REVIEW: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas [2008]

“Does the uniform still make you feel special?”

**Caution: Spoilers**

It appears that filmmakers have an appetite for Holocaust films these days. I don’t know if it has to do with the political strife occurring all over the world, America’s involvement in the Middle East, Republicans comparing Obama to Hitler, or what, but the constant influx almost has dulled me to the point of avoiding them. How many different versions of the tale can be told before you become numb? A film like last year’s Die Fälscher, while well made and an Oscar-winner, just rehashes the same story inside a concentration camp with Jewish prisoners as they try to survive. But then you also have movies like Adam Resurrected and Das Leben der Anderen, both telling of the atrocities in aftermath—one through flashbacks and psychological effect, the other with a tale of the government after the war ends. So, I will admit to entering The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with much trepidation, unsure of what side of the fence it would fall on. It is adapted from a novel and the trailer makes it look like your run-of-the-mill tearjerker of luck and overcoming the greatest tragedy in recent history, if not ever. Oh was I mistaken. This film is the boldest, most ballsy take on the Holocaust I have seen yet … but maybe I say that only for its powerful ending.

Mark Herman has taken John Boyne’s novel and—I can only imagine—brought it to life with the utmost accuracy. This story never shies away from the emotional toll that the Germans’ decision to kill their prisoners takes on all involved. Characters are constantly having their eyes opened to the truth of the matter or shielded from it by lies and deceit. Right from the get-go, you know you’re in store for something unexpected. When the Commandant throws a party for his promotion and subsequent move to outside a concentration camp, you assume it will be all “Heil Hitler” and that nonsense. Yes, that is there, but it is not unchecked. Instead we are given a glimpse of heart and compassion from the Commandant’s own mother, a staunch and vocal detractor to the cause. She gets in her jabs to head shaking of all those around her, as well as the confused looks of her grandchildren, unaware of what is really happening around them.

As the story unfolds, we are treated to moments of kindness on behalf of the Jewish slaves—yes maybe a bit much at times to counteract the evil insults being spoken about them from the children’s tutor—letting the kids see the humanity that their elders are so desperately trying to hide them from. One of the best characters is Vera Farmiga’s wife to the Commandant and mother to his children. She is aligned with the cause and the call for a return of brilliance for the Fatherland … that is until her world is turned upside-down by the gigantic slip of the tongue from Lieutenant Kotler about what that smell actually is. The drape is released from before her face and she finally sees through the lies of it all; at once disgusted by her own naïveté as well as the realization of how her husband has become a monster. It truly is a devastating scene watching her breakdown in front of her husband, played with stoic perfection by David Thewlis, made all the more powerful that their son witnesses it through the open door. Her reaction is exactly what I believe this film is striving to bring out of the audience. We are to look at these monsters with contempt and disgust, wanting revenge and blood for what they are doing—an emotional state you will need to feel when experiencing the unforgettable finale, needing to decide whether that bloodlust is just as bad once it’s fulfillment is at hand.

With all these thoughts of politics and German hubris running amok, there is also the tale of the little boy, oblivious to it all, being dragged in both directions at the same time. There is the duty to his father and love of family in direct conflict with what he sees with his own eyes at the camp. He knows in his mind that these “farmers” are not living the life his father’s propaganda film portrays, but his unquestioning love for that man makes his heart play tricks on the truth. Young Bruno never is quite certain about what is happening. All those he loves tells him of the Jewish evil and inhuman ways while he watches those same people commit those same acts on those they accuse of it. How can his friend Shmuel be such a bad person? He hasn’t done anything. Someone must be mistaken about the whole ordeal; it can’t be as bad as Shmuel makes it to be, but it obviously isn’t as good as the soldiers say either. Therefore, what harm can come of going inside to help his friend find his missing father?

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas quickly becomes a blindsided assault on our own sensibilities. What begins as a diatribe of Nazi ignorance and brutality, not told by the Allies, but instead seen through the actions of the German people themselves, soon becomes a journey to redemption of the “eye for an eye” sort. Yes the hypocritical moments strike home, (Thewlis is quick to reprimand Rupert Friend’s misguided soldier for protecting his sympathetic father’s escape to Switzerland yet will not disclose his own mother’s opposition to the cause), but it really all comes down to the two eight year olds playing as friends, hoping to meet in the future once “everyone is getting along again”. Asa Butterfield is great as Bruno, the conflicted boy trying to juggle both worlds, but it is Jack Scanlon’s Shmuel that will truly break your heart. His Jewish boy, with truths being withheld by the adults, afraid of what may happen if he plays catch or is caught eating contraband food, is completely authentic. His performance is so natural and true that you must wonder how much these young actors actually know about what they are portraying. If I was their parent, I don’t think I could let them be involved in a film as strong as this, especially with the imagery at its conclusion. I really didn’t think they’d have the guts to go through with it, but I applaud them for it absolutely. There really isn’t any other way to end it; the devastation and retribution by the hand of fate was the only way to stay true to the tale. It is one you will not shake soon afterwards.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Jack Scanlon as Shmuel and Asa Butterfield as Bruno Photo Credit: David Lukacs/Miramax Film Corp.
[2] Asa Butterfield as Bruno and Vera Farmiga as Mother Credit: David Lukacs/Miramax Film Corp.


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