Films that combine children and Holocaust generally trivializes the mass murder with cliches of youthful innocence, even though, there is nothing more harrowing to think about or painful to observe than children in peril.And, sometimes moviegoers can be forgiven for feeling a little Holocaust fatigue. There have been so many films, which uses holocaust as a backdrop, that there's no shame in feeling a bit numb to it all. But, once in a while, a movie like 'The Boy In Striped Pyjamas' comes along and brings us fresh eyes and the wounds reopen anew.
Based on the critically acclaimed novel of the same title by John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, like Life is Beautiful, gives us a child’s eye view of unimaginable evil, which makes said evil all the more grotesque. Most of us know what horrors were inflicted at Auschwitz. By considering how the barbarities of the Third Reich would appear to an innocent child, the film makes us rethink not only the Holocaust, but human nature.
PlotThe story opens in Berlin in the early 1940s, where we meet the 9-year-old German boy, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), his father (David Thewlis), an SS commandant, and his family - including Bruno's mother (Vera Farmiga) and teenage sister (Amber Beattie). They are moving from Berlin to the countryside, where the father is taking up his new assignment. The job of Bruno's father is to manage the operation of a Nazi death camp.
Bruno has no friends to play with in his new neighborhood. He finds a concentration camp in the back of their house, and it looks like fun for him. Bruno is too young to understand the true nature of the "concentration camp" near their impressive new home, or why the skeletal manservant who does chores for the family would have left a career as a doctor to rake leaves and dig potatoes. The lonely Bruno travels to an unguarded corner, and meets Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), on the other side, a boy his own age with no more understanding of what is happening than Bruno.
Bruno's parents have forbidden him from visiting the camp. but he ignores them and strike up a friendship that's heartbreaking. Bruno despite the warning by his stern tutor that 'Jews' should be “enemies,” continues his meeting with Shmuel, which leads to some terrible repercussions.
AnalysisDirector Mark Herman, a British Writer/director has made a film uncluttered with the detail we all know so well. The result is a movie without any accurate details, but rather gives a profound experience. Without berating, director Herman connects the divide between these two innocents with ethnic bigotries and economic injustices that are still inflamed worldwide. He also draws nuanced performances from his two young actors.
The blue-eyed Asa Butterfield (so memorable in the recent 'Hugo') as Bruno and Jack Scanlon as the tortured Shmuel incarnate an almost magical sense of childhood that deepens, rather than conflicts with, the stark historical realities in which they are living. Butterfield wonderfully manages as Bruno, who wrestles with the frightening thought that his father may be an unworthy idol. At one scene, Bruno is stunned to find Shmuel in his home, cleaning small glasses for a party. Why? "They needed someone with tiny fingers," Shmuel replies. That, along with Bruno's question to Shmuel, "What do you burn in those chimneys?" can break our hearts.
David Thewlis makes sense of the contradiction in his caring father overseeing genocide. Vera Farmiga as the helpless mother is the conscience of the film. She is a "good German" who has gone along as the country drifted from right-wing hate speech to a "solution" to a problem she hasn't let herself see. Farmiga's intensity and emotional clarity have an almost cleansing quality - so plain, pristine and right.
The director of the eight-hour documentary Shoah (1985), Claude Lanzmann, argued that, the Holocaust is beyond representation because it erects “a ring of fire around itself.” Perhaps, Lanzmann is right because no single movie or group of films or even the entirety of cinema history could ever fully represent the horrors of that time, yet, 'The Boy In Striped Pajamas,' through its narrative, give ourselves the chance of understanding that which seems beyond the pale, to cope with the idea of true monstrosity.
What saves this movie from the sentimental, melodrama is the cold, observant logic of Herman's storytelling. So, when the movie is over you may be shocked at how very disturbing an honest, uncompromising finale can feel. Watch 'The Boy In Striped Pajamas' for its heartbreaking and unusual view of the Holocaust.
The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas