The Boy in the Striped Pajamas began its journey to the big screen as a children’s book. A children’s book about the Holocaust. As unlikely as that might sound, it is a well regarded, bestselling book that teaches kids not only about the Final Solution but also about issues regarding culture and identity. Its messages of tolerance are being taught in schools in Britain and so far the book has sold over three million copies. The film version—rated 14A for mature themes and disturbing content—stars two remarkable child actors, Son of Rambo’s Asa Butterfield and newcomer Jack Scanlon, and has a powerful ending that, once seen, will not soon be forgotten.
Bruno (Butterfield) is the precocious son of a high ranking Nazi official (David Thewlis) with dreams of becoming an explorer. When the family is relocated to a country posting Bruno starts his new life by exploring the grounds of his new house. Next door he discovers a “farm”—actually a concentration camp—and befriends Shmuel (Scanlon), a young Jewish boy in “striped pajamas” on the other side of an electrified fence. Neither boy understands why the fence divides them and bond over a mutual need for friendship and compassion. When Shmuel’s father disappears one day Bruno is determined to help his friend locate his missing dad.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas isn’t a typical wartime drama. Director Mark Herman (Little Voice, Brassed Off) takes his time setting up the situation—a family living next door to a notorious death camp— gradually doling out the details of everyday life in a Nazi household. We see the story through eight-year-old Bruno’s eyes, and while he may be slow to realize what his father does for a living, the horror of the situation grows as the film progresses. In fact, the movie picks up steam from a slow start—perhaps too slow for the first hour—to climax with a breathless and breathtakingly shocking finale.
For the most part Herman avoids the trite sentimentality of Life is Beautiful, another Holocaust film involving children, but in taking great pains to present the Nazi atrocities in a way that children will be able to understand he oversimplifies a complicated and brutal part of our recent past. For instance I’d suggest that the portrayal of the father, a Nazi commandant, is almost too sympathetic. Of course Bruno loves his father, and we’re seeing the story through his eyes, but the result of that relationship may have been some unexpected empathy for a man whose job was to exterminate an entire race of people. David Thewlis plays the commandant as a family man with a job to do, the very embodiment of the “banality of evil,” but the character isn’t defined enough for us to understand how a man can love his family and yet make it his life’s work to destroy other people’s families.
Another sticking point with me is the complete lack of German accents. The entire cast speaks very proper Queen’s English with accents that sound more Sloan Ranger than Teutonic. It’s an old trope, left over from the days when Brits were cast as the bad guys, but here it sounds mannered and out of place.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a valiant attempt to tell a small scale story about an unimaginably huge period in our history, and while it may drag in places, it has its heart in the right place and a devastating ending that will take your breath away.
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