Can anyone out-Herod Herod? At this time of the year Herod makes his most important entrance on to the world stage. He is not known for his construction of the Temple nor for engineering works such as the development of water supplies for Jerusalem, the building fortresses such as Masada and Herodium, and for founding new cities such as Caesarea Maritima. Nor does his claim to fame rest with the murders of several members of his own family, including his wife Mariamne. He is most famous for the murder of several little boys under the age of two in the environs of Bethlehem.
With this in mind I have watched a couple of movies of high quality in recent days.
The first was Changeling directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie. This is very closely based on a true story from 1928 about the Wineville chicken coup murders in which a Canadian, Gordon Stewart Northcott, kidnapped and molested up to 20 young boys before brutally murdering them. He was assisted by his 13-year-old nephew, Sanford Clark, whom he had also molested and abused. The film focuses on the mother of one of the missing boys, Christine Collins, and her reaction when the LAPD foists on her another child that she knows not to be her son. The film exposes the incompetence and corruption of the LAPD and demonstrates how far we have come today in the treatment of women. In 1928, just a few years after female suffrage, they were treated as empty-headed, emotional, flibbertigibbets, who could be locked up in a psychiatric hospital if they didn't do what a man told them.
Perhaps coyly, no allusion is made to the sexual abuse of the little boys, but the hanging of the perpetrator is shown full-frontal. Eastwood believes that abusers of children are most deserving of the death penalty.
The second film was The boy in the striped pyjamas, directed by Mark Herman and starring David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga. The plot is developed from a novel by John Boyne and is told from the point of view of Brno, a little boy like any English boy of the period (1940). He plays at being a soldier or a airplane pilot, except that he's not English, he's German and his father is the SS Commandant of a Jewish extermination camp. Brno misses his friends when they move out of Berlin, but he finds a mate called Shmuel who like the other people on the 'farm' is dressed in striped pyjamas with a number on them. If the point of The Changeling was to demonstrate that women are people, the point of this film is to demonstrate that Jews are people too.
Brno's family are Christian and you see them a couple of times at prayer, yet they are seemingly unaware of the horror that is being committed in their name. This aspect of the film has been criticized as it seems to exculpate the ordinary German. Gradually it dawns on the Commandants wife what is happening. Meanwhile Brno lives in his own world and one day he digs underneath the wire and dons the striped pyjamas to help Shmuel to hunt for his missing father, with terrible results.
We are all particularly sensitive to the abuse and murder of children and these two films use the murder of children to highlight the plight of others who are oppressed, women and Jews, but by extension they speak to us of all who are subjected to unjust treatment. Few of us will experience the horror of the holocaust or be involved with a pedophile ring that uses 'snuff' killings for sexual gratification, but these horrors are the ultimate extension of the sort of attitudes most of us have to other people. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus equates looking at a woman lustfully with adultery and anger with your brother with murder. Not loving your neighbor as yourself by the same extension arrives at the horrors described in these movies.