There have been several powerful films that have dealt directly with The Jewish Holocaust. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is a unique look at this murderous and genocidal time in world history. It’s based on John Boyne’s 2006 novel of the same name and looks at the Nazi movement through the eyes of an 8-year-old boy. It’s a tender but crushing tale of the loss of innocence as we watch this young boy discover the truth about the world around him. Some critics have said it exploits or trivializes the Holocaust with others going as far as to call it offensive. I found it to be a careful yet devastating drama that ultimately succeeds in the end.
Asa Butterfield, better known for his more recent starring role in “Hugo”, plays Bruno. His father Ralf (David Thewlis) is a Nazi SS officer who gets a new assignment which requires him to move with his family from Berlin to the countryside. Bruno’s mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga) supports her husband’s decision, and his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) finds a friend in a young German officer. But Bruno finds himself alone and missing his friends back in Berlin. His loneliness and boredom spurs his curiosity and he begins noticing several interesting things about his new location. One is a mysterious “farm” in the distance that he sees from his bedroom window but is forbidden to visit or inquire about. He’s also intrigued by a house servant who he notices is wearing what looks like striped pajamas. Of course we know the servant is Jewish and a captive but through young Bruno’s eyes things are more confusing.
One of the most engaging things about the movie is that writer and director Mark Herman is able to keep us inside of Bruno’s head even though we know exactly what’s going on outside of his knowledge. I found the film to be very effective in giving me the feeling of discovery at the same time that Bruno learns more. Perhaps his biggest lessons come not from a twice a week tutor who bombards him with all sorts of Nazi propaganda and revisionist history but from a young Jewish boy. Bruno encounters the boy after sneaking away from his house and stumbling across the “farm” which is actually a Nazi execution camp. He meets a young boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) who sits just inside an electrified fence, The two quickly develop a friendship. It is Shmuel that begins to shed light on what this “farm” really is and causes Bruno to question what kind of work his father really does.
The movie never loses sight of the fact that Bruno is only 8-years-old. He struggles with what he’s seeing and his attempts to reconcile certain things with his desire to see his father as a good man is truly enthralling. Even when his mother finds out why they’ve moved to the country and furiously confronts Ralf, we still witness these things through Bruno’s child-like reasoning. But there is an emotional balance. While we are seeing things along with Bruno, we also know of the atrocities that are taking place almost entirely off-screen. Yet these atrocities are relayed to us very well in a responsible and often times subtle way. Now the story does at times feel manufactured and its heart-wrenching ending could be construed as a shameless gimmick. But I was moved to tears and never once felt manipulated.
The performances throughout the film are fantastic. Farmiga is one Hollywood’s better actresses and she shows that here. I also appreciated Thewlis’ portrayal of a man who often times puts his role of father in complete subjection to his duties as a Nazi soldier. But it’s young Butterfield who gets the vast majority of the screen time and he is quite good. He draws a lot of sympathy and emotion from the audience and it’s always great to see a young actor able to pull that off. I also enjoyed his scenes with young Scanlon. While Butterfield is better in their scenes, they both handle the well written material nicely.
I can see where “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” may put off some people. It’s hard to watch especially as everything comes to a head at the end of the film. In fact, it’s a movie that I’m thrilled to have watched but I’m in no rush to see again. That isn’t due to any major shortcomings that I saw in the picture. It’s due to the film’s intense emotional punch that will send some to tears and leave others feeling disconnected. I was incredibly moved and while there are certainly some legitimate questions that could be asked about the story, the movie’s main point resonated with me. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” asks several powerul questions about war, family, and morality. It also gives us a glimpse into a part of our world’s history that we may not want to remember but should never forget.