The World According to Renee

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Comparison: WWII Movies

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas vs Sophie’s Choice

Yesterday, I watched Sophie’s Choice. Released in 1982 and based on the novel of the same name, the film has become part of the lexicon, something quoted or referenced in multitudes of other media (including The Simpsons).

Synopsis: A young Southern writer, Stingo, moves in with Sophie and her schizophrenic lover, Nathan. The three form a tight friendship and when Sophie needs time out from Nathan, she confides in Stingo about her days in Auschwitz. At the end of the film, she confesses a terrible secret to Stingo.

(Before you watch the clip, have a box of tissues ready. You have been warned!)

Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sophie. It was well deserved; by the middle of the film I’d forgotten I was watching Meryl Streep and was completely absorbed in Sophie as a Polish immigrant.

Sophie is a deeply flawed character. She’s lived through immense grief, guilt and terrible hardships to become the person she is today. She’s offset by Nathan, who is lying to her about his job and hiding his mental condition. Nathan tells people he is a research biologist on the brink of something huge in the pharmacy world. His brother, an actual medical doctor, informs Stingo that Nathan is, in fact, nothing more than a librarian at the lab, although he does occasionally help with researching something for the biologists.

If you watched the clip above, you’ll see why this film is deeply distressing and harrowing. It scores 9/10 on the depressing scale.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is also based on a novel. It tells the story of two young boys who become friends depite being on different sides of the war. Bruno is the son of a Commandant under Hitler’s rule. His family move to within a few miles of a concentration camp (never mentioned, but assumed to be Auschwitz). When exploring one day, he comes across Schmuel, a Jewish boy locked in the camp with his family. The two boys become friends, meeting a tragic end.

What makes this film so tragic is Bruno’s innocence. He’s nine years old, calls the Fuhrer ‘The Fury’ and wonders why his new friend Schmuel wears striped pyjamas. His father, entertaining dignitaries, views a movie showing everyday life at the camp. Children are laughing and playing, there’s a cafe where the Jews can eat as much as they want, when they want, and generally speaking, life is very good. With this vision in mind, Bruno is all too willing to help his friend look for his father. Shortly after their search begins, they’re caught up in the latest haul to the “showers”. The final moments, when everything falls silent, are harrowing. It rates 8/10 of the depressing scale.

Where Sophie’s emotion comes from Eva screaming as she’s taken away, Bruno and Schmuel’s silence has the same effect. Both films show the war as not just for the Jews. Sophie, a Polish Catholic, is caught in the same lose-lose situation as Bruno and Schmuel find themselves in. Sophie’s choice was one that she could never win. Bruno and Schmuel were innocent, they didn’t know til the last seconds what was happening to them. Bruno had seen the smoke and smelled the burning flesh of the cremations of disposal after the gas chambers. His choice was simply to help his friend, leaving his father living with guilt for the rest of his life. (I wonder what happened to that family after Bruno’s death?)

Sophie was a victim of the war despite emerging alive. She had basically sold her soul; not only giving up her child but being forced to flirt with the Commandant to see her remaining child freed. Schmuel is Jewish, with no hope of escape or rescue. Bruno is living a life of privilege, and without meeting Schmuel, would probably have survived the war without ever knowing what his father was really up to.

In any case, both films expand one’s view of the war. It’s not simply between Germany and the Jews. Nothing is ever that simple.

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June 17, 2015 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , ,

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