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Sunday, 7 August 2011

Understanding Evil.

Last night we watched 'The Boy in Striped Pyjamas'. I have not read the book and had limited knowledge of the subject of the film. For those that don't know, it's about Second World War Germany, in particular one family, the Father of which is a German Comandante in a concentration camp. The 8 year old son is the main character who forms an unlikely friendship with an 8 year old Jewish boy, through the fence of the camp. It is a rather sanitised version of the German treatment of  the Jews, presumably so it is suitable for younger viewing, but it is harrowing nonetheless. Not least for the portrayal of the propaganda rolled out across Germany and especially that aimed at children. It is all the more horrifying to think that this kind of teaching was aimed at Children. To think that they were specifically targeted to learn the Nazi thinking, to be brainwashed from such an early age. I have learned all this and understood it before in history lessons, but it really stood out to me whilst watching the film. I think that's why movies based on history are great because they can really help people to understand the personal angle, how it really affected people at ground level.
Anyway, what I really wanted to write about is the pervading sense of evil throughout the film. The knowledge of something really horrific going on behind the scenes. I just cannot understand how one human being can be so cruel to another, fellow, human being. What is it that makes people descend to such a point? Are people really born evil? Or does evil come out as a product of their lives?
Although I have studied WW2, I don't know much about Hitler himself. From what I do, it seems he ruled with fear, that those who didn't follow his message were threatened, punished, imprisoned, killed. I imagine a lot of his soldiers simply did so out of fear, for fear for their families and their own lives... And it made me wonder, do we all have that capability within us? To do truly awful things out of fear? Most of us would say now, that we would never do something like that, that we would stand our ground, stand on our faith, on our principles, but where do we draw the line? What if your own children were threatened? And let's be clear, Hitler and the Nazis threats were never empty. Would I, if faced with the choice of doing the right thing or saving my child, chose the right thing? And what is the right thing anyway? There is a point in the movie where the young German boy, Bruno, is talking to his friend and gives him some cake. A German soldier comes in and 'asks' what is going on. Bruno claims he has never seen the boy before and that he has helped himself to the food. One can see the fear in his eyes, the fear of what this German soldier would do to him (let alone the Jewish boy). Afterwards his remorse is hugely apparent. He knows he has done the wrong thing, that he has surely consigned this boy, his friend, to some awful punishment. A wonderful portrayal I think of what many adults must have faced during those turbulent times.

We see in the media, when a criminal, murderer or child abuser is taken into custody, that they are often referred to as 'evil'. But what is truly evil? Defence lawyers often use a criminals background as a defence, perhaps they had been abused, came from a broken home.. They are not truly evil, just a product of their upbringing... (And I have no idea what Hitlers background is but I imagine if he were around now psychologists would have a field day with why he acted in theway he did). But not all abused people become criminals, killers or worse. Not all people who have had a broken home or had parents who didn't love them, take that out on those around them. So it must be that people have 'a line'. A line at which their level of pain makes them continue their own cycle of abuse or damage. A line at which their own awful acts do not seem so bad, a line at which their own fear overides any sense of what is right and wrong. And I just wonder if we all have that line, no matter what our background or upbringing may be?
I have read, like many Christians, books about incredible stories of faith. The Heavenly Man, Jackie Pullinger, The Cross and the Switchblade for example. Stories of people who have, in the face of threats, torture, attack and worse, stood firm in their faith, in what they believe in. They have not given in to the evil around them, so why do others? Is it their life experience, is the pressures on them at the time? Is it a force of evil or a presence of evil in them?

Perhaps I need to study pyschology, or perhaps it is just one of lifes unknowns... Either way I would like to understand it a bit more...
Incidentally, I really 'enjoyed' the film, if that is the right word. It's perhaps not ideal for vegging out with on a Saturday night, but very worthwhile nonetheless. And the ending is rather poignant in the light of the story. Tragic, but definitely poignant.

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