THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS
Let me start with trigger warnings, and there are some spoilers. I can’t recall if I cried the first time I saw this film, but I certainly cried the second time. I felt a tornado of emotions: anger, disbelief, and horror, just absolute horror.
The introductory post is here and will give you bit of backstory. I’m going to try to be brief, because I don’t think I handle going into great detail. Rupert’s performance was also both complex and compelling. Thus, I’ll focus mainly on his role.
After eight-year-old Bruno moves from Berlin to the countryside with his family, we are introduced to Rupert as Lieutenant Kotler, at approximately 14 minutes into the movie. He pauses in the hallway outside of Bruno’s bedroom. He regards Bruno briefly, then nods at him before marching off. This is when Bruno discovers “the farm,” which is not really a farm at all, from his bedroom window.
We next see Lieutenant Kotler as he washes a car outside, while Bruno’s sister, Gretel, hangs around giggling and gazing at Kotler adoringly. It’s a scene in which we see Rupert move effortlessly from friendly, jovial soldier with Bruno to a menacing authority figure with Pavel, a prisoner from “the farm” who is used as labor around the house. This change in Rupert’s expression is immediate and terrifyingly impressive.
It is after this encounter that Bruno begins a friendship with Pavel, and also discovers a new friend Shmuel, the boy in the striped pajamas who lives behind the barbed-wire fence encircling “the farm.” Their friendship grows as Gretel becomes indoctrinated in Nazi propaganda, and Bruno sadly realizes his father is not the great man he thought he was. Elsa (Bruno’s mother) comes to a similar realization once Lieutenant Kotler lets it slip what is really going on beyond the garden and austere walls of her new home.
Again, Rupert’s facial expressions change in the blink of an eye – from smug solider to someone who looks like he said too much. He knew he shouldn’t have said anything, and hurries off for dinner.
The dinner becomes quite tense once Lieutenant Kotler brings up the fact that he loved history, much to his literature professor father’s distaste. This incites an inquiry from the Commandant, and it is intimated that Kotler’s father fled to Switzerland, most likely because he did not agree with Nazism. The scene ends with poor Pavel spilling wine on Lieutenant Kotlert, and Kotler yelling obscenities at Pavel, dragging him outside the dining room to beat him, presumedly, to death. While I think it’s important not to sugarcoat this ugly period in time, I am glad the powers that be decided to convey this brutality off screen.
You start to sense Lieutenant Kotler’s days are numbered, and indeed, they are. But not before he pulls off another scene where he threatens Shmuel. Shmuel is brought to Bruno’s home to clean glass flutes because he has small hands. Bruno offers him a treat, and Lieutenant Kotler walks in, full of fury. How can someone become so enraged seeing a child speaking to another child? It’s unfathomable, but Kotler tears into poor Shmuel for daring to speak to anyone in the house and accuses him of stealing food.
Terrified, Bruno denies knowing Shmuel and says he helped himself to the treat. This mollifies Lieutenant Kotler momentarily, and he addresses Shmuel one last time.
“You, finish cleaning the glasses. When I come back, we’ll have a little chat about what happens to rats who steal.”
Bruno is so ashamed and goes up to his room to cry. By the time he goes back downstairs to find Shmuel, he is gone, replaced by Maria, a scared looking house maid.
Next, more Nazis join Lieutenant Kotler and the Commandant in his study to view a Nazi propaganda film. Kotler does not look pleased. I suspect it’s because he knows the film is full of lies. As the film ends, Lieutenant Kotler strides out of the room quickly, but then stands around, watching Bruno hug his father tightly. This elicits disgust from Bruno’s mother, watching above, as well as Kotler, I think. He turns on his heel and leaves once he sees the exchange.
Lieutenant Kotler’s final scene follows the propaganda film viewing party. Bruno comes bounding down the stairs with two tennis rackets. Kotler steps out of the study, dressed sharply in a long, black leather coat. Bruno freezes as he sees him. Kotler walks towards Bruno and pauses. He raises his hand, and Bruno flinches, expecting more brutality. Instead, Lieutenant Kotler ruffles Bruno’s hair affectionately.
As Kotler departs, he looks sad, emotionless, and breathtakingly gorgeous with those chiseled features, all at the same time. He leaves about 1:04 into the movie. We later learn the Commandant sent him off to the front lines, probably as punishment for not turning in his own father.
Bruno finally catches up with Shmuel, who sports a bloodied and bruised eye, swollen shut. The rest of the film goes from bad to worse. I’ll just stop there with the recap. If you’ve made it this far, you are a brave soul.