• Richard Underwood

Finding Jesus Behind the Barbed Wire

Editor’s Note: This blog post includes a description of the movie, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Warning: it contains spoilers.

One of the films that has moved me most deeply over recent years has been The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, released in 2008. During World War II, eight-year-old Bruno and his family leave Berlin to take up residence near the concentration camp where his father has just been appointed commandant. Unhappy and lonely, he wanders behind his house one day and discovers another world—a world behind barbed wire. In this dystopian world, he encounters Shmuel, a Jewish boy about his age. Though the barbed wire fence of the camp separates them, the boys begin a forbidden friendship. Bruno sneaks Shmuel food and plays board games with him, oblivious to the real nature of their surroundings.


After a major hitch in their relationship, Bruno seeks to redeem himself by helping Shmuel find his father who has gone ‘missing’ inside the camp. Donning a prisoner’s striped outfit and a cap to cover his unshaven head, Bruno digs his way under the fence to join Shmuel. He is shocked to see the many sick and weak-looking Jews. Before long, Nazi guards take the boys on a march with some of the other inmates.


Back home, Bruno's disappearance has been noticed and the family mounts a desperate search. A dog tracks Bruno's scent to his discarded clothing outside the fence. As his commandant-father enters the camp, Bruno, along with Shmuel and the other inmates, is being shepherded into a changing room where he is told to remove his clothes for a ‘shower.’


The tension rises as we see them being packed into a gas chamber as the lights go out. At first, we can’t believe the horror that’s beginning to unfold before our eyes. We gasp as we watch a guard pour out Zyklon B pellets and the prisoners—including Bruno – begin to panic. We feel the knot tighten in his father’s stomach as he realises that a gassing is taking place, and he cries out his son's name. Back at the fence, we watch his mother and sister fall to their knees in despair as they hear the father's cries. The film ends with a shot of the closed door of the now silent gas chamber. The prisoners, including Bruno and Shmuel, have all been killed.


So what’s your response? What do you see?


The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a haunting film, one I never want to watch again. It deals with the Holocaust in such an arresting manner and packs a final brutal punch. As I watched, I found it impossible to miss the points of contact with the gospel narratives. As well as the points of departure.


Imagine yourself among the angelic throng, with a heaven’s eye view of history. You watch in astonishment as your hero, the Lord Jesus, leaves the comforts of his Father’s house, dons human clothes and enters the dystopian world of human beings. Like Bruno, he does more than just offer companionship; he truly enters their world. He crawls under the barbed wire and joins them. He shares a human frame, eats the same food, walks the same paths, feels the same sun on his back as the one that shines on those he has come to serve.


You watch in admiration as he encounters the sick and heals them... the hungry and feeds them... the guilty and forgives them, sending them on their way with joy in their hearts. Finally, you watch in disbelief as these ungrateful humans take the dear Lord Jesus, strip him of every ounce of his dignity, and nail him in public disgrace to a rough Roman cross.


In The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Bruno unwittingly joins Shmuel in the dangerous and shocking world of a concentration camp. He has no idea of the danger he is in. The poignancy and the tragedy arise from his innocence and naïveté. How would a ten-year-old be expected to understand what was going on? As he walks with his friend, he does so innocently. Unaware of what he’s facing.


He’s like a lamb to the slaughter.


That’s a loaded phrase, referring as it does to the Jewish sacrificial system. As we watch Bruno’s parents, especially his father, we experience contrasting emotions – a mark of great drama. We sympathise with him as his son goes to his death, but we’re also torn. This is a man who runs a death camp. A guilty man.


Innocence and guilt. They’re central to the story.


And so they are in the gospel stories. The Lord Jesus is the sacrificial lamb, the Passover lamb, led to the slaughter by guilty men. Yet he himself is innocent of all the charges. He enters not unwittingly but willingly, sent by his heavenly Father. Throughout his trial, flogging and execution, he freely gives himself up for those he loves. Though innocent himself, he demonstrates love for his enemies. The guilty are the ones he loves and he takes upon himself their sin and their shame.


Mercifully, the gospel story isn’t a work of fiction. It is all heart-breakingly and wonderfully true. It evokes in us the strongest emotions, and challenges us with the deepest of questions. Unlike The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, this story demands to be read again and again, until we are able to see the bright, shining truth which lies at its heart.


The Lord Jesus came to save us - the innocent taking the place of the guilty.


To liberate us!


When the American soldiers liberated concentration camps in Eastern Europe in 1945, they were shocked by what they saw: men and women barely alive, many skeletal, almost dead. How different is the liberation which Jesus brings. In his Resurrection, he has conquered death and he will one day destroy the dystopian world we have created.


No more death camps. No more suffering. No more tears.


One day, he will shatter the chains... tear down the barbed wire... and set the captives free. For good. Along with the whole of creation. In the meantime, praise God that in his Word and by his Spirit, we inmates are still finding Jesus at work behind the barbed wire.


We are continuing to add to our library of useful resources to help you in life and ministry. New this week: Helena Wilkinson provides helpful information and advice for those supporting people with eating disorders. Find out more
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