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It’s a rare occasion that any movie has such impact that when the film ends, the entire audience exits the theater in total silence. It was a good several seconds after the credits finished rolling and the lights came up before I even realized what I was experiencing. It happens so rarely that it took that a moment for me to recognize it: I was speechless.
Films about the holocaust are nothing new and while they’re almost always moving stories it’s rare to find one that offers a perspective not explored before. The Boy In The Striped Pajamas generally sets aside the powerful stereotypes of evil German and besieged Jew and instead offers up two innocent eight-year-old boys, one Jewish and one German, neither of whom subscribes to the idea that they’re supposed to hate each other. In the wrong hands this sort of film could easily have been tediously trite, full of stock moral commentary and tagged with a touching but unoriginal feel good ending. Instead the movie presents something much more tragic and evocative, ultimately sending the audience away with more to consider than just the historical atrocities of the Nazi regime.
OK, so by this point I’ve probably already lost the interest of two-thirds of our readers. Let’s face it, most moviegoers don’t want to spend their money on a dark historical drama, no matter how moving or thought-provoking it is. Odds are that unless this movie wins a major Academy Award very few people will see it. That’s the real tragedy here. Not catching The Boy In The Striped Pajamas would mean missing one of the best films of the year.
Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is the young son of a Nazi commander (David Thewlis) whose new promotion means his entire family must leave their comfortable Berlin home and relocate to a spartan country compound. This new home is situated just within sight distance of the commandant’s new post, a Jewish work camp. The naive Bruno decides the camp must be a strange farm where odd people in pajamas work, an illusion his hesitant parents are willing to indulge to protect him from the reality. But the nature of the place means little to the boy. His only concern is that he has no one to play with in his new home, where the only company he and his older sister enjoy is that of their propagandizing tutor.
One day, after breaking the rules and sneaking out of the compound, Bruno wanders in the direction of the farm. There he encounters Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a boy his own age who lives on the farm which, Bruno discovers, is surrounded by an electric fence. The boys strike up the kind of camaraderie you would expect from two lonesome young children, but both struggle to comprehend the complications that arise from their association. Both Butterfield and Scanlon are relative newcomers to the world of screen acting and haven’t been tainted by the demands of the business. Their performances are simple and genuine, so much so that they’ll be overlooked for any award even though no trained or experienced child actor could have been more perfect.
Bruno and Shmuel’s innocence in the face of the lies and violence going on around them is at the same time humorous and heartbreaking, but it is Bruno’s efforts to resolve the father-soldier that he loves and the one that runs Shmuel’s camp that will prick at your soul. The relationship between the father and son explores another risky and rarely touched on subject: the humanity of the Nazi officer. It figures prominently in the movie’s poignant ending, and although you might not find the conclusion satisfying, there’s no denying that director Mark Herman navigates the topic brilliantly and leaves the audience with a lot to consider.
The father’s militaristic duty is balanced out by Bruno’s mother (Vera Farmiga) who always seems uncomfortable with the treatment of the Jews but becomes outwardly enraged when she discovers the true nature of the black smoke roiling from the camp every few days. Farmiga gives a wrenching performance that provides an outlet for all the indignation and hostility that you feel watching Thewlis’ character parade the party line with callous cruelty. At the outset of the film there’s no way to tell where it will lead or how it will end, but as the story draws to a close it’s easy to see where things are headed. That sort of predictability usually ruins a movie for me, but Herman’s carefully laid final act is so breathtaking and James Horner’s score woven in so masterfully that nothing could have spoiled it. As close to perfect as a film can hope to be, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas is nothing short of a masterpiece.