Boy in the Striped Pajamas,The
United Kingdom/United States, 2008
U.S. Release Date:
PG-13 (Mature Themes, Violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Asa Butterfield, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Amber Beattie, Jack Scanlon, David Hayman, Rupert Friend
Mark Herman, based on the novel by John Boyne
Possible Spoilers: Although this review does not explicitly reveal the ending of the movie, there are enough insinuations that one can make some assumptions about what might happen.
The Holocaust is one of the great tragedies in recent human history, so it's no surprise that a fair amount of film and literature produced over the last 60+ years has addressed the subject in one way or another. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, based on the young adult novel by John Boyne, provides a window to proceedings through the eyes of an eight-year old boy. While this perspective allows the film to represent events in an atypical fashion, it also gives The Boy in the Striped Pajamas an artificial, fairy tale quality that one could argue undermines the seriousness of the subject matter. A certain degree of sanitization is applied to the horror to make it more easily consumed - not "comfortable," to be sure, but "less uncomfortable." While the ending provides some shock value, the visceral "gut punch" impact is associated more with the specifics of the plot than the overall truth of the Holocaust, and this creates a curious sense of imbalance. If you doubt this, consider why the ending has an impact.
Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an astonishingly naļve eight-year old who accompanies his family on a move from wartime Berlin when his father (David Thewlis) is given command over the Auschwitz death camp. Accompanying Bruno and his father are his mother (Vera Farmiga); his 12-year old sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie); and their housekeeper (Cara Horgan). Their new house is a large, forbidding place surrounded by a high wall; the perimeter is patrolled by soldiers. Friendless and lonely, Bruno begins exploring, eventually finding a way to escape the house's grounds. A short journey through the woods brings him to an electrified fence. On the other side is Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), the "boy in the striped pajamas." The two, of equal age but vastly dissimilar backgrounds, develop a bond of sorts and, as he begins to understand the gravity of Shmuel's circumstances, Bruno is forced to assess his beloved father, a "good man who helps people," in a new light.
The film's strength is the way it attempts with some success to present the viewpoint of an innocent boy. Viewers, with the perspective of history and distance to inform their understanding, see ominous aspects to things offered by director Mark Herman as childish or inconsequential. To Bruno, his father is a great man defending the country. The concentration camp is a farm. The Jews are "strange people" wearing striped pajamas. The numbers on those pajamas are part of a game. The pervasive, foul-smelling smoke is the result of burning refuse. Bruno is carefully indoctrinated so he is oblivious to anything grotesque or monstrous. Even once he has gotten to know Shmuel, he still doesn't grasp the horror of what is transpiring within Auschwitz. A propaganda film produced by his father to show the positive work conditions within the camp blinds Bruno to the truth. He believes there are canteens, organized sporting events, and other niceties.
The climax of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is designed to shock, and it accomplishes that aim. However, one has to consider the logic of events leading up to the end. They are a little too convoluted to be plausible. But is the point of those last scenes, which are reached by a screenplay that navigates a maze of manipulation, merely to offer an emotional payoff? Are we being tricked into thinking there's more substance to the ending than is actually present? Has the Holocaust been reduced to a plot device? Perhaps the reason my eyes were dry during the closing credits is that I was disturbed less by the end of the story than by how close it comes to trivializing history in the service of the unhappily-ever-after ending to a fable.
The acting is strong, especially that of the young duo of Asa Butterfield and Jack Scanlon. The two inhabit their roles well, allowing us to accept an improbable relationship that is grounded on both sides by feelings of loneliness and isolation. Viewed from a certain perspective, Bruno is as much a victim as Shmuel. The metaphor surrounding these two is unavoidable - how the ignorance (willful or otherwise) of the majority population resulted in the mass extermination of the Jewish minority. Bruno represents that former; Shmuel the latter. While the connection between these characters is genuine, it is circumscribed by the situation. They are not equals. Yet Bruno has no more power to change things than Shmuel, and would not even if the curtain of ignorance was parted.
There are other things going on as well. Bruno's mother, who is less ignorant than her son about the Jews, is nevertheless horrified to learn the nature of the Final Solution when an offhand remark reveals what is really happening in Auschwitz's crematoria. Vera Farmiga's performance is the most overtly emotional of the film as she gradually observes all that she loves and believes in dissolve around her. Told from her perspective, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas would have been an infinitely sadder tragedy.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas should be heartbreaking, but it isn't. The muted quality of its impact is the result of narrative shortcuts and a desire to keep the images from being too startling. The fairy tale aspect is both a strength and a weakness - it provides a fresh perspective but raises serious questions about intent. I admit to being conflicted about the film. It is a well-made, serious effort, but the pervasive sense of oversimplification and contrivance left me unpersuaded that this is more than a minor take on a major historical event.