Auschwitz complex actually had two major camps — one extermination, one concentration/worknote . There was only one series of experimental gassings (of Soviet POW) in the concentration camp, after which the test chamber was re-purposed and all incoming prisoners were handled at the extermination camp.
    • Some children were retained in the concentration camp (see Reality Is Unrealistic below), but Shmuel would have been shot if he approached the fence.
    • Bruno not knowing who Hitler was is implausible, to say the least. Thanks to the exhaustive efforts of Nazi propaganda, German children were taught from the earliest age possible to regard Hitler as a sort of living deity, singing songs of praise for him and wishing good health upon him. At nine years old, Bruno would be legally mandated—and would be taught to be excited—to join the junior branch of the Hitler Youth on his next birthday. Also, Bruno's father is an SS officer, the social standing of which would make Hitler's image inescapable via portraits, busts, newspapers, Mein Kampf and whatnot at their home.
  • Children Are Innocent:
    • The book depicts the Holocaust from a child's point of view.
    • There's a subplot where Bruno's mom has a flirt and maybe an affair with Kotler, a teenage Nazi lieutenant. Bruno's 13-year-old sister also flirts with him, but Bruno doesn't make any connections and thinks Gretel is being silly and that his dad is angry with the young man for some reason unconnected to his mother.
  • Coming of Age Story: Bruno starts to learn about the horrors of racism and intolerance through his friendship with Shmuel. But it's ultimately subverted, because Bruno is gassed to death.
  • Culture Blind: Bruno is a 9-year-old (8 in the movie) German boy growing up in Nazi Germany who is so naive, he doesn't even know who Hitler is.
  • Deadly Gas: At the climax, obviously enough.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The film ends with Bruno's family in utter heartbreak after realizing his fate, but it's his mother's violent wailing that's the hardest to watch.
  • Death of a Child: This work goes out of its way to show exactly what may happen to children in an extermination camp.
  • Disappeared Dad: Shmuel's father literally disappears as Shmuel claims he went away with other inmates and hasn't returned. This indirectly suggests he was sent to the gas chambers.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: When Gretel gets rid of her dolls, she puts them in a large pile in the basement without clothing. The shot of the pile of naked doll bodies is obviously meant to evoke certain images.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: The book depicts the Holocaust from a child's point of view. Their innocence frequently cause them to miss the true horrors of what's going on:
    • Bruno thinks Pavel the Jewish manservant is peeling potatoes because he wasn't "qualified" to be a doctor.
    • At first, Bruno believes the Jewish inmates living on the camp with Shmuel are "farmers" rather than inmates.
    • When Bruno sees the uniforms Shmuel, Pavel and the other Jewish inmates wear for the first time, he thinks they're "pyjamas", and that the tag numbers on them are part of a "game".
    • Shmuel refuses to play football with Bruno not out of rudeness but because it's too dangerous, while Bruno sees no problem with it, oblivious that Shmuel is trying to warn him they could get caught.
    • Bruno sees the propaganda film his father, grandfather, Kotler and other Nazis are watching, and literally believes the camp is like a place for enjoyment, only for him to see the true picture of the camp near the end of the film.
    • Shmuel believes his father is now working mending boots, implying he thinks that's his new job rather than to an extent slavery.
    • The ending, when Bruno and Shmuel are led on the long walk to their demise in the gas chambers and believe they're going for a "shower", although it can be argued that the German soldiers simply made it up so there would be no panic, as well as the implication they had to use a cover story to hide the fact everyone is getting executed.
  • Downer Ending:
    • The book ends with Shmuel and Bruno being gassed in the "showers" and dying. And then there's the epilogue, where Ralf somehow figures out what happened to his son (who's been missing for the past year) before Soviet soldiers show up to the camp and take him out. Considering this takes place at Auschwitz, it's justified.
    • The movie is not any better, as it modified the original ending such that Bruno's parents do realize their son is missing and may be inside the extermination camp. Ralf runs into the camp only to find that one of the gas chambers has already begun working. Elsa and Gretel find Bruno's clothes outside the camp and completely break down in tears.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Bruno's father, an SS officer, obviously loves his son, and he totally breaks down when Bruno dies in the gas chamber.
  • Everyone Has Standards: While Elsa seems to be fine with Ralf being a Nazi soldier, she is disgusted and horrified after learning what truly goes on in the concentration camp.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: Kids getting gassed to death is pretty up there on the "unfriendly" rank.
  • The Film of the Book: There are some slight changes, but it's mostly true to the original work.
  • Final Solution: The book is about the Trope Namer.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The children's reactions when they discover the camp foreshadows their development. Gretel is in denial that anything bad is going on, and later in the book she tracks the movements of the German troops on maps with great interest. Bruno sees people, including potential playmates, and goes on to make a friend out of one of them.
    • There are certain scenes in the movie that foreshadow Bruno's failed attempt to find Shmuel's father by dressing up as a Jewish prisoner, and eventually dying by Deadly Gas:
      • Before Bruno leaves his old home, he plays mock soldiers with his friends, with him being the final fake casualty.
      • When Bruno's family move in to their new home, Bruno is seen sitting on the stairs, lost in thought over his new surroundings. The camera is framed so that the black stair railings are in front of Bruno, resembling him being in a prison.
      • While retrieving his football in the dark attic, Bruno is horrified by a pile of Gretel's naked dolls, stacked altogether on one side.
      • When Elsa doesn't see Bruno on the swing when coming back from town, she asks Gretel if she seen her brother who claims he is on the swing and Elsa frantically goes to check and to her relief sees he is safe. This foreshadows Bruno reported being missing from the premises near the end of the film.
      • Notice the color of Bruno's pyjamas in two scenes. They're white, blue, and vertically striped, exactly like the Jewish camp uniform, which he wears to get into Auschwitz.
  • For Want Of A Nail: Kotler orders Pavel to take Bruno to the back garden despite it being out of bounds to get a tyre for a swing. Had Bruno not suggested he wanted to make a swing, he may not have went to the back garden and discovered he can fit through a shed window that leads him into the woods towards the camp, where he meets and befriends Shmuel.
  • From New York to Nowhere: Bruno is originally from Berlin but moves out to the countryside for his father's new job. There he suffers from the stock issues of that trope such as loneliness and a desire to make friends, never realizing what's actually going on.
  • Heel Realization: An officer nastily gloats about the Jews being gassed, but regrets it when he sees Bruno's mom isn't amused at all by this comment.
  • Heroic BSoD: Bruno's mother, after finding out what was really going on in the camp right next to her house, is so horrified and disgusted with her husband that she seems to just stop caring anymore. She stops keeping her hair tidy, no longer wears makeup, and argues with her husband openly.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Bruno's father Ralf is the commander of an extermination camp; his own son is eventually killed in one of its gas chambers.
  • Howl of Sorrow: In the movie, when Elsa and Gretel find Bruno's clothing outside the fence of the camp and his tell-tale tunnel under the fence and at least one gas chamber is in operation, they guess what has happened and collapse in anguish.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Gretel makes fun of Bruno for having an imaginary friend — he doesn't, he's just covering for Shmuel — and walks back to her room to tell her dolls about how ridiculous her little brother is.
  • Ironic Echo: Bruno sees a propaganda movie telling people how wonderful and happy the Jews are in their camps, and shows a clip of happy children dancing on stepping stones surrounded by singing dancing people. When entering the camp himself, he finds the same stepping stones in the movie, and can't help but pause at the realization of how wrong the film was.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Averted with Bruno. A Deleted Scene from the film shows him watching in shock and confusion when his friends make rat noises at a Jewish passerby.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: After sending so many children to gas chambers, Ralf believes Bruno's death to be this for him.
  • Losing a Shoe in the Struggle: While not a straightforward struggle, Bruno is reluctant to take off his shoes and socks when pretending to be a Jewish boy, as he is horrified by the idea of being barefoot in the mud. However, he soon starts to enjoy it. This is only in the book, as in the film, Shmuel is always wearing shoes too, so there's no evidence that the Jewish boys would be barefoot.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: As if Bruno and Shmuel's fate wasn't horrific enough, there's a distinct lack of detail in its depiction in the film. Immediately after the deadly gas infiltrates the chamber, the place goes dark and the film cuts away. The final shot of the film is a panning-away shot of the chamber, now completely silent.
  • Odd Couple: Bruno, the son of a Nazi, and Shmuel, a Jewish child at an extermination camp.
  • Oh, Crap!: Quite a few times during the film.
    • During the dinner scene Kotler accidentally let's slip about his father's past putting him in a tight corner when Ralf confronts him. The look on Kotler's face and drinking wine to calm his nerves obviously symbolises he is now in serious trouble for not mentioning it before he joined as a Nazi.
    • Shmuel's terrified face when Kotler asks him if he been 'stealing' food.
    • Ralf's blank expression when he learns Bruno is missing.
    • At the end of the film, Bruno looks up wide-eyed as him, Shmuel and the other Jews in the chamber are about to be gassed to death.
  • Person with the Clothing: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
  • Precocious Crush: Gretel gets one on Lieutenant Kurt Kotler.
  • Prejudice Aesop: The book and movie not only have the standard "persecuting minorities is bad" Aesop, but also that persecuting others can come back to bite you. At the end of both the book and the movie, Bruno is accidentally gassed, and his father (in the book) realizes he had it coming.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: The entire holocaust seems like this, both in fiction and historical reality. Which is precisely why it was written.
  • Say My Name: In the movie, Ralf yells Bruno's name just when the gas chamber he's in starts working.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: After the funeral of Ralf's mother and Bruno and Gretel's grandmother Natalie, Elsa has a heated argument with her husband, insisting she can't stay with him anymore due to his 'job' murdering innocent people namely Jews. And it is clear her and her two kids are leaving Ralf behind presumably forever.
  • Stepford Smiler: Elsa is this prior to her Heroic BSoD.
  • Taking the Kids: After Elsa asks why are there ashes falling from the skies, Lt. Kotler jokes about how the ashes are med up of Jews, and when she confronts Ralf about this, he doesn't deny the fact of that his mission as a concentration camp commander includes the extermination of the inmates, which causes Elsa and Ralf to get into screaming matches and her calling him a monster. After Ralf's mother's funeral, Elsa makes the decision that she and the children will leave her husband's house in the countryside and spend the remainder of the war with one of her relatives. When Bruno tells Shmuel that he'll be leaving soon, Bruno has the bright idea to sneak into the concentration camp for a proper goodbye, gets mistaken for an inmate, and both boys are sent to a gas chamber.
  • The Hero Dies: Bruno and Shmuel, along with the other prisoners, die in the gas chamber.
  • Together in Death: In a platonic variant, Bruno and Shmuel.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Bruno. His Naivete and seeming total immunity to the bigotry sweeping Germany allows him to befriend Shmuel despite being separated by a barbed-wire fence. And eventually lead him to his death along side his "best friend for life".
  • Traumatic Haircut:
    • In the book, because Bruno gets infected with lice, his father decides that the solution is to shave his head. This leaves Bruno to cry because not only does he now have a bald head, but his sister was infected as well but didn't have HER head shaved because she's a girl. This becomes a Chekhov's Gun because this makes him look very similar to Shmuel, "only fatter", so this allows him to blend in with the concentration campers when he goes to the other side of the fence.
    • Averted in the movie, where Bruno simply covers his head with a striped cap to make him blend in.
  • Uncertain Doom: Lieutenant Kurt Kotler. The last time he is mentioned is by Ralf, who says Kotler was sent to battle in the East Front, and it's not confirmed if he survives the war, but considering this was the most brutal battle that took place in World War II, his chances aren't good.
  • Villainous BSoD: Once Bruno's father realizes what has happened to his son, he just completely gives up. It's stated that when the Soviets arrive to liberate the camp and arrest him, he doesn't struggle in the slightest.
  • Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Nathalie's reaction to Ralf. Unusually for this trope, this attitude is portrayed positively, as Nathalie isn't upset at something minor, but rather the fact that her son is a Nazi.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Played painfully straight.
    Bruno: It's not fair, me being stuck over here all on my own while you're in there playing with friends all day.
    Shmuel: Play?
    Bruno: Well, isn't it part of a game with your number?
    Shmuel: It's just my number.
  • Would Hurt a Child: When Kotler catches Shmuel eating food, he tells him they will "have a little chat about rats who steal". Shmuel is later seen with a swollen black eye, strongly implying Kotler beat him up.
  • You Monster!:
    • When Bruno's mother finds out what's really going on at the camp she starts having frequent fights with her husband (the SS commander of the camp in question), at one point stating that she married a monster whose own mother couldn't even love him.
    • Ralf's mother, Nathalie, herself. While her husband and daughter-in-law were proud of Ralf, Nathalie was horrified, questioning where she went wrong and pointing out the atrocities Ralf was participating in, as well as pointing out everything the Nazi uniform stood for.

Alternative Title(s): The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas