I often reflect on how meaningful my friends are – how buoyed I am by our times together, the thoughts and giggles we share. What they always manage to do: calm the waves in any stormy seas I’m weathering. The other day I checked two films out of the library that speak to friendship, especially in difficult times.
Released in 2008, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas had escaped me until my good pal Ramen, a former casting director and film maven, recently recommended it. Our friendship stems from Grade One where we cavorted in pale pea green uniforms with matching bloomers.
Based on the young adult novel by John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas tells the story of an unusual, short-lived friendship between two young boys who live in different worlds. Nine-year-old Bruno, seen happily romping with chums in 1940s Berlin knows privilege and freedom; Shmuel, soiled in tattered striped “pajamas,” lives a life circumscribed by a barbed wire fence and deprivation. His home is called Auschwitz.
“You’re my best friend, Shmuel. My best friend for life,” says Bruno as the story comes to its climatic close.
When Bruno’s father, a Nazi commandant on the rise, is sent to oversee this death camp the two boys meet. Bruno is lonely and escapes the confines of his new, austere and remote house to seek playmates. From a high window he has a view over the lush greenery that acts as a visual barrier to the nearby camp. What he sees, mystifies him:
“…All the people in the camp wore the same clothes, those pajamas and their striped cloth caps too; and all the people who wandered through his house wore uniforms of varying quality and decoration…What exactly was the difference? he wondered to himself. And who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniforms?”
The dark, intimidating “uniform” worn by Lieutenant Kurt Kolter played by a very blond Rupert Friend, aka Peter Quinn of “Homeland.”
Bruno makes his way to the barbed wire fence. On the other side, he finds Shmuel forlornly sitting on a pile of rocks. Questions are asked and so begins a tentative friendship that is tested as Bruno tries to understand just what is going on next door. Explaining more would give too much away.
I also bought the book, my first “young adult” read. In the few reviews I’ve read the film and the book were criticized: “To mold the Holocaust into an allegory, as Boyne does here (in the book) with perfectly benign intent, is to step away from its reality,” said The New York Times. Sure, the story which Boyne subtitles a fable on the book’s cover does not delve deeply into the horrors of the Holocaust and ends on a more ambiguous note than the film portrays. But should this story divulge the full and deadly scope of camp life for its intended young audience? I feel the story is an appropriate starting point for a discussion to learn more. A fable is defined as a short tale to teach a moral lesson.
Boyne includes an Author’s Note at the end of the book which touches on the its objective: “Whatever reaction you have to this story, I hope that the voices of Bruno and Shmuel will continue to resonate with you…” They did for me.
The film Julia, released in 1977, takes another look at friendship, again starkly positioned during the dark days of Nazi Germany. I was just as moved by it almost 40 years after I first saw it.
Lilly and Julia rendezvous in Berlin. Tucked in Lilli’s jaunty astrakhan chapeau: $50,000
It’s based on a controversial story in Lillian Hellman’s best-selling memoir, Pentimento. Critics have doubted the existence of Julia, claiming she was a composite of various people Hellman knew or knew of.
We first glimpse Lilly Hellman’s friendship with the bolder Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) when the two are children. Lilly (a feisty Jane Fonda) is in awe of Julia’s bravery, her rash moves, that always leave Lilly in her shadow. We see the paths each take: Lilly’s relationship with the writer Dashiell Hammett, (juicily played by Jason Robards), as she struggles to be a playwright; Julia’s rise to a full-fledged anti-Fascist studying medicine in Vienna when Hitler comes to power. Julia is always on a mission. One senses that, as she doles out friendship crumbs such as giving scant praise to Lilly’s theatrical achievements, for Julia their relationship comes second.
But then, as Julia selfishly uses Lilly (I believe), Lilly does her brave thing. Risking her life, particularly as a Jew, she smuggles $50,000 to Julia in Hitler’s Berlin for one of her humanitarian causes. One review of the film noted: “Friendship is profound and mysterious. It defies close examination. In a movie friendship is anticlimactic.” Not necessarily so. Well, the review was written by a male…I believed in this “friendship” on all its complicated, frustrating levels. And I loved Lilly’s clothes!
“…For good times and bad times
I’ll be on your side forever more
That’s what friends are for…”
–Dionne Warwick & Friends 1985