The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (review)

Childhood’s End

How’s this for a rude childhood awakening? You discover that your father, whom you adore and worship, is actually an evil Nazi stooge. And you discover this because he’s moving the whole family from Berlin to the countryside near Auschwitz, because there’s some important work for the war effort that needs to be done there, and he’s in charge of it. Of course, Auschwitz isn’t yet “Auschwitz,” in Germany in the early 1940s, isn’t yet a name to be dreaded and wept for, and to eight-year-old Bruno, “Nazi” just means “soldier,” and a sharp uniform for Dad to look handsome and important in. But we know what it all means, and the weight of it all hangs heavily on us as we watch Bruno starting to discover what it all means, too.
It seems like a tough line to walk, approaching the Holocaust from a child’s-eye view without letting it sink into sentimentality or mawkishness: you don’t want to even chance minimizing the suffering or the horror or the malevolence. But director Mark Herman (Little Voice) — who also adapted the novel by John Boyne [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] upon which this is based — achieves a perfect modulation by letting the prior knowledge we bring into the movie with us do much of the work for him. We feel the dismay that Bruno, in his innocence, cannot, and it’s so much more effective a tale for that. We’ve already met Dad (David Thewlis [Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Omen], as centered and insightful and astonishing as always) and have seen what a loving father and husband he is, seen how happy and prosperous his family is… and then when we see him for the first time so proudly wearing that Nazi uniform, it rocks us, to be confronted with that reality, that of course even Nazi commandants loved their children, and were loved by their children, and were still, you know, people, for all the terrible, terrible crimes they committed. That’s a shock that Bruno cannot feel, that only we, the audience, experience. But it mitigates any sentimentality: Bruno may adore his father, but we never do. The most positive thing we may feel toward him is bewilderment, that he could be so sharply divided a man, capable of both so much love and so much hate.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas becomes endlessly distressing, then — and one of the most strikingly original movies about the end of childhood I’ve ever seen — because we know, almost from the start, that we will be watching Bruno get to the same place we’re at. Or, at least, we hope so, which is even more distressing, actually. See, Bruno (a lovely performance by Asa Butterfield) is at that most charming age for little boys, when they’re still sweet and gallant, before the ravages of adolescence turn them into monsters. Except, in Bruno’s case this could be more than a metaphor for hormonal overload: because either Bruno awakens enough to join us in our horror in at what is happening right in front of him, or else he succumbs to the propaganda he is being fed and becomes a good little Nazi himself. Either way is an unimaginable thing to see a cheerful, kind boy like Bruno go through: he will either discover the awful truth about his father and his country and lose them both, or he will lose himself.

So the family has moved to the countryside, and Bruno is bored — there’s no one to play with like there was in the city. But maybe if he sneaks off to the “farm” he can just glimpse from his bedroom window, where all the funny people work in their pajamas all day, he’ll meet some other kids. And he does, in Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a sad-eyed, shaved-headed, gaunt little boy who sits on the other side of the fence that encloses the farm. And here again, Bruno’s lack of understanding is heart-rending, and the first glimmers of awareness even more so, because it can only be the precursor to either of those two options. And he sees the impact of either path playing out in front of him, too, though he doesn’t quite realize it: his mother (Vera Farmiga [The Departed, Breaking and Entering], in yet another complex performance) is being shaken from her deliberate ignorance of what her husband and her country are up to, and she is not taking it well, at the same time that Bruno’s older sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie), is starting to be taken in by the propaganda that constitutes her education, and falling under the spell of the handsome and deliciously dangerous young soldier (Rupert Friend: The Last Legion, Pride & Prejudice) who works for their father.

It’s the rare film that so slyly and so completely manages to knock you out of your comfort zone like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does. It’s not merely that it creates a unique perspective on a moment in time that we haven’t seen before, though it does do that fantastically well. It’s that, at the same time, it sneakily challenges us to consider how much of what we take for granted in our own lives are things we’re not seeing, and should.

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