Obviously there have been several powerful films that have dealt directly with the Holocaust. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is a unique look at this murderous and genocidal scar on world history. It’s based on John Boyne’s 2006 novel of the same name and looks at the subject 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 requiring him to move with his family from Berlin to the countryside. Bruno’s mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga) supports her husband’s decision. 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 ask 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 at conveying the feeling of discovery as Bruno learns more. Perhaps his biggest lessons come not from his 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”. Of course it’s actually a Nazi execution camp and the boy, named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), sits on the other side of an electrified fence. The two quickly develop a friendship. It is Shmuel who begins to shed light on what this “farm” really is and causes Bruno to question both his father and his cause.
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 heartbreaking. 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 spend most of our time with Bruno, we know of the atrocities that are taking place almost entirely off-screen. Yet these atrocities are relayed to us very well in often subtle ways.
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 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 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 I’m in no rush to see again. That isn’t due to any major shortcomings with the picture. It’s due to the film’s intense emotional punch that stuck with me for several days. I was incredibly moved and while there are 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 powerful questions about war, family, and morality. It also gives us a glimpse into a part of our world’s history that is still hard to look at but should be reckoned with.
VERDICT – 4 STARS