This movie is something of a pancake; it has two sides.
One side is the excellent technicals; no one will argue that any of the actors turned in superb performances, or that the costumers, editors or cameramen produced anything less than excellence.
On the other side, it’s one of the first movies to show what it was like to live in the Third Reich, to constantly look over one’s shoulder – “der Deutsche Blick” – to see who might be listening. The kids, free or slave, all do it, but so do the adults, even those who seem to be in most power. The film reverberates across many of the questions our societies are facing today. Watching it doesn’t end with the credits; it goes on in questions raised in the mind of the viewer. The best films write in mental prequels and sequels and off-camera scenes. “Pajamas” produces whole scripts in the mind.
Within the film is another film: a re-created version of an original camp film, made by the Nazis to prove how well their prisoners were treated. It’s silly and amateurish, like most propaganda, but it seems very much a reflection of the American Happy Darky tradition: films that portray black people as happy with their lot, either as slaves or as second-class citizens. The American versions were much more polished and ingrained in the society. One of John Ford’s early films, “Judge Priest,” offers such an ex-slave, portrayed by the legendary black actor Stepin Fetchi (Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry).
It was as though the Nazis had attempted to import the slave America of the 1840’s into a modern country a century later. The scenes where the ex-doctor shivers before his new masters calls to mind the terrifying performances of Fetchit, whose shambling, cringing slave was a ghastly indictment of the society that had put black people into the position of being forced to cower simply to survive.
The German family mirrors almost exactly descriptions of slave-owning Americans. Slaves are to be invisible, and can be beaten or even killed with impunity, while some family members act as though nothing is happening, others are aghast, and children look to the adults for guidance. The mother’s (Vera Farmiga) reaction echo incidents in the American south, as described in diaries and letters, when a woman from a non-slave area married into a family in a slave state. The mother’s is the sudden shock of a civilized German when faced with a growing slave culture as a part of her country’s military. It’s one thing to hear about things that seem to be an accepted part of the culture or the public good, even angrily or fearfully warning children to avoid a group of people, such as gypsies or AIDS victims – it’s another to see these actions in their naked brutality. Torture was “necessary” for the safety of the country until the videos and photographs hit the internet.
The Lieutenant’s fury at the slave is portrayed as re-directed rage and an attempt to demonstrate his own part as a complete member of his society. The film is not clear about the point, never making clear whether or not he is afraid of being punished for his father’s actions under the all-encompassing Sippschaftsgericht (blood-relation laws), or if it was his own Jewish blood he was attempting to distance himself from. The happy-families propaganda film was made for internal consumption, to demonstrate to Germans who were half or part Jewish while being legally Aryan – to the point of serving in the army – that their imprisoned relatives were being treated humanely. Up to the point the camps became death camps, these legal Germans were allowed to visit their relatives. The Lieutenant’s fury could mis-directed self defense, of himself, and even of his mother, who, it is hinted, has committed the sin of breeding with a man of Jewish blood. Did he hint at the burning bodies to the film’s mother to distance himself from his Jewish background – or unconsciously to open her eyes? Or even to gain an emotional ally? Might his posting to the eastern front come as a relief?
Again, this reflects John Ford’s used of mixed blood in his movies. In “Judge Priest” a foolish, mean-spirited suitor is what in the America south would be considered black, because of his small proportion of black blood. The “meseginated” were adjudged scheming and troublesome, unlike blacks, who were expected to be simpler and tamer. The word was used for the same purpose in “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou.” By the time Ford made “Sergeant Rutledge” – startling for its attempt at its time to portray black men as differentiated human beings – the virginal, murdered rape victim is a very light-skinned black girl, sending out further resonances in a film about what happened to a black man if he was suspected of “white woman business.” That her officer father owned a plantation before the war raises more questions.
The child actors in “Pajamas” are focused, intent, naive, but not saccharine. Both of them express snotty fun of each other’s names. Both of them betray each other when faced with a ranting adult, demonstrating how all little children must beware of fearsome giants in their lives. In the additional actor interviews on the DVD, Jack Scanlon (Schmul) says that when the actor playing the Lieutenant – who had not raised his voice in rehearsals — yelled in his face, he didn’t expect it, and felt real fear. Starling or angering another actor to produce a genuine emotional affect goes back to the hand-cranked days. Hitchcock was notorious for using abusing actors to get a raw performance.
David Thewlis, who plays the father and death-camp commandant, has been an abused schoolboy in “Nicholas Nickleby” and a giggling idiot in “The Big Lebowski.” In “Pajamas,” he shows yet another face, managing to carry off a role which too often has been an evil cliché. In his other roles he has seemed fragile, but with some extra pounds and a uniform that shows off his physique (uniforms, by the way, designed by artists and the fashion industry), he is robust and imposing; one realizes how tall the man is; no doubt a consideration when choosing a father figure who will appear either protective or terrifying to little children.