November 21, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Grade: C

Director: Mark Herman

Starring: Asa Butterfield, Vera Farmiga, David Thewlis, Amber Beattie, Jack Scanlon, and Rupert Friend

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

To quote a fellow film critic, the first thing I thought at the start of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was, “Uh oh, this is another Nazi movie.” However, the film’s unique perspective temporarily assuaged my fears that this was, to be even more specific, “another Holocaust movie.” 

Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is the 8-year-old son of the Nazi Commandant (David Thewlis) overseeing a Jewish concentration camp (the camp’s layout suggests it is Auschwitz). Bruno and his family, including his mother (Vera Farmiga) and 12-year-old sister, relocate from their opulent Berlin mansion to a spacious but spartan residence near the camp. From his upstairs bedroom, Bruno can spy in the distance what he calls “the farm” and its workers, who always wear what appear to him to be striped pajamas (their prisoner clothing). 

Bruno’s quest for adventure eventually leads him through the forest surrounding the estate to the electrified perimeter enclosing the camp, where meets Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a young Jewish boy held captive inside. The two become unlikely friends, with Bruno bringing Shmuel food, playing checkers with him, and gaining veiled insight about the truth of his father’s work. 

Adapted from John Boyce’s novel of the same name, the film’s strengths derive from the power of the unseen acting in concert with the audience’s prescience about the setting’s underlying horrors, not unlike Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants. There is a subtle power channeled through Bruno’s naiveté, like when he wonders why the smoke bellowing from the camp’s chimneys smells so foul or when he asks an elderly Jew serving in the family home why he would give up being a doctor to take a job peeling potatoes. Even the fact that the actors speak using English accents instead of the stigmatized clipped German brogue typical in films of this ilk lures Western viewers into assessing the humanity of people complicit, blindly or otherwise, in the most inhumane acts. Writer-director Mark Herman (Little Voice) mostly crafts a daedal, affecting fable about a much-chronicled tragedy. 

But, then comes the ending. As the final act unfolds, you sit in your seat with mouth agape, shocked at not just the final plot turn – and hoping it takes a sudden detour – but also the thought processes of those who believed it to be a sensible, emotionally justifiable course to take. It is overwrought, illogical, and betrays the thoughtfulness of the rest of the film. In attempting to exact perverse retribution, Boyce and Herman alienate their target audience while inadvertently accomplishing the singular feat of conjuring a modicum of sympathy for a brutal Nazi murderer. 

In the recent Hollywood satire What Just Happened, a film project becomes embattled after test audiences assail the movie’s climax, during which gun-toting goons, just before killing the hero, first shoot a dog in the head. In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, metaphorically speaking, the puppy gets shot in the head. 

Neil Morris

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