By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published November 6, 2008
Thought-provoking and moving, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” tells the tragic tale of two boys swept up in forces they do not understand during World War II. The film explores the easy spread of hatred and racism and the horrifying consequences for the innocent victims of war. Although the film is based upon a young adult novel by John Boyne, viewers should be aware that some of the story may be disturbing, especially for younger children.
Directed by Mark Herman, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” centers on Bruno, an 8-year-old growing up in Nazi Germany. We first see Bruno as he and his friends run home from school through the streets of Berlin, lightheartedly pretending to be airplanes. Bruno’s life is about to change, however. His father, a high-ranking officer in Hitler’s army, has been promoted, and the family must move to an isolated home in the country for him to fulfill his new assignment. As soon as Bruno spies a fenced-off field occupied by what he thinks are “farmers” wearing “striped pajamas,” it is clear that Bruno’s father is the new commandant of a concentration camp, set up to exterminate the Jewish people being rounded up across the Third Reich. Only Bruno and his mother do not understand the full implications of what is going on at the camp.
Bruno, a naturally curious and adventurous boy, soon finds himself chafing at the restrictions imposed on him at his new home. Missing his friends, he is bored and extremely curious about the inhabitants of the nearby “farm.” One day he ventures into the woods where his mother has forbidden him to go. He reaches the camp and spies a little boy on the other side of the fence working at a pile of rubble. Bruno strikes up a conversation with the boy, Shmuel, and the pair forge an uneasy and unlikely friendship.
As the weeks go on, Bruno begins to be troubled by what he learns from Shmuel and what he observes of his family’s behavior. At the same time, Bruno’s mother finally faces the horrific reality of what her husband is doing at the camp, and she decides to take the children and go to live with an aunt in Heidelberg. Faced with losing his new friend, Bruno promises to help Shmuel find his missing father, and the two boys band together in an adventure that leads the film to its heartbreaking conclusion.
Like the recent film “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” tells a story about World War II from the perspective of one of America’s enemies. Although it clearly denounces the monstrosity of Hitler’s Final Solution and the people who participated in it, the film depicts a believably human perspective of life in Germany during the war. Bruno’s father, chillingly playing by David Thewlis, is evil in his dismissal of the Jews as less than human, yet he also shows a tender side in his love for his own family. Vera Farmiga plays Bruno’s mother as a woman walking a tightrope. She is patriotic and proud of her husband’s success, and she enjoys her position as the prosperous wife of a successful SS officer. However, the treatment of the Jews at the camp clearly makes her uncomfortable, even before she learns about the murder taking place; after she learns the truth, she is unable to take any action to stop it. The story also shows some direct dissent; Bruno’s grandmother is an outspoken critic of Hitler. The film also makes clear, however, that such dissent was rare and extremely dangerous.
Putting a human face on one of the most despicable episodes in human history is one of the most thought-provoking aspects of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” The film demonstrates how easy it is to spread hatred and distrust and how vulnerable human nature is to believing the worst about each other. When the family moves to the country, Bruno and his sister, Gretel, are taught by a tutor, whose lessons all seem to focus on Nazi doctrine and anti-Jewish propaganda. Bruno does not understand most of what he is being taught, and besides, he is more interested in his beloved adventure books. As a result, his reaction is just uneasiness and a growing distrust of those around him. The effect on Gretel is more extreme, however. She is at a very impressionable age, and the tutor’s lessons coupled with attention from one of her father’s men, the handsome and sadistic Lt. Kotler, turn her into a loyal Nazi supporter. Gretel tosses out her dolls and begins to fill her room with posters and propaganda, and she is scornful as her brother professes not to know what is really going on in the camp. It is absolutely chilling to see how fear for people with different beliefs can so quickly turn to hatred and how that hatred can be spread with lies and misinformation. This is a lesson that is still vital today.
In the end, though, the film belongs to the two boys. Their friendship and innocence, even when surrounded by evil, is touching, and both young actors do a fine job. As Shmuel, Jack Scanlon plays his character with just the right combination of anxiousness and timidity. As Bruno, Asa Butterfield carries the movie. He can switch from bright-eyed curiosity to troubled apprehension when the story calls for it, and he does an admirable job of showing the confidence of a youngster secure in his station without being obnoxious.
“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is an extremely well made movie, and a challenging one. It shows one of the most horrific chapters in our recent history through a unique perspective, the eyes of a child, and along the way it demonstrates some important lessons about the nature of evil.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.