Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - Innocence and Horror Overlap to Create a Powerful Story

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Movie Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - Innocence and Horror Overlap to Create a Powerful Story

Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, adapted from the 2006 book by John Boyne, is a riveting look at the Holocaust from the perspective of Bruno (Asa Butterfield), an 8-year-old German boy. Bruno's father, Ralf (David Thewlis), is a Nazi soldier who has just been promoted. His wife (Vera Farmiga), is proud of her husband's advancement, and oblivious to the horrors the Nazis are secretly perpetrating against the Jews in the name of the Fatherland. The promotion forces Bruno and his older sister to move to the country with their parents. When Bruno spies a faraway farm populated by strange workers in pajamas through his bedroom window, he asks his mother if he can go play with the kids in the pajamas. His mother and father have a quick argument, which leads to the boarding up of said window. Ralf has been given the post of commandant over a concentration camp, a fact that Bruno's mother never wants her son to find out. Bruno, intrepid explorer that he is, ends up meeting a boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), on the other side of the electrified fence surrounding the camp. He visits the boy daily, providing food and learning about Shmuel's second-class status as a Jew. While Bruno tries to reconcile the denigrating daily life his friend faces at his father's camp with the kinder image he has of his dad, Bruno's mom's sanity starts to erode as the full impact of the atrocities committed on the Jews is slowly revealed to her. Boyne's story is moving, but even though the film seems to be earning recommendations by family groups, caution should be used when taking anyone under fifteen to see it. The film's ending is strong. It does not shy away from bringing the full horror of the Nazis' campaign of terror right to the commandant's family's doorstep. Thewlis is particularly effective in this scene, as a man who has made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of a way of life that helps him repress his own feelings of inadequacy. The film's power lies in the juxtaposition of an innocent's comprehension of the horrifying events that surround him. Again and again, director Herman reminds us of these twisted overlaps. The pedestrian buildings of the camp almost look innocuous when surrounded by the beautiful countryside. It is only the dark smoke of the crematorium slicing its way across the sky, while Bruno swings on a spare tire from a tree, that signal the sickening cruelties of the camp. The kindness of Pavel (David Hayman), the family's Jewish servant, when patching up Bruno's knee after a fall, is shown in relief to the same man being beaten to death by a young Nazi soldier (Rupert Friend) after he accidentally spills the soldier's wine glass. Herman never lets you forget that the Nazi's ideology may not only have been beyond the boy's comprehension, it may be beyond most of humanity's. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas opens Friday, November 7th, in limited release in theaters across the country. Still provided courtesy of Miramax Films.


Joel Bocko said...

This sounds like a great movie - I wonder why it's become so controversial (guess I'll have to see it to find out). David Thewlis is a great actor and I'm always fascinated by films which show a child's outlook onto world-historical you suggest, it's a successful metaphor for the way some of these events are beyond ALL of our comprehension.

(Anything you can do about the Tom Cruise trailer playing every time one tries to navigate the blog?)

By the way, I'm back on Twin Peaks again...I found the season two premiere much more lackluster than I remember but just watched the second episode and enjoyed it.

James Hansen said...

I don't mean to be so cold-hearted, but this seems like every other "typical" Holocaust movie and highly redundant. I realize I'm judging it without seeing it, which is never fair to the film involved, but it looked prototypical for every other film that deals with the Holocaust anymore.

The only one that broke out of that mold recently (at least to me) was Lajos Koltai's extraordinary presented a new look and a new perspective. Telling me it is beyond comprehension (true as it may be) is old news.

Again, I admit to judging without seeing, but that was my gut reaction to the preview. From your take on it, it doesn't sound like I'm all that off-base although, I suppose, just because its familiar doesn't mean it can't be effective.

Tony Dayoub said...


On some level, I agree with you. My mistake was in not clarifying from what position I was approaching it. But I approached this movie with kid gloves... literally.

What I mean, is that it seems to be directed at children, and I tried to view it on that level. When seen on that level, it is a horrific film that plays a bit like a morality play or fable. And unlike say, The Diary of Anne Frank, the climax packs a huge visceral punch.

Had I approached it as an adult, I may have had the same qualms as you. Seen from that perspective, it's certainly no Night Porter or even a Schindler's List. But since having children, I've learned to be able to switch that "kid glove" switch off and on, sometimes because I find such films to be good prospects in terms of educating my sons on certain difficult subjects in the future.

Bottom line: I think it was fashioned as a children's movie (albeit older children), and as such, it works.

James Hansen said...

Makes sense...I just put it into Holocaust film territory, sort of assuming no WW2 movie is "for kids" but I understand what you're saying.

Dean Treadway said...

It is interesting to have a movie like this, as you say, for children. However, I think THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK works very well in that regard, even if it is in B&W. My problem with BOY is...wouldn't have some guards seen these kids at the fence? Seems like a logic jump that might be a little hard to handle. How does the movie solve this problem (or does it)?

Tony Dayoub said...


They handle it about as well as you've surmised... not very well. But the film has such a Grimm's Fairy Tale feel to it, that you are willing to suspend your disbelief.

BTW, I meant no disrepect towards the Anne Frank film. But the ending to Striped Pajamas simply rips into your gut, in such a way, that I felt advising caution was necessary when addressing young viewers.